What is Farming? What is Farmland?

Sep 13, 2018

Whether it’s a plantation or a homestead, a ranch or an acreage, some things about many things about farmland are universal. At the most basic level, it’s land that’s capable of producing a crop, but the reality is a bit more than that. What is “farming” and what’s a “farm” can have some pretty profound implications, socially, legally and economically. Is a fish hatchery a farm? Or a pumpkin patch? How about winery? In financing, zoning and insurance these distinctions matter. But for the purposes of this page, I’m going to call farm land –

Managed land that has the potential to generate an income from a crop.

And what do we mean by a crop? In central Virginia, that typically means

Hay or Stored Forage

When we say hay, we can mean a lot of things, but hay is typically used as feed for cattle, in wet or dry round bales, or as small squares used as horse hay. Hay can be a high value crop, but because of transportation costs, it’s a high value is limited by distance crop. If hay is growing in a field in Central Virginia, it usually means that the land is not suitable for growing higher value crops, like corn or beans. The grasses that are grown to make hay are perennial grasses – they grow for several years before they have to be replanted, and ideally, they’re actively managed for species composition and soil fertility. Hay ground tends to be more rolling than ground used for other crops. And raising, harvesting, storing and marketing hay is very specialized, very expensive. Haymaking is very time-sensitive as well, and farmers don’t have time to move equipment between fields.

Pasture

We may not think of pasture as a crop – the livestock raised on the pasture are the crop. For grazing livestock this ground needs to have adequate fencing, water, shade, forage and access, to get livestock in and out. Different animals have different grazing behaviors, and pastures should be managed accordingly.

Livestock

We mostly raise beef cattle here in Central Virginia, and mostly Black Angus at that. Most of us are cow/calf operators. We own the cows, who will have their calves in the spring, or in some cases, in the fall. These calves stay with their mamas until they’re 6 or 7 months old. At that time, the calves are weaned, and sold.

Row Crops – Corn and Beans, Small Grains

Corn and beans are big cash crops for producers in our area. They’re planted in the late spring, for harvest in the fall. These crops require the highest levels of inputs and management, have the highest equipment costs, and have the potential for the biggest payout.

After the corn or beans are harvested, in the fall, small grains – usually wheat, barley or triticale – are planted, both to keep the soil covered over winter, and to provide a crop with some marketing options in early spring. Depending on market conditions, a farmer can chop or bale the immature plants as forage to feed livestock. Some years it makes senses to let the crop fully mature and sell the grain, and maybe even bale up the straw, and sell that as well. And some years, if the crops look bad and the market looks worse, you can just spray it, a process we call “burn-down”, and appreciate the crops’ value as a weed control.

Managed timber

It’s sometimes hard to think of standing timber as a crop, but it’s really not that much different than any other crop – it just has a much longer time frame to become marketable – 20 or 30 years or so.

Specialty crops

Specialty crops – fruits, vegetables, nuts, landscaping plants, and even medicinal herbs (hemp isn’t on the list…yet). They’re high-value crops, usually without a ready marketing structure. If you’re growing hops, selling home-grown, home-made sorghum brooms, or bottling your own maple syrup, you’re in the specialty crop business.

It’s not just about producing crops, it’s having a market for them as well. Most farmers aren’t too interested in developing markets – we want to be paid a fair price for selling our products into an existing market. There’s good and bad with this way of thinking. It means we can focus our energies into what we do best – production.

If you’re interested in more of the antics and fiascos we create and endure, check out our social feeds.

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