Ag strategic plan unveiled

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By John Barnhart

Region 2000’s Local Government Council has developed a strategic plan for agriculture and forestry.
    According to Scott Baker, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for Bedford County, it took two years to develop the plan. The Virginia Cooperative Extension was deeply involved in developing the plan.
    “They knew we had a pretty good feel for agricultural needs,” Baker said.
    The plan was developed using a state Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund (AFID) grant, with the Local Government Council providing the matching money the grant required.
    Baker said the idea of the strategic plan is to integrate agriculture and forestry into economic development plans. This means involving local economic development directors.
    Baker said agriculture is the number one industry in Region 2000. However, this isn’t obvious because farms are spread out. Agriculture has a $1.46 billion direct economic impact in the region and accounts for over 5,220 jobs. Forestry accounts for an additional $806 million and produces 2,560 jobs. Indirectly, they mean an additional $3 billion for the region’s economy and account for nearly 13,000 jobs.
    Local agriculture is also a diverse industry. Region 2000 agriculture includes orchards, row crops, such as soy beans and cattle. There are also a number of farmers involved in direct marketing.
    The plan identifies short-term, mid-term and long-term actions looking toward both giving farmers more opportunities to diversify and to make sure local governments are aware of how policies they are considering will affect this industry.
    Education for the next generation of farmers is part of the plan. Baker said Bedford County has vocational agriculture programs in two of its three high schools, as well as a middle school program. There are also efforts, such as the annual farm tour, to educate non farmers about where their food comes from. The strategic plan hopes to do more.
    Baker said economic growth in agriculture must be intentional. It requires planning.
    The plan has a series of goals with projects to implement these goals. The projects are, in turn, divided up into actions identified as immediate (actions that can  be taken in less than a year), short term (actions that will take one or two years to accomplish), mid-term (actions that will take between two and four years to accomplish)  and long term.
    One short-term action, intended to help with regional marketing, is to develop a Region 2000 agricultural website, which will have both consumer and producer sides. Baker said the producer side of the website will show producers where the region’s veterinarians and suppliers who cater to farmers’ needs are, as well as where they can find Farm Bureau and U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offices. The website can also be used as a marketing tool to show the region as being agriculture friendly.
    An immediate goal is to provide a digital asset map which will show locations of services for farmers, such as farm equipment dealers. While this will be part of the regional agricultural website, once it’s developed, it can quickly be incorporated into a number of existing sites.
    Other efforts will seek to expand the market for locally grown food. One mid-term project will be to look into the feasibility of setting up a food hub. A food hub would help local farmers market locally by setting up one entity that large buyers—such as stores, schools and hospitals—could deal with, making it easier for them to buy local. It would also help farmers who want to grow for the local market, but don’t necessarily want to do direct marketing on their own.
    Nothing is set in stone.
    “Like all strategic plans, we realize we have to be flexible,” Baker said. He said some ideas may end up to be not feasible. It’s also possible that new ideas may come up as the plan is implemented.
    They are, however, determined that they are not going to be coming to local governments asking for more money and no additional Region 2000 employees will be hired. Baker said their goal is to use grants to get things started and to use existing Region 2000 staff to cary out the plan’s projects, involving other organizations where it makes sense to do so.
    Baker believes this strategic plan is breaking new ground when it comes to incorporating agriculture and forestry into economic development.
    “The best we can tell, it’s the first time in the state when a planning district has come together to work on such a thing,” Baker said.