Small farm decline may be due to a paperwork problem

virginiaVirginia lost 300 small-scale farms last year, according to an annual survey by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. The amount of farmland remained static at 8.1 million acres, and the total number of farms declined by only 200, to 44,800.

But any survey is only as good as the data, and one small-farm expert believes smaller producers are not taking the time to be counted.

“I can attest that we haven’t lost as many small farms as the statistics show, because my program is growing by leaps and bounds,” noted William Crutchfield, director of the Virginia State University Small Farm Outreach Program. “We call them hobby farmers, but many of them are trying new things or just getting started in raising produce or goats or a few head of cattle. When they come to our workshops and activities we encourage them to complete the census, because those statistics drive the USDA programs, which in turn drives the funding to support our program.”

The category showing the most decline in the NASS report was the number of farms generating between $1,000 and $9,999 in income annually. Land on those farms totaled 25,500 acres, and the average size of the operations was 71 acres.

“A lot of those individuals farm at so small a scale, they don’t bother to file a Schedule F with the IRS,” so their status isn’t captured during tax season, Crutchfield explained. “So this is really a call for small farmers to fill out their paperwork. And it’s usually just a postcard most years, not a full report. Although the big five-year Census of Agriculture is coming up at the end of this year, so we really need them to step up this time.”

The VSU small farm outreach program offers hands-on research assistance as well as educational opportunities. Courses in farm business management, agriculture risk management, loan application assistance and introductions to grant programs are offered in workshops at VSU’s Randolph Farm or in 25 Central Virginia locations.