Forum for Rural Innovation Offers New Ideas for Area Farmers

The seventh annual Forum for Rural Innovation saw over two hundred participants turn out to consider new projects and programs dedicated to enhancing farm income and rural business profitability. The day-long Winchester meeting featured presentations from some of the most progressive and recognized farmers and researchers in the nation. Case studies presented throughout the day focused on profitability generated from innovative and sound business approaches that are particularly suited to the Mid-Atlantic region.

Over 200 people attended the 2011 Forum for Rural Innovation in Winchester, Virginia on Friday, March 11 - Photo Edward Leonard

The Forum carried special relevance for farms in the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valleys because of its focus on conserving farmland  and natural resource preservation, and developing new approaches to rural prosperity in upscale areas where land commands premium prices. Friday’s presenters emphasized suggestions for improving local and regional food production, marketing, and distribution.

Clarke County Supervisor John Staelin (Millwood), who attended the event, said that it is not always easy for farmers to take advantage of the new market opportunities noting that farmers need to learn a whole new skill sets in areas like marketing and distribution.

“For years the focus in the grocery business has been centralization. Independent grocery stores were forced out of business by the big centralized chains and the large national producers of fruit and vegetables took business away from local providers” Staelin said after the event. “Now the market is changing. Customers are demanding fresh, local products as they understand it is better than the produce that is shipped in from hundreds of miles away. Farmer’s Markets have become popular and people are spending more of their grocery dollars in the stores that offer fresh, local goods. As a result even the large chains are willing to bypass the national producers if they can get quality products at a reasonable price from a local producer.  “

Staelin believes that the new food supply chain trends mean that new opportunities are opening up to all the farmers who operate near metropolitan areas.

“Our farmers are no longer forced to sell bulk commodity products like feed corn, wheat and beef on the hoof to national food processors” Staelin observed. “They can now sell market-ready products like lettuce, peppers, apples, cheese, meat, etc. either directly to customers at farmer’s markets or through the large chains that are now open to selling local goods.”

Friday’s forum included a diverse set of speakers who shared their successes and failures with an eager and receptive audience.

Rich Pirog from Iowa State University’s Leopold Center  for Sustainable Agriculture described Iowa’s Local Food and Farm Plan initiative that has created a wildly successful marketing collaboration platform where nearly all of the counties in Iowa meet quarterly to exchange farming innovation concepts.

Savanah Lyons, program manager of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, spoke of several small farm markets, like the one in Monroe County, West Virginia that have developed successful state-wide distribution networks for its products. Lyons told the audience of farmers, educators and public administrators that tools like LocallyGrown.net can help farm markets quickly develop markets and process payments at minimal cost.

The meeting’s most energetic and technologically innovative lecture came from Hillsboro, Virginia vineyard operator and former AOL-executive Steve Mackey. Mackey led the audience through a mesmerizing 45-minute Facebook blitz that not only helped many in the audience understand why Facebook is an important new farm marketing tool, but also provided a step-by-step tutorial for launching their own Facebook agri-business marketing initiatives.

“If you’re not on the Web telling your story” Mackey told the audience “Someone else is telling your story for you and they’re getting it wrong.”

Berryville Assistant Town Manager Christy Dunkle, who participated in the planning for the event, said that idea behind the forum is to generate ideas that can benefit Clarke County’s agricultural community.

“Part of the goal is to develop innovative ideas that small acreage farms can leverage” Dunkle said. “For example, one of the Rural Innovation Award winners today has a farm in Lovettsville where he generated $30K on only one acre of farmland. We can’t do it alone here in Clarke County. The beauty of this group is that it generates lots and lots of ideas.”

Four local farms received the Rural Innovation Award which recognizes farm and agriculture related rural businesses in Clarke, Fauquier, Frederick and Loudoun  counties in Virginia and Berkeley and Jefferson Counties in West Virginia for replicable innovative ideas, projects or programs, or production practices that enhance farm and rural business profitability.

This year’s 2011 Innovation  Award Winners were The Fauquier Education Farm (Fauquier County), Hedgebrook Farm (Frederick County), Cool Lawn Farms (Fauquier County) and Quarter Branch Farm (Loudoun County).

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Supervisor Staelin said that attending the Forum for Rural Innovation had given him a better appreciation for the effort required to transition into new farming approaches and markets.

“The people who have studied how successful farmers have made this change say that it is best to start small and do it one step at a time, learning as you go” Staelin said. “They also said that farmers need support from experts or like-minded individuals who are trying to do the same thing.”

Staelin said that he plans to explore how Clarke County can better support its farmers and farm economy and he plans to spend time exploring how such support can be improved and delivered.

“I want to know what support is available to our local farmers through the Cooperative Extension Service, the Farm Bureau and other farm support groups and any impediments to action here on a local level” Staelin said.  “I also want to better understand what other rural counties have done to support agriculture. None of the farmers making presentations at the conference mentioned that they had asked for or received support from local government. Instead they got their help from other farmers, foundations dedicated to improving agriculture, the Farm Bureau and Cooperative Extension. “Clarke has taken steps to help agriculture. Between the Board of Supervisors and efforts by members of Clarke’s Economic Development Advisory Committee the County has given financial support to the ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ campaign, helped organize the local hay auctions, provided extra funding to Cooperative Extension for their work here in the County, encouraged the schools to serve local products in the cafeteria and helped organize conferences like the one that was just held.”

Staelin noted that while the County’s financial outlay for agricultural support has not been high so far, sometimes nonfinancial support is all that is needed.

“What I want to know is what other counties have done and what additional things we might do to support the efforts of our agricultural community” Staelin said.