The American farmer has emerged as a bit of a political pawn because of the effects that international trade tariffs have had on agricultural products, and that economy, which has changed so much, remains a big part of both Virginia and those locally who might provide your fresh tomatoes and off-the-vine okra and cucumbers.
In mid-May the Chinese responded to trade tariffs imposed by the Trump administration by boosting its on tariffs on imports. That had significant effect on American farmers, particularly soybean producers, even after the administration provided a $16 billion subsidy to support them.
And, although it’s not as apparent, in Virginia that’s still big business.
In celebrating agriculture statewide a couple of weeks ago, Gov. Ralph Northam cited the $70 billion farmers contribute annually to the state’s economy. He said there are more than 44,000 farms that employ roughly 334,000.
“Virginia is home to many dedicated, passionate farmers and business owners and a rich, varied agricultural landscape that includes traditional farming and forestry operations, value-added processing, award-winning wineries and craft beverage production, agritourism operations and many more,” Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring said.
Recent studies have showed positive trends for the market value for farm products in Virginia and also revealed an uptick of more women defined as principal farm operators, more veterans turning to farming post military careers and younger farmers entering the agriculture industry as a career.
For Henry County and Patrick County, that’s welcomed news.
“As we look at rising demand for new products and the increased use of technology in every aspect of agriculture, now is a great time to seek careers in the agriculture sector, “Virginia’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Jewel Bronaugh said. “Careers in traditional farming, science, ecology, technology, marketing, communications, education and government support this diverse and vital industry.”
Farms in Henry, Patrick
There are 212 farm operations in Henry County and 483 in Patrick County, based on statistics from U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Agricultural Statistics Service’s most recent Census of Agriculture, which shows farming trends through 2017.
The news of a broader spectrum of individuals interested in agricultural careers in Virginia could have a positive impact on Henry County and Patrick County, both of which have experienced a decrease in farmers since 1997.
Henry County had 340 farm operations in 2007 and 362 in 1997, compared to Patrick County’s 613 and 660 in those years.
“As you will notice the number of farms has decreased overall in the past 20 years,” said Melanie Barrow, Virginia Cooperative Extension agriculture and natural resources extension agent. “Also, the number of small farms greatly outnumbers the amount of highly productive farms.”
That’s good news for many local farmers, as international trade wars and tariffs continue despite a massive $16 billion farm-aid program by President Donald Trump.
Effects of tariffs
“I do not foresee the producers in our area having significant impact due to the tariffs,” Barrow said. “That is not to say we may not see some, more likely in the larger farms, but due the size and type of production in Henry County, we may not be as impacted as other parts of the state.”
Trinity Goad, general manager at the Poor Farmer’s Market in Vesta, sources the majority of the mountain store’s fresh produce from local farmers.
“As far as the farm stuff goes, there are only a couple of small farms left here,” Goad said. “I’ve heard about the tariff on imports, but I haven’t heard any farmers around here say it’s had an impact.”
Stonehaus Farms, owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team, Elliott and Connie Stone, focuses on sustainable living in the Martinsville area. Because his is a teaching farm showcasing animals, arts and organic produce, Elliott Stone noted that the tariffs have no impact his operation.
“Most of the farms around here are gentlemen’s farms,” Elliott said. “They’re not making that much from shipping” goods overseas.
Bob Tuggle, owner of Tuggle Farms in Rangeley, said that the tariffs will not alter the core of his business, because he doesn’t grow crops, but had him curious about one aspect of his specialty jams, jellies, sauces and pickles products.
“I’ve had a real hard time getting canning supplies,” Tuggle said. “I’m not sure if it’s from the tariffs, but several places I usually get them from, they’re not there.”
The majority of local farm operations see a stark contrast from the tariff issue currently impacting certain large-scale commercial farmers in America. Soybeans recently took center stage.
In 2015, roughly 60% of US soybean exports – approximately 25% of the total US soybean crop – went to China, according to findings published by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, located within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University.
China’s soybean imports skyrocketed over a 20-year period, going from 18 million bushels to a 2015 USDA projection of 2.7 billion bushels worldwide.
When the trade wars began last year, US soybean sales plummeted — and Brazil’s rose. The South China Morning Post reported last week that about 66.1 million tons of China’s soybean imports came from Brazil last year, as opposed to 16.6 million tons from the United States. The numbers show that Brazil’s soybean exports to China rose 30%, and the US soybean export dropped by 49%.
With a recent 25% tariff imposed by China on soybeans in July, many heartland farmers currently have more crops on their hands than they can sell.
More stable locally
Two farms in Henry County reported soybean growth in 2017, neither with a nationwide or international commercial-scale production area, according to the USDA statistics findings. There were no reports of soybean production in the area over a 15-year period, from 1997 to 2012.
Three Patrick County farmers grew soybeans in 2017, down from five in 2007 and 14 in 1997.
Reports of some American farmers struggling with the economic agricultural downturn have some fearing bankruptcy and have others contemplating suicide. Thankfully, that doesn’t appear to be the case locally.
“I am unaware of any producers in Henry County that has had to deal with the two topics, however, statistics show that this is an upward trend in the farming industry,” Barrow said. “Virginia Cooperative Extension has and is providing workshops in Franklin County to address these two issues.”
Barrow and Goad both expressed words of encouragement to farmers concerned about the future of their profession.
“Farming has always been livelihood of risk. It is the way of life for a farmer. Farming is a cyclical business and although not every situation is the same, we still need farmers to feed us,” Barrow said. “They may have to change their commodity to meet the demands and/or needs, but there will always be a need for farmers.”
“The food is better — that’s the most important, I think,” Goad said. “Just like you and me, they have to have jobs. Farming is what they know and love. Without them [providing fresh produce], we’d be buying everything in a can.”