Dec 7, 9:50 AM EST

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation convention promotes boosting agriculture education in schools



HOT SPRINGS, Va. (AP) -- For farms to survive and thrive, they need a vibrant community around it, according to an expert.

"The rural community is more important to the family farm operation than the family farm operation is to the rural community," said Robert Young, chief economist and deputy executive director for public policy for the American Farm Bureau.

He was speaking during a workshop at the annual convention of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, which focused much of its attention on the decline in farming. The convention's focus is on promoting agriculture by boosting farm education in schools with the theme, "Farming for the Next Generation."

Nearly 1,000 Virginia farming representatives attended last Tuesday as the three-day meeting kicked off at the Omni Homestead Resort.

Young said being dependent primarily on farming isn't a sustainable way to live now.

The farming industry, not only in Virginia, but the entire country has been on the decline, he said. In the U.S., about 4,000 producers make up the top 25 percent, and those are mostly large farming operations or corporations. Around 2 million producers make up the bottom 25 percent, according to Young. About 50 percent of the United States' agriculture output only comes from just over 33,000 producers.

"There's not a lot of folks left in the middle percentage," Young said, and the majority of farmers who own their farms are either retired or running the farm on the side.

Those who call themselves farmers declined 35 percent, according to 2012 data, to a little more than 115,000 producers, Young said.

This decline has also affected organic farming. Young said the number of organic farmers between 2007 and 2014 decreased by 22 percent. However, average sales in 2012 per organic farm was $3 million, up from $1.6 million in 2007.

Most farmers own a small portion of land and rent the rest out.

"If I rent a bunch of my farm and things go south, there's flexibility," Young said. By owning more and things hit a slump, there isn't as much flexibility."

Citing more 2012 numbers, Young said 76 percent of farm family income in the U.S. came off the farm, down from 90 percent in 2002.

The survival of farms also comes down to the next generation that are living on them. About 2 million farmers in the U.S. fall under the 55 to 64 age group, according to Young.

One of the agriculture education workshop presented examples of how some localities have re-established agriculture programs in schools, along with 4-H programs.

According to Martha Moore, vice president of governmental relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau, if the influence of farm education begins early, the child will be more receptive to the information.

"Tell a story to engage the younger generation," she said. "It's all about integrating what we have."

Participants in the workshop were able to share ideas about getting more representation of farming into the classroom. They wrote down what problems they faced in their school systems and were given options of how to engage government in agricultural learning.

The panel mostly discussed the integration of 4-H clubs in schools. Augusta County has almost 400 students involved in 4-H, where students learn and understand the business side of farming and owning an animal.

Earlier in the day, Timothy Sands, president of Virginia Tech, highlighted the future of land grant missions.

Virginia Tech is a land-grant university, where the state received a parcel of land they could sell to establish and support a land-grant college. Through the land grant, the Virginia Cooperative Extension was created to connect universities, farmers and the public.

"Virginia is well-suited for agriculture innovation," Sands said. Agriculture supports Virginia's largest economic impact with 300,000 jobs and $52 billion in revenue, he added.

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