Local farmers work to keep agriculture alive in Southwest Virginia

By Erin Brookshier - Virginia Today Reporter

FINCASTLEĀ (WSLS10)-- Farmers in Southwest Virginia are working together to tackle some of their biggest issues. The Local Environmental Agriculture Project, or LEAP, is holding listening sessions throughout the month to create a platform for local farmers to network and communicate.

A newly released farms and land summary from the USDA finds, in total, there are more than 8.1 million acres dedicated to farming in the Commonwealth. While the average farm size is increasing by about one acre each year, the total number of farms is down. Right now, there are about 200 fewer farms in Virginia than this time last year, as some farmers are selling off their land and getting out of the business altogether.

That's why LEAP is working to address the issues and challenges that local farmers face-- having them work together to find possible solutions to keep these local farms in business.

"Having a future both in terms of economic viability for local food, and having enough farmers interested who can make a living in farming-- those are some of the biggest concerns nationwide and at home," explains Maureen Best, the executive director of LEAP.

Between the high cost of doing business and the hard life that comes along with running a farm, it's a path that fewer and fewer young people are choosing to take. The owner of Thornfield Farm in Fincastle, Susana Thornton, says it's a path she almost didn't take.

When Thornton left the region after school, she had no plans of taking over her family's farm. She says she lived in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and California before deciding she wanted to move back home to run a farm of her own. It's a decision she says she made as her parents were deciding what to do with their land, but it's not an option everyone is lucky enough to have.

"It's a hard business to get into," says Thornton. "If you're not lucky enough to have land already in your family, it can be difficult to find that space to get into."

It's been three years since she moved back home to begin farming-- and the farm is thriving, with fresh vegetables, eggs, and other animals.

In a time where it's easier to shop in bulk or order online, Thornton is working to meet the changing needs of her customers-- but not only selling her produce at local farmers markets but buy opening up an online store as well. She offers people the chance to order items like lettuce, eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers online, then meets her at a designated location to pick up all of the fresh vegetables.

Thornton is one of the first local farmers to transition into the online world, but it's a change she says is really paying off as she works to reach a wider community.

The final LEAP Listening Session isĀ at the Montgomery County Government Center in Christiansburg. It's Monday, March 6 from 6-8 p.m.

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