In a world that’s primarily focused on technology advances and increased development, small-time farmers don’t always get the attention they need. But that wasn’t the case this week.
Nearly 20 farmers, advocates and policymakers flanked Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-10) at the Middleburg Community Center on Wednesday night to discuss what they can do to support Loudoun’s small and family-owned farms. The agriculture policy roundtable solicited input from professionals representing more than a dozen different organizations and government agencies ranging from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to Loudoun Hunger Relief. Coming to the forefront in the hour-and-a-half conversation were topics of small farm marketing and visibility and voucher and farm-to-school programs.
Gooditis kicked the discussion off by noting that she’s lived in southern Clarke County for more than two decades on property that overlooks the Shenandoah Valley and that she’s a rural resident at heart.
“I’ve been a country woman all my life, I’ve been a horse woman all my life,” she said. “I’ve always had a real affinity for the people that feed us.”
One of the most relevant topics of the night centered on the idea of expanding farm-to-school programs in Loudoun that could bring more locally-grown, healthy foods to the county’s 87 schools.
In mentioning that the Loudoun County Public School system is the county’s largest restaurant—feeding 90,000 students every day—Jennifer Brady, of the Loudoun Pediatric Obesity Coalition, said that such a program would be impossible to initiate without a central food distribution hub in the county. She also pointed out that it’s currently up to the staff of each individual school whether to get hand-deliver fresh food from Loudoun’s farms and that only the most adequately staffed schools can do that. “That is hard to do,” she said.
Loudoun Hunger Relief Associate Director Erika Huddleston furthered Brady’s point, noting that not every school cafeteria in Loudoun was built with working kitchens for staff to prepare meals from scratch, but that they were mainly built to simply heat food up come lunch time.
Virginia Farmers’ Markets Association Executive Director Kim Hutchinson pointed out that 75 percent of school systems in the commonwealth participate in farm-to-school programs and that Gooditis should look at Minnesota’s Farm-to-School model as a guide.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the number of school districts participating in farm-to-school programs grew from 18 in 2006 to 268 in 2014. The most recent data from the USDA Farm to School Census also reported that the average Minnesota school district sets aside 13 percent of its budget for local food purchases and that the state overall has $12 million invested in such programs.
Already, Loudoun’s school system features gardens at 54 schools. Among all Virginia schools, local food purchases have doubled since 2014, from $7.7 million to $15.4 million in 2017.
Gooditis said agriculture and forestry are Virginia’s two largest revenue streams but that the legislature isn’t doing much to bolster the agricultural industry. “It’s a mystery to me … why we wouldn’t be doing things that support [agriculture],” she said.
Another hot topic among the farmers and advocates was the idea of a voucher system to provide residents with incentives to purchase food from farmers’ markets.
Hutchison pointed out that the City of Richmond provides its employees with $20 vouchers to buy food from farmers’ markets. She said that because health care providers help to pay for the program, hospitals often host mobile farmers’ markets in their parking lots.
She said that only five Virginia farmer’s markets have been approved to accept vouchers from residents like seniors and military veterans, something she said needed to be changed. She also noted that of the farmers’ markets in Virginia that generate between $100,000 and $2 million annually, less than 1 percent of their revenue comes from such vouchers.
As for the visibility of small farms, something farmers depend on to attract more customers, the panel was divided on the best approach.
Loudoun County Rural Business Development Manager John Magistro said that small farms can gain visibility through the county’s “Loudoun Made, Loudoun Grown” marketing program.
Warren Howell, a farmer and Loudoun Rural Economic Development Council member, said the best way for farmers to gain recognition in the community is to simply sell their products at farmers’ markets and offer community supported agriculture and pick-your-own produce initiatives. He said that, while the Loudoun Rural Economic Development Council tried to get traditional farmers to conduct direct marketing, not too many “drank that Kool-Aid.”
Hutchinson said another way for small farms to gain visibility is for restaurant chefs to advertise which farms they purchased their produce and meats from.
Virginia State University Small Farm Resource Coordinator Michael Carter pointed out that black farmers have a difficult time selling their products because they’re “socially disadvantaged.” Loudoun Farm Bureau President Chris Van Vlack agreed, noting that some people don’t think that black farmers exist.
Gooditis said she would use their input to begin working on solutions to formulate bills to introduce for the 2020 Virginia General Assembly session in January. “It’s certainly all worth looking into and trying to push on,” she said.