Farmers Forced to Find Alternatives to Traditional Crops for Livelihood

Virginia and North Carolina farmers are struggling as two of their major cash crops -- tobacco and peanuts -- disappear from the landscape due to declining markets and low prices.

FRANKLIN, Virginia — Virginia and North Carolina farmers are struggling as two of their major cash crops -- tobacco and peanuts -- disappear from the landscape due to declining markets and low prices.

And they aren't alone, said Margaret Krome, policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis.

Kentucky farmers are quickly losing tobacco, too. Farmers in south Texas are coping with a drought that has gone on for years. Even Wisconsin dairy farmers are having a hard time dealing with fluctuating milk prices, Krome said.

What do they do?

Look for alternatives, said Krome, who conducts workshops across the country on using federal programs to support sustainable agriculture. On Tuesday, Krome was in Franklin.

There is money out there to help farmers cope with the changing atmosphere , both from the federal government and private foundations.

"We're trying to teach farmers to look for alternative crops, high-end marketing," Krome said. "If you can get your operating profits up, and you don't have to go into housing developments, you're protecting the land for future farmers."

It's already happening across Virginia, said Andy Hankins, an alternative agriculture specialist at Virginia State University, who also spoke at Tuesday's workshop on funding opportunities.

A catfish farmer in Sussex County is experimenting with agritourism -- a way of promoting farms as tourism destinations -- and testing catfish fillets in three markets thanks to a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tobacco farmers in western Virginia are growing seedless, organic watermelons and snapdragons in greenhouses that were once used to grow tobacco seedlings.

"There is increasing demand for certified organic food products, organic egg production," Hankins said.

There's money available to help with start-up or with change, he said. All it takes is a business plan, a proposal, a realistic time line and the people and other resources necessary to accomplish a goal.

Krome, a native of Norfolk, agreed. She works for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute touring the country and offering guidance on available funding programs, and tips on grant writing . She also coordinates an annual grass-roots campaign to fund federal programs geared toward supporting agriculture.

The institute is a public, non profit facility that seeks to "revitalize farming with research, education, technical assistance and public policy," according to its Web site.

At Tuesday's workshop, Krome distributed copies of "Building Better Rural Places," a guide published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on available federal programs for agriculture, forestry, conservation and community development.

Anne Baker, a strawberry farmer in Pungo, said she and her husband have watched farm land they used to rent being turned into housing developments.

"We're trying to figure a way to diversify," she said. "It gets harder and harder where we are."

Jenny McPherson, the wife of a Chesapeake farmer who works for the city of Virginia Beach, said that many farmers are looking for different marketing opportunities.

"Just knowing what opportunities are out there helps," she said.

Knowing what's there often means knowing where to look, Krome said.

"Know what you want to do and find help in getting it done," she said.

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