In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the 2017 Census of Agriculture which, according to the website, serves the purpose of quantifying many variables of agriculture including characteristics of operators, practices of production, farm profits and disbursements, and other indicators. At a more basic level, the Census of Agriculture quantifies the number and acreages of farms, types and amounts of crops and livestock produced, and similar figures at the locality, state, and national levels. The Census of Agriculture, according to the website, does not only count farms, but even small plots of rural or urban lands that generate at least $1,000 in products during the year the particular Census was taken.
Agriculture serves as an important component of the West Piedmont Planning District’s economy, having an impact of approximately $173 million in 2017, based on the market value of products sold that year. Agricultural land uses also account for a substantial quantity of the region’s landscape, comprising about one-third of the District’s land area. Comparing results of the 2017 Census to the previous, 2012 Census of Agriculture, shows that the total number of farms in the region – as well as its constituent localities – dropped by more than 11 percent, though the market value of agricultural goods sold exhibited an increase in some of the region’s localities. The table below illustrates a variety of comparative agricultural data from both 2012 and 2017.
While many may think of agricultural activities as simply addressing a need to fill supermarket shelves, this market segment is so much more than that, especially for rural regions such as ours. Many farms sell their products locally, directly to consumers, through community-supported agriculture (CSA), or indirectly through local farmers’ markets. Our region has been working to utilize its agricultural heritage as an economic development asset to help diversify our economy by keeping money within the region and generating agriculture-related tourism dollars. In recent years, the West Piedmont Planning District Commission (WPPDC) has published Virginia’s West Piedmont Local Foods Guide as a resource to promote agriculture in the region. The Guide presents a variety of agriculture-related establishments falling under numerous categories, by locality, including:
- Artisan food producers
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
- Family farms
- Farm tours
- Farmers’ markets
- Restaurants (which utilize local products)
- Roadside/farm markets
- Specialty products (organic & others)
- Spirits (wineries, breweries, and distilleries)
- You-pick farms
Virginia’s West Piedmont Local Foods Guide can be found at http://www.wppdc.org/content/wppdc/uploads/PDF/docs_publications/env_nat_resources/wp_lfg_2018.pdf, while the interactive map, illustrating the many agriculture-related destinations, can be found at https://wppdc.maps.arcgis.com/apps/View/index.html?appid=81e289ab93384acf8f812155aa480df8&extent=-80.9137,36.4222,-78.8043,37.3503.
Agriculture can support economic development in our region through transportation and physical fitness as well. The West Piedmont Regional Bicycle Plan recommends a network of scenic cycling routes throughout the region, many of which wend their way through lightly-traveled country roads, providing the rider with views of agricultural vistas at every turn. The Regional Bicycle Plan incorporates elements of Virginia’s West Piedmont Local Foods Guide within its interactive map, which serves as a great resource for bicyclists who may want to cycle to various destinations such as wineries, breweries, and parks throughout the region. While cycling routes are recommended throughout all jurisdictions in the West Piedmont Planning District, localities having the lowest traffic volumes as well as excellent agricultural and mountainous scenery include the western portions of Patrick County and Franklin County. The West Piedmont Regional Bicycle Plan planning document can be found at http://www.wppdc.org/content/wppdc/uploads/PDF/docs_publications/transportation/wppd__regional_bicycle_plan_final.pdf, while the interactive map is located at https://wppdc.maps.arcgis.com/apps/View/index.html?appid=abfe3df1b6ec4769aff2253d528fe2e9&extent=-80.3966,36.5503,-79.3420,37.0073.