- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

BEDFORD, Va. (AP) The state's economy and landscape could be hit hard if steps aren't taken to preserve Virginia's farms and get more people interested in farming, a conservation group said.
Virginia lost 105,000 acres of its highest-quality farmland from 1992 to 1997, said a study by the American Farmland Trust.
Agriculture remains the state's top industry, with farms covering 34 percent of the state, the trust says. Virginia farm products include milk, poultry, beef, soybeans, tobacco, cotton and peanuts.
"Vital farming areas such as the Shenandoah Valley that are struggling with drought, disease and depressed local economies are vulnerable to the demand for land, particularly along the I-81 corridor," said Mary Heinricht, Mid-Atlantic regional director for the American Farmland Trust. "The citizens and communities of Virginia will need to continue to step up to the plate to assure the future of agriculture and farmland in the commonwealth."
Miss Heinricht said communities often are unaware that an agricultural base is a better economic platform, and it keeps the tax rate lower.
Jobs that attract large numbers of people also attract families whose children need to be educated and who place costly demands on local government.
Jesse Richardson, assistant professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, said studies show that industrial land and farmland cost about 20 to 25 cents in services for every $1 in tax revenue they provide, but residential development costs $1.25 to $1.50 for every $1 in tax revenue a net loss.
"Residential is the one that comes out the loser every time," he said.
In central Virginia, the loss of farmland is most evident in Bedford County, which has seen 5,561 acres disappear over that five-year period, the last time the U.S. agricultural census has been taken.
Scott Baker, agricultural extension agent in Bedford County, equates the loss of land with the loss of a way of life.
"They refer to it as the graying of agriculture," Mr. Baker said.
As the average age of farmers creeps over 50, more and more are finding themselves without heirs interested in continuing the family tradition.
"You put those two things together and you see farmland sold for nonagricultural purposes," Mr. Baker said.
Brent Wills, natural-resources administrator for the county, has no doubt the farmland loss will continue to accelerate.
"Bedford County has been the fastest-growing county west of Interstate 95 for the last 15 years," he said.
While Bedford still has a lot of farmland, the next 10 to 15 years could bring a dramatic change to the rural character of it and other parts of Virginia.
Mr. Baker said more farmers are inquiring about conservation easements that guarantee land will not be developed in exchange for tax breaks, but many are reluctant to give up development rights in perpetuity.The real key, he said, is getting more young people interested in farming.

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