Valley farmers get creative as agriculture industry evolves

Outside the asphalt, bluestone, and concrete of the JMU bubble and city of Harrisonburg rests a world that students are more likely to smell than see: Shenandoah Valley’s agriculture industry.

Agriculture is the backbone of the Valley and its economy, but it’s easy for JMU students to forget about the work of local farmers entirely — until it rains and the smell of farm animals and feed wafts through campus. Here’s a detailed look at the agriculture industry in the U.S. and the Shenandoah Valley and the work of farmers who’ve dedicated their lives to putting food on tables.

Small farmers rely on local support amid industry commercialization

No matter where Radell Schrock has moved, farming has followed. A Wisconsin native, Schrock grew up on a sheep farm before making the Shenandoah Valley home and running Season’s Bounty Farm, about 15 minutes outside of Harrisonburg, with his wife, Sarah.

Their farm has six acres of vegetables, melons, blueberries and raspberries, as well as about 100 acres of pasture with several hundred sheep. When the couple first started farming in 2006, Schrock said he worked odd-jobs in landscaping and delivery to make ends meet in the winter, given the cyclical nature of farming.

The Schrocks have since been able to make a living as full-time farmers — an impressive feat in a cutthroat industry that’s consolidating and commercializing.

The farming industry is dominated by a tight-knit pack of commercial giants that use their outsized capital to snap up land, buy the best equipment and generate the vast majority of the nation’s agriculture output. Total agriculture sector value added amounted to $149.7 billion in 2019, but just under 4% of farms hit $1 million in sales in that year, according to a research report from Statista. That suggests a relatively small number of farms produced most of the nation’s food.

Like over 80% of U.S. farmers, Season’s Bounty Farm produces under $100,000 of farm goods per year. Just over half of U.S. farms produced between $1,000 and $10,000 in annual sales, according to the research report from Statista. The distribution of farms in that output range wasn’t available, but even if 51% of the roughly 2,025,000 U.S. farms hit that category’s maximum of $10,000 in output each year, that would equal $10.3 billion, or 6.9%, of the total output of $149.7 billion.

The real output of small farms total is far less than that, given that it’s unlikely that every farm in the $1,000 to $10,000 range generated exactly $10,000 in sales.

The Schrocks found success through a business model called community-supported agriculture, or CSA. Customers pay upfront for a weekly supply of produce throughout the season and share farmers’ risks and reap rewards, which helps farmers stay out of debt in case of crop failure. Season’s Bounty Farm’s CSA boxes cost $125 each in the spring and $325 each in the summer. Farm debt levels hit record highs in 2019 as farm bankruptcies rose to the highest level since 2011, according to Econofact.

Season’s Bounty Farm’s CSA program starts in June with greens and roots, and throughout the year, offerings shift to whatever’s in season. Customers pick up goods at the farm and at the Friendly City Food co-op.

“It’s very fresh, even fresher than what you can get at the farmer’s market, because a lot of times, we kind of pace ourselves,” Schrock said. “The very last thing we get is the heads of lettuce, and we might be washing that and putting it in the boxes as the first [customers] arrive, so [they] don’t even know it’s been picked yet.”

Season Bounty’s CSA program has grown to 200 customers from 22 when it started, and advertising is primarily through word of mouth. Most customers live within five miles of the farm, Schrock said, and all are in the Shenandoah Valley.

Schrock knows it’s a big commitment for customers to pay upfront and share risk. The program’s success shows the strong appetite for fresh-from-the-farm produce in the Valley and provides hope that getting creative can help small farmers stay afloat.

Family farmers put food on the table despite the widening gap with large farms

Farming has gone from a hobby to a livelihood for John Allen, a conservationist for the Department of Defense, and his wife, Chris, a 4-H educator in Chesterfield County Public Schools. The couple opened Fresh Branch Farm in Chesterfield, Virginia, in 2012 after some friends kept asking to buy produce they’d grown on their 57 acres of land.

“People were buying that stuff,” Chris said. “It kinda felt like we were producing something that people needed, and it felt good.”

The farm’s early growth was exponential but has since flattened out because the farm has more demand than it can handle. Proceeds more than doubled every year for the first few years before hitting a record of about $50,000 in 2020, John said.

Panic buying at grocery stores last spring exacerbated a problem many competing farms would envy: too many customers on their waiting list. John said the farm maxed out beef sales last year, and customers have signed up to buy beef from cows that haven’t been born yet.

“You want to have more demand than product, I guess, but it’s frustrating,” John said.

Farming is capital-intensive and requires a hefty upfront investment in fixed costs like equipment and land, which is far from cheap in a hot real estate market in the rapidly developing Richmond suburbs. The farm is debt-free, John said, thanks to a streamlined, growth-first model that keeps overhead costs as low as possible. The two often borrow or rent equipment from neighbors — a resourceful solution to an issue large farmers don’t face.

The deep divide in U.S. agriculture output is easily explained by a simple concept in economics: economies of scale. Reaching scale means long-run average total costs decline as production ramps up, meaning that operations get more efficient as they grow. It’s very challenging and expensive to reach scale, but once businesses do, they gain a clear competitive edge that’s hard to match. The larger businesses get, the harder they become to dethrone, and the more likely smaller ones are to fail when trying to compete.

“Professionally, I have seen kind of the big farms get bigger and the small ones go out,” John said. “I mean, that’s reality. It’s a problem, it’s … mixed emotions. I’d rather see it in corn, wheat, soybeans than in development.”

Like any business, farming requires an initial investment before production can happen. Farmers must acquire land, vehicles, equipment, feed, animals, and seeds before hiring workers, which can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not millions — for larger operations. But most people, including farmers, don’t have that kind of money lying around, and John said loans or investor backing that are needed to scale up are hard to acquire.

“This is just, it’s a very tough business to make work,” John said. “The numbers get unreal very quickly when you try to scale up to these very large commercial operations. But there’s efficiency there.”

But it’s not all blue skies and green pastures for farmers that hit scale — far from it, in fact, in recent years. The number of U.S. farms has consistently declined since 2000 with the exception of 2007, where a steady decline followed a spike in new farms, according to a research report from Statista.

The area of U.S. farmland has eroded at an even faster pace in the past two decades, according to a research report from Statista. That suggests industry consolidation, meaning that large farms snap up smaller ones to save money and achieve scale.

Large and small farms have both struggled in recent decades, as the average farm size in the U.S. by acres has been flat since 2000, according to a research report from Statista. This suggests that the decline in the number of large and small farms has been relatively similar, as a disproportionate decline in one would sway the average farm size. The average farm size steadily increased from 2000-06 before dropping off in 2007, though it resumed its uptrend and steadily rose through 2020.

Agriculture sector output rose for the third straight year in 2019 but has dipped slightly since 2011, where it totaled $169.6 billion. That’s impressive growth, considering the storm of political volatility from the U.S.-China trade war that rocked American farmers in recent years.

Interest in entry-level farming has risen in the past decade, John said, even if those small-timers aren’t making a dent in the market share of their larger counterparts. That’s encouraging to him and Chris as farm educators, but he doesn’t expect commercialization of the farm industry to slow down anytime soon. John was quick to note that in his experience, farmers’ passion and care doesn’t disappear when they achieve scale, but he prefers his style of farming to generating massive output at scale.

“[Large farms are] producing crops, you know,” John said. “Sometimes I’m jealous that I can’t just sit in the combine for eight hours a day and, you know, make money. But it’s not for me.”

Small farmers leave no stone unturned in David vs. Goliath battle

Despite a continued move toward farm consolidation and industry commercialization that makes starting and running a farm as tough as ever, family farms have shown resilience by adopting new strategies for success, like CSA.

Through the hills and valleys of farming, Valley farmers know much is out of their control. Each sunrise brings new challenges with it, some familiar and some new, but their focus remains the same: putting food on the table and providing for their families.

“Our underlying principle was always to be able to feed our family,” Chris Allen said. “Anything outside of that was just a bonus.”

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