Agriculture Shifts to Sustainability

BLACKSBURG, Va.– The agriculture industry is evolving right alongside its consumers to meet the demand for local and sustainable products grown by farmers for generations, but using modern technology.

In recent years, the United States has seen a shift in the size of farms: the medium-sized farm is being squeezed out by factory farms, and smaller farms are choosing to either adding or subtracting their land. According to the United Nations, there will be approximately 9.7 billion people on the planet, and agricultural technology is evolving to meet that demand.

“That’s kind of a goal for us,” Joseph Guthrie, advanced instructor in Virginia Tech’s agricultural technology program, said. “We want to be able to feed them.”

Advancements in farming technology has made the industry more streamlined, and so individual farmers have seen a huge uptick in production.

“My father walked behind a horse that was pulling a plow on our farm in the 1930s,” Guthrie said. “He went from that to driving a tractor that had 120 horsepower, so from one horsepower to 120 horsepower.

For example, there are now tractors that have accuracy down to the inch, and drones fly over cornfields and send back data that shows the health of the field. Farmers can now farm more land with less hands. Traditionally, one farmer could easily manage only a few hundred acres; now, there could be one farmer to every 1,000 acres with precision agriculture.

“You get to a certain size of farm, maybe 1,000 acres which is not a terribly large farm, and most of those sized farms, whether they’re family-owned or not, are going to be integrating this technology,” Wesley Gwaltney, Virginia Tech agricultural technology instructor, said. Now that there is a larger production gap between large and small farms, Gwaltney said that the size of the farm will correlate with what it produces. Smaller farms are developing a niche, or particular products that fit unique needs of consumers.

“Commodities, like things like grain, will be produced on larger farms because they have things like the economy scale; they can use larger equipment,” Gwaltney said. “But there will always be a niche market for something like locally sourced produce, grass fed beef and pastured pork.”

These niche farms use buzzwords like “organic” and “local,” and Guthrie said they will drive the smaller markets. These farmers are the ones typically found in local grocery stores and farmers markets. Sustainability practices, such diversifying crops for soil health, are ones that keep these farmers in business.

“We’re going to see sustainability be a big part of agriculture in the future,” Guthrie said.

The Blacksburg Farmers Market is a way for these niche farmers to sell their local, sustainable products directly to consumers. Ed and Martha Biggar are two small-scale farmers from Draper, Va. who grow “boutique-style” produce, and are utilizing technology and sustainable practices to meet the demand of consumers. She comes from a family of small-scale farmers and keeps up with consumer trends and new technology. Martha Biggar was selling her carefully grown asparagus at the Blacksburg Farmers Market as it is the first crop that is ready to sell by mid-April.

“I think sustainability is the real key to a lot… a lot of our food needs. I see more people coming out to market every year,” Martha Biggar said.

By using sustainable practices and modern technology, local farmers can keep up with the demand and come back to the market weekend after weekend.

This high demand for locally-sourced produce is not a trend, Guthrie said, but a growing demand for consumers.

“Across the board in agriculture, society, certainly in North America, people are going to continue to be more concerned about where their food comes from,” Guthrie said. He predicts that grocery stores will have packaging that tells the customer exactly where their produce or beef came from, and who grew or raised it. Still, it is only a prediction.

“What will people be eating, what will they want, I think is as difficult for us to say about people 50 years from now as it would have been for people 50 years ago to say about us,” Guthrie said.