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Now More Than Ever, Producers Should Take a Fresh Look at Rural Community Economic Development

Farm Business Management Update, August 1999

By David Lamie of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Virginia Tech

Headlines all across the rural countryside bespeak a similar message, "With drought conditions hampering farmersą ability to produce commodities, farm level commodity prices at all time lows, coupled with fewer government safety nets than before, many producers are likely to seek uses of their land and labor resources outside of farming."

Given this situation, an increasing number of farm families will probably seek jobs in nearby towns and cities to supplement their income. Already, likely over half of the farm families in most counties are already engaged in some form of off-farm employment. If farm families are committed to continuing on the farm, they are most likely not extremely interested in commuting large distances to an off-farm job. The more management intensive the operation, the less attractive commuting will be.

Once the decision is made to look off the farm for employment, the opportunities likely to be found will vary. Those who happen to be located within easy commuting distance to existing employment may find the transition much more inviting. Those in the rural countryside will find it much more difficult. They may find that the current prosperity enjoyed by their urban neighbors has not spread evenly across the state. They may also find that the skills that make them a successful farm operator are not highly valued off the farm. Thus, some retraining and retooling to acquire appropriate skills may be necessary.

Others, besides farmers themselves, have a stake in keeping farmers profitably on the farm. The less profitable production agriculture, the more attractive converting farmland to other uses becomes. Those other uses of land may not be as attractive as production agriculture to the general populace. However, agricultural landowners may be increasingly compelled to sell off portions of their land to make ends meet. If these non-farm interests are willing to pay for the value they receive from keeping farmland intact, the conversion of farmland may be mitigated. Several resources are available to assist with such legal mechanisms as conservation easements and the purchase of development rights (PDRs). However, these mechanisms require that willing and able buyers and sellers come to the table to make such transactions possible.

One partial solution to this dilemma is to devote resources to efforts in Rural Community Economic Development. Most Land Grant institutions across the country, in partnership with local governments, have responded to the need to develop economic opportunity in rural areas by committing significant resources to Extension programming in rural community development. In fact, at least one state has a full time Extension agent position devoted to this effort in every county in the state. These agents are trained in such areas as community development process, economic development methodology, and rural sociology. They are expected to become involved in providing educational programming to such entities as local government officials, Chambers of Commerce, and citizen groups. They present these programs with the full support of Extension administration and local leadership.

Currently, no field resources are explicitly devoted to the rural community economic development mission in Virginia. However, existing field agents are given the opportunity to "buy in" to a plan of work that could possibly include some aspects of this mission. The Program for Community Vitality is included as one of the programming options for field agents. On campus, several of us are actively engaged in developing materials that can be used to orient field agents to this mission. These materials include such topics as economic and fiscal impact assessment and land use decision-making. In addition, applied research results on issues relevant to localities are being made available. We plan to offer training opportunities for agents in the near future if sufficient interest is expressed. Your input on suggested issues for applied research and Extension program development would be greatly appreciated.

For more information, please contact Dave Lamie at or (540) 231-5447 or Jeff Alwang, Program Coordinator, at or (540) 231-6517.

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