Number of Virginia farms drops slightly

va farm bureauThe latest official estimate of the number of farms in Virginia is 46,200 in 2012, 200 fewer than the year before.

Specifically, the number of small farms generating $10,000 or less in gross income dropped by 500 in that time period, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. However, that’s not a sign that Virginia’s farm economy is declining, according to Dr. Jim Pease, professor of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech.

“It looks like the shifts in farm numbers are just normal back-and-forth between economic sales class categories,” Pease said. “There’s nothing remarkable. Some smaller farms got larger, and the larger farms expanded.”

In fact, the number of large farms increased from 2011 to 2012. There were 100 more farms generating between $250,000 and $500,000 and 100 more farms earning more than $500,000.

Pease noted that the majority of farms in the Old Dominion are much smaller. There are only 4,200 farms he would consider full-time operations.

“Forty-two thousand of our 46,200 farms sell less than $100,000 in product, so they obviously are heavily or completely dependent on off-farm employment,” he said. “Those larger farms are doing that much more; they’re prospering, and they’re growing. It’s just that there are not very many of them. The availability of fertile cropland and all the complexities of developing larger livestock operations are preventing many of them from growing even larger.”

However, dairy farms have definitely seen a decline, Pease said. “We’ve lost so many of them in recent years.”

There were more than 1,000 Grade A dairies in Virginia a decade ago, and now there are fewer than 700 farms producing milk for human consumption. The yearlong delay in passing a new federal farm bill is just one factor hurting dairymen, Pease said. Increased regulatory and labor costs, plus the uncertainty of finding qualified help, make it difficult for many dairy farms to generate a profit.

Farming in general remains a challenging occupation, he noted. “It continues to be more and more important to specialize in something. The days of a farmer raising a little bit of this and a little bit of that are gone. And if you’re trying to hold a full-time job down and run a farm at the same time, it’s harder and harder to do that. It never has been easy, but now it’s more difficult than ever.”

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