Virginia is for farmers, you might say

virginia-newWhen folks outside of Virginia think of Old Dominion’s agriculture, there may be a tendency to first think of horses, tobacco and vegetables, not necessarily in that order.

Tobacco may be the first crop that springs to mind, when thinking of Virginia. The state has an historical attachment to the leafy crop that was an early boon to the state’s economy. Nicotiana tabacum from the Orinoco River valley was first cultivated in 1612 by John Rolfe, according to the online source Encyclopedia Virginia. It then became the most successful cash crop for the young colony and remained a dominant income source for the next 160 years or more.

But times have changed. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the No. 1 agricultural enterprise in the state today is poultry and eggs, which boasts a presence on 4,042 farms with sales reaching $816,767,000 for broilers and $97,465,000 for eggs.

Add in $267,995,000 in sales of turkeys and poultry has become the dominant farm income in modern times. Cattle and calves, ranked second in the state, boasts sales of $556,671,000, using Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services data from 2013. Milk sales, ranked third, brought in $396,628,000 for that year, followed by soybeans ($283,625,000), turkeys ($267,995,000), greenhouse and nursery sales ($262,950,000), corn and grains ($170,774,000), hay ($133,567,000), winter wheat ($119,751,000) and finally tobacco ($113,150,000) to round out the top 10.

Other impressive figures from the state claim that agriculture is “by far” the state’s largest industry “with nothing else coming a close second.” The impact of farming in the state tops $52 billion annually and provides some 311,00 jobs in the Commonwealth.

Add in forestry and the figures jump to an annual impact of $70 billion with more than 400,000 jobs provided to Virginia’s residents.

Economists also estimate that every job in agricultural supports 1.6 jobs in other sectors, which might include sales of machinery, jobs in education, and a raft of other jobs in agricultural communities that would dry up of farmers were not spending their money in the state – which is often the case.

For some people, these numbers are startling. How could agricultural be the state’s No. 1 industry “by far” and be so invisible at the same time. That’s because, for one, farming blends into the landscape, because farming is the landscape and it’s a quiet, well behaved pursuit. You might think of farming as a community that is content, hustling from one season to the next, but as steady as a sunrise.

Secondly, farming has managed to turn itself around from being very labor intensive to very machine dependent. Almost everyone in the state lived or worked on a farm 200 years ago. When the country began, in fact, elected officials on the federal level were only expected to work at legislation for about half a year. Members of Congress spent six month mucking it up in Washington, then six months back home tending to their farms.

It once took a team of workers – kids and hired hands – to fill a hay mow with bales of hay. Round bales are now hoisted by tractors, not young backs. A silo can be filled with chopped silage (moist, chopped hay or corn) by just one worker, although generally farms use two or three workers for that task, one in the field, one towing wagons to the farm and back and one working the loading equipment on the farm.

Agriculture also provides jobs for truckers, food processors and an assortment of production businesses. “Production agricultural employs nearly 55,000 farmers and workers in Virginia and generates $3.3 billion total output,” states the VDACS. “In addition, value-added industries, those that depend on farm commodities, employ more than 67,000 workers.” Combined, all of the production that comes from agriculture and forestry make up 8.1 percent of the state’s total gross domestic product, which is the total value of goods and services in the state.

Equipment sales are also a major economic benefit to the state, providing jobs for installation workers and service technicians. Those blue silos are not cheap. Farms, once labor dependent are now equipment dependent, meaning jobs for parts, supplies and repairs. Online farm equipment dealers sell balers, tractors, dryers, mowers, plows, wagons, rakes, harrows, planters, skid steers, auger feeders and even golf carts. Used farm equipment at Fastline.com indicates the resale value of the equipment used on a farm.

In modern farming, it is often the case that a farmer will choose a specialty: animals, crops, equipment or management. Young farmers, growing up with these four skill sets to master, might favor working with tools or might lean towards animal husbandry. They might prefer field work and turn their father’s dairy and cattle farm into a cash crop farm, when their time to take over comes around.

Virginia farms that look reposed when you drive by are actually evolving. Farmers, like any other professionals, keep up with modern advancements or face falling behind. On a farm, it’s not the old rat-race, like life in the city, but it’s never been a life where you can rest on your laurels.


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