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What is the future of farming in Virginia?

For decades, small and medium farms have been disappearing—both in Virginia and across the country. Angie Miles interviews experts on Virginia agriculture, including a young farmer, an agriculture professor and the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture talk about the challenges and opportunities of farming.

The Transcript is from the Full Interview

ANGIE MILES -- We're talking about farming today and are fortunate to have with us three guests who are experts on Virginia agriculture. Chris Mullins is here on behalf of Virginia Cooperative Extension Service. He's a professor of agriculture at Virginia State University. Brandon Moyer comes to us from Oakmulgee Farm in Amelia County. He owns and operates a dairy farm with his father and brother. Brandon is also representing Virginia Young Farmers of Virginia Farm Bureau. And Joseph Guthrie is Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He is also a sixth- generation farmer from Pulaski County and has taught agriculture at Virginia Tech for more than a decade, much more than a decade, I should say. So welcome. Thank you all for being with us to share your expertise.  

ALL -- Glad to be here. Happy to be here.  

ANGIE MILES -- I'd like you to have a moment just to talk a little about the work that each of you does. So, Chris, we'll start with you. What is it that you want people to understand about the work that you do at Virginia State and the work of Cooperative Extension? 

CHRIS MULLINS, Virginia Cooperative Extension Service -- Sure. Thanks, Angie. I work at VSU and I'm an Extension specialist. I work primarily with indoor ag systems – greenhouse crops, hydroponics and aquaponics systems. Virginia State and Virginia Tech work together to form Virginia Cooperative Extension. Some of your viewers might know about extension, they might know about the agriculture piece. In every locality in the state of Virginia, there's an ag agent, usually, but there's also FCA, Family Consumer Science agents, and there's also 4-H agents. I know you've done 4-H before. And so, it's a really good youth program. We also work with communities, you know, trying to help communities to make sure that they're viable in the state of Virginia, so it's a great program, and anybody that wants to get connected to Extension should check out their local Extension office. 

ANGIE MILES -- Okay, that's my disclosure statement, by the way, “head, heart, hands and health, 4-H forever.” So, Brandon, let's hear about you, [in] Amelia, you have a dairy farm with your father and your brother. 

BRANDON MOYER, Oakmulgee Farm -- Yes, me and my brother, [are] fifth generation dairy farmers. [Our farm] started back in 1895.  

ANGIE MILES -- That's a while. What's important for people to understand about what you do on the dairy farm? It's a sizable farm, first of all. 

BRANDON MOYER, Oakmulgee Farm-- Yes. We milk around 300 cows and farm around 1200 acres. The main thing I want to get across to your consumers is where our food comes from. That's been a main disconnect from when people go to grocery stores. I want to break the disconnect from where people think their food actually comes from. Food comes from farms. People work hard for it and grow it. And I just want to break that disconnect. 

ANGIE MILES -- I remember reading at one point about some school kids who were shocked to learn that ketchup came from tomatoes. Like they had no concept. But that's what you're saying. People go to the grocery store. And they purchase things in, you know, colorful packaging. And that's the definition of food. But the real source of food is what? 

BRANDON MOYER, Oakmulgee Farm-- Farms and the Earth.  

ANGIE MILES -- Yeah, and the labor of the farms. Yes. Okay. Joe, talk about what you do. I know there's a lot going on at the Department of Agriculture. So, what are some of the priorities that you want Virginians to understand? 

JOSEPH GUTHRIE , Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services -- Sure. So, we are first delighted to be here with you and [tell you] what we do at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. We enhance the economic development of Virginia agriculture, we provide consumer protection, and we try to promote environmental stewardship. And sometimes I tell people that there’s like five things that we're doing. One is we want to help farms be more productive, we want to help farms be more profitable. We want to help them be sustainable. We also want to provide for consumers a safe food supply, and to provide security in food to make sure we don't have food insecurity. So, in short, what we do is we try to partner with great folks like Extension, like Chris, to help great farmers like Brandon, provide a safe, reliable, abundant food supply for Virginians and make sure that all consumers have that and it's available for everyone. 

ANGIE MILES -- Everything you just described sounds challenging. Well, we know that farming is challenging, especially in this day and time. I want Brandon to tell us what are some of the challenges that you face running an operation like yours? 

BRANDON MOYER, Oakmulgee Farm -- Definitely labor shortages is one. People don't want to work outside in hot weather, cold weather, especially finding skilled labor. Many people don't really grow up driving a tractor these days or being around animals. So, finding that niche market of people that can come to your operation to add value is far and few these days. 

ANGIE MILES -- Well, one of the things that we can do about that, of course, is groom people to be interested in agriculture. Chris, that's kind of your avenue. Isn't it? 

CHRIS MULLINS, Virginia Cooperative Extension Service -- I think when you think about young people, and a lot of them go away from the farm, they don't want to be part of the farm. But I think nowadays, we've got so much great technology that's out there. And there's sometimes preconceived notions of farming, that kids and young people don't want to go into it. But I think one of the things we try to do at Virginia Tech, and at VSU, is try to let them know that there's great technology out there. You can use drones to map fields and figure out where fertilizer needs to be. There are indoor ag systems that utilize grow lights to grow year-round. There are so many really great things that we hope can bring young people in to get them out there doing, either farming or helping farmers in some way. I think that's important. 

ANGIE MILES -- And the hydroponic work you do, I think that's interesting to a lot of people. In grade school, you learn about, you know, plants needing soil and sunlight and you know, a place to grow. But growing things in water, that's a different concept. Talk about that work a little bit. 

CHRIS MULLINS, Virginia Cooperative Extension Service -- Well, it is sure so, so the term hydroponics means growing plants without soil in some type of, you know, fertilizer-type medium. And it does a great job. It's been around for a long time. And now in Virginia, you're seeing more and more of these operations in greenhouses or indoors being sited next to, you know, larger metropolitan areas, or at least pretty close distance to a lot of the country's population. So it's very high technology. The other one is aquaponics, where we're using fish, indoor recirculating aquaculture systems, and hydroponic systems to grow plants and kind of working together to form mutual benefit. So the fish get a little bit cleaner water from the plants and the plants get nutrients from the fish. So some really great stuff that's out there. And that type of technology that could be done in greenhouses or indoors with grow lights. 

ANGIE MILES -- And you have tours available for people too, right?  

CHRIS MULLINS, Virginia Cooperative Extension Service -- We do. At VSU, at our Randolph Farm, we have a demonstration and research greenhouses, where we do some of that work, and also indoors. And Virginia Tech works with us, too. We were we have such great partnership there working together on all these indoor ag systems. 

ANGIE MILES -- Joe was raving about the tour and recommending it for people. 

JOSEPH GUTHRIE , Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services -- And truth be told, Chris's dad does the tours, and he's absolutely fabulous. And there's some tremendous research that's going on at Virginia State as well as at Virginia Tech. A lot of it is production focused and helping farmers to find new and innovative ways to produce food. And we talked about aquaculture as one alternative. And a lot of it is also focused on environmental stewardship, and reducing our use of inputs, for example. It's good both for the farmer as we reduce costs, but it's also good for the environment as there is less runoff, for example, of fertilizers, into our waterways. And so, there's a lot of great work that Virginia Tech Virginia State are doing, and a lot of great things that farmers are doing and implementing these systems into their production practices that are both good for them and their business model but are also great for the environment. And that's one thing that, you know, we at VDACS hope to encourage as well. 

ANGIE MILES -- Okay, yeah, Virginia Tech and Virginia state being our two land grant universities that are really working for Virginians. You talk about the tours. You talk about environmental stewardship, and I think about opportunities for people to learn. I imagine there are outreach programs for school-aged kids to learn things, but more and more farms are also working on an agritourism model and inviting the public to come in and see what they do. I don't know, Brandon, if that's something that you offer at your farm yet, but... 

BRANDON MOYER, Oakmulgee Farm -- I know my mom is very involved in the Dairy Alliance. That's where our checkoff dollars go out of our milk check [a government-run system used to price milk], and that provides a promotion for all of our dairy products. So, we'll host probably two to three tours a year from like, local elementary schools. 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Dairy Checkoff collects 15¢ per hundredweight of fluid milk produced by U.S. dairy farmers.]  

ANGIE MILES -- Okay, so there are opportunities for people to come in and really see, have a hands-on, senses-on approach to what you do. I think that's really important. Agri-tourism, though, has become a money- making venture for a lot of farmers because it's been hard for people to stay afloat. I mean, farms have been closing, right? We've lost something like 5 million acres of farmland in Virginia in the last 50 years. So, we're almost half where we were before. And so, I'm learning that people specialize or they get bigger, and there's not a lot of room in between. What do you see as the chief challenges and opportunities for farmers today? 

JOSEPH GUTHRIE , Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services -- Sure, and you're making a great point. There are fewer and fewer of our medium-sized, what we might consider to be the traditional type of farm. A lot of small farms in Virginia, as people are finding lifestyle-size, acreages that they can enjoy on a part-time basis, and then our full-time farms are becoming larger and larger. And one of the big challenges with that is with input cost. And that was really the main thing that we were hearing from farmers, particularly in the spring: skyrocketing prices for fertilizer, for crop protectants, and for other inputs. And what we were very hopeful for was that we would have a good yield, and good prices for those farmers by the end of the season at harvest. And to a certain extent, we've been able to achieve that. In Virginia, we're just very fortunate about that. But that's really, I think the number one thing that I'm that I'm hearing is input cost, and very closely associated with that is labor. And as Brandon pointed out earlier, you know, a shortage of available labor, restrictions on labor from outside of the US, and, you know, just working on some of those issues. I think if you talk with farmers, those would be a couple of the big things that they're mostly worried about. 

ANGIE MILES -- And that is what I found, as I've talked to farmers. Inflation has affected everyone. Labor shortages are affecting everyone, farmers are not exempt from that. And labor is expensive. At the same time, we have, you know, in our exploration of this topic, also found that people will have a hard time if they're migrant workers, for example, making a living in farming, but that's what they do. So, we have the need for worker protections in some instances. We know the farm bill is coming up for a vote. It's being revisited in 2023 as it is every five years. What is it that you expect to see or would like to see change in the farm bill to protect labor, but also to help farmers? 

JOSEPH GUTHRIE , Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services -- Yeah, I think I think one thing that I'm hearing from a lot of producers or farmers that they're looking for coming out of the Farm Bill, particularly concerning labor is some changes in rules regarding what we call H-2A workers, which are those that have been in the US temporarily from another country. And that's based on the tradition of those being temporary workers. A lot of industries – Brandon in the dairy industry, would be one, greenhouses, as Chris pointed out earlier, as another –that need labor 12 months out of the year. And I know there were a lot of producers that are that are looking for opportunities to, you know, change some legislation to make that available 12 months out of the year. Your point about wages and about protections are also important. And we want to make sure that everyone working on farms is paid well and accordingly, and also has the same protections as anyone should. 

ANGIE MILES -- We also have to work on protecting the health of people who are in the industry, whether that's migrant farmworkers, owners, operators, dealing with pressures, right, things that are beyond their control right now. We know that the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has this summer just launched this AgriStress HelpLine. And that is a tremendous resource. I mean, we know Brandon, you have a great support system, you have your wife Ginny there, you have your brother, your dad, you have two beautiful kids ... most family farms, where there is a close-knit group of people working together, they're still working together day in and day out and dealing with stressors. So what is the benefit of the helpline? How can people access that? 

JOSEPH GUTHRIE , Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services -- It's a toll-free line available 24/7. And if you call you'll be put in touch with someone who has training for specifically agriculture, in Virginia in particular. There are a lot of stressors in agriculture, as you point out. So we really encourage people to take advantage of an opportunity to speak to a professional about what some of their concerns are, whether it be you know, the agricultural producer themselves for a loved one of that person. And this could be anything from for example, anxiety, to depression, to any number of things that can affect people on a day-to-day basis. That you just need a little bit of help with every once in a while. Farming is a stressful business, probably now more than it perhaps ever has been. And because of that sometimes you just need to ask for a little bit of help from some folks that can really provide it for you. And that's what the AgriStress HelpLine is all about. 

ANGIE MILES -- Yeah. So, I mean, if you are a fifth-generation or a sixth-generation farmer, right, you feel very protective of the land, of the farm, of the business. Nobody wants to be the one who couldn't make it, right? But we know that the profit margin is so small, and the industry is changing very rapidly [which] can be difficult. What is the benefit of staying there -- for staying in it? What is the joy in farming that you wish more people could understand? What is the reason why we want to attract more young people to become agricultural professionals? 

CHRIS MULLINS, Virginia Cooperative Extension Service -- Well, I think when we think of agriculture, I like to think of it as food, we produce food. And if you start thinking about that way, it becomes a very important vocation. It's something that's very important that you do. So, I think part of it is probably you love what you do, because you're doing something meaningful. 

BRANDON MOYER, Oakmulgee Farm -- Oh, yes, every day, you can, you know, see the new calf being born, you plant the seed, you get to see it grow, whether it be a good year with lots of rain, or not so much rain, but it's always the cycle, you get to experience life. 

JOSEPH GUTHRIE , Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services -- And, you know, another thing that we've talked about is just the innovations in agriculture. Agriculture is on the cutting edge of so many new technologies now, that it can be really an exciting field for someone who's looking for some, you know, a career in a field where they can find innovation. And, you know, maybe we haven't thought of agriculture in that way before. But it definitely is now, in some of the some of the newest technologies that are out there are involved in the agricultural industry.  

ANGIE MILES -- I think that many people will be surprised to know that farmers are on the cutting edge when it comes to climate change, protecting their environment, no till farming, for example. They want to try not to disturb the Earth. And that helps the climate. It also is economically sound for the farmer. So those are things that people I think don't necessarily know about, but we're going to have to stop our discussion here. And I want to say thank you again for joining us today to talk about important issues in agriculture, Chris Mullins from Cooperative Extension. Brandon Moyer, actual dairy farmer in Virginia, and Joseph Guthrie, our Commissioner of Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Thank you all for being here. 

ALL -- Thanks for having us. Thank you.