A press release from Loudoun County government last week celebrated a U.S. Department of Agriculture census that found Loudoun led the state in the production of grapes, hops, honey, alpacas and llamas, and having the most minority farmers.
“The Board of Supervisors have made it a priority to preserve our farmland and support those who are putting their land to great use,” stated County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). “It’s gratifying to see that those efforts are paying off with another positive report on ag-based economy in the county.”
But a look at the report shows farmland in Loudoun is disappearing—and more quickly than before. From 2012 to 2017, Loudoun lost 137 farms and 12,860 acres of farmland—20 square miles, a loss of 9.5 percent of Loudoun’s farmland. That’s faster than the 6 percent drop statewide, and nearly twice the rate of decline during the previous five-year period.
The USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture found 1,396 farms in Loudoun with 134,792 acres of farmland. Five years later in 2017, those figures were down to 1,259 farms and 121,932 acres. Between 2007 to 2012, Loudoun lost 7,660 acres, about 5.4 percent of its farmland. Only 31 farms shuttered in that time.
“Losing 10 percent of your farmland every five years—there’s only one way that ends up,” said Loudoun County Farm Bureau president Chris Van Vlack.
He said as Loudoun loses farmland, it is approaching a point where farmers will no longer be able to find the support services they need to keep farming.
“Folks that are serious about farming are finding ways to utilize the acreage they have, but that will only work up to a certain point,” Van Vlack said. “You have to have enough critical mass to make it feasible for all of the various service providers to operate in the area.”
He gave an example from his own small farm near Lovettsville—he can no longer find a local business to provide agricultural lime, an essential tool to adjust pH levels in soil, for a small farm at an affordable price. Without enough farmland in Loudoun, he said, local companies that support farms can’t find enough business to stay open. Companies farther away in West Virginia, Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley either don’t think it’s worth their time or charge too much to travel that far.
“That’s sort of the canary in the coal mine,” Van Vlack said. “You start losing the acreage, and then all of the stuff that is necessary for the viability of any farm becomes harder to do, because you don’t have economies of scale.”
From 2002 to 2007, the county saw 13.5 percent of its farmland go away. Van Vlack said the slower loss from 2007 to 2012 may be attributable to the real estate market crash and recession of 2008, causing farmland to be “artificially protected” as development ground to a halt.
“In that period, we also took away funding for the [Purchase of Development Rights] program, and so the actual structural things that would have led more land to be protected for succeeding generations of farmers were removed,” Van Vlack said. “We were just sort of artificially protected by a national real estate crash.”
The agriculture census comes about as the Board of Supervisors enters the final stage of writing the county’s new comprehensive plan. The latest draft of the plan, from the county Planning Commission, does not include Farm Bureau-supported conservation programs intended to protect farmland such as Purchase of Development Rights or Transfer of Development Rights.
The Planning Commission removed a county-funded Purchase of Development Rights program that is in the county’s current plan, but has been unfunded since a newly elected Board of Supervisors in 2004 took dramatic steps to reverse much of the previous board’s work in conservation.
That program would allow supervisors to use county tax money to purchase and retire development rights on rural lands, permanently protecting them from development. In February, Republican supervisors shot down a proposal to explore restarting that program.
County supervisors have been split over a Transfer of Development Rights program, which would set up a marketplace for private landowners to buy development rights from farmland to apply to their own property elsewhere. That is still under consideration.
“This report couldn’t have come out at a better time as far as telling us, we can do things well here, but unless we change trajectory, all the things we sort of pay lip service to that are the good things we enjoy about the county, but we haven’t really done concrete things to protect, are going to go away,” Van Vlack said. “And people are going to say, ‘wait a second, I liked the fact that I could buy local produce, and go to wineries, and go to equine events. Why did that go away?’ And it’ll be because we didn’t put in concrete steps.”