Modeling Whole Farm Systems to Enhance Beginning Small Farmer Success in Southwest Virginia

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Virginia Tech


The number of very small farms (<10 acres) is increasing and beginning farmers (in practice for <10 years) are more likely to run them. Very small farms are typically complex systems in which the farmer manages both production of a diverse array of crops and marketing of crops directly to consumers and their failure rate in early years is high. This work seeks to increase the likelihood of success for beginning farmers by understanding these complex systems better. We collected qualitative and quantitative data from interviews with three successful beginning farm operations in Southwest Virginia covering practical and philosophical aspects of farm production, sales and management. We mapped social, environmental and economic aspects of farming systems and studied how farmers use resources (Community Capitals) and management to enhance their system's success, developing a broader definition of success that encompasses what farmers gain from farming beyond profitability. Using these maps, we created a system dynamics model of a small farm system in STELLA including unique components such as customer attraction and retention. Through model development, we learned that these successful farmers began their operations with experience and financial resources, and employed their skills, resourcefulness and cultural and social capital to charge prices for their products that could sustain their operations financially. Using our model, current and aspiring farmers, service providers, and small farm advocates will be able to simulate real or hypothetical farm systems to better understand what establishing a successful small farm might require and how to confront potential challenges.



beginning farmers, small farms, farmer decision making, system dynamics, whole farm model, success indicators