Editorial

Guest Editorial: Protecting the Family Farm

by Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner, Virginia Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services

 

Matthew Lohr

It’s a common issue in Virginia and just about every other state: what to do to protect your farm from development or any other situation that would take it out of production. Sometimes this occurs because a farmer gets an offer he or she simply can’t refuse. Certainly no one would deny any farmer the right to make a nice profit, especially if it’s just before retirement. (Not that farmers ever really retire.)

All too often, however, the life-changing event comes from a transition issue, not a monetary offer. What does a farmer do when the kids are grown and settled nicely into non-farm life, especially if the “kids” currently running the farm are 65 or 70 years old and the farm owner is 90-plus?

Here in Virginia, agriculture is the very heart of our economy and has been for 400-plus years. It remains our largest industry — by far — and few would argue that well-managed farm- and forestlands produce significant environmental benefits, require little or no public services and make significant contributions to local economies, tourism, recreation, and our quality of life.

Even fewer people would dispute the fact that it is difficult to keep working farmland in production. The most recent information from the National Resources Inventory (NRI) indicates that, between 2002 and 2007, Virginia lost 60,800 acres of agricultural land directly to developed uses. Separate data from the Census of Agriculture indicate that more than 520,000 acres of land were no longer considered as working farms during that same 2002-2007 period. Because rural landowners have much of their equity tied up in their land, they generally have to choose between selling their land for as much as possible, or holding onto the land for agricultural uses without the benefit of income from a farm sale.

The good news, though, is that a third alternative is available: conservation easements.  

A conservation easement is a voluntary perpetual agreement that restricts non-agricultural uses such as mining and large-scale residential and commercial development. The landowner continues to own, live on and use the land. Land under easement may be sold or passed on to heirs but is bound by the easement restrictions. As an added bonus, there are generous state tax credits and federal tax deductions available for landowners who make these easement donations. 

As Virginia commissioner of agriculture, I became involved more than two years ago in a project designed to increase the amount of working farm- and forestland permanently protected from development. While recent data from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation indicate that 66 percent of the 75,025 acres that received land-preservation tax credits in 2011 was in production agriculture or active forestry, I felt that additional work was needed. So we pulled together a diverse group of agricultural and conservation representatives to work with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), the largest conservation easement holder in Virginia.

Our goals were simple: to develop a conservation easement tailored to working farms to increase the number of landowners who take advantage of conservation easements and the tax benefits that may result. Because of this collaborative effort, VOF now offers a new working lands variant to its existing conservation easement. This provides a wider range of allowable uses without approval on a given farm; gives farmers more leeway in building new farm structures; and still maintains its core function of keeping the farm free from development.

Considering whether a conservation easement is right for your family and your farm is a big decision. It is something my family and I are considering right now for our farm in Rockingham County. I do understand that a conservation easement is not always the best option for everyone, but regardless of how this decision plays out for my family, I feel strongly that the donation of a conservation easement warrants serious consideration by other working farm and forest landowners in Virginia. If we can help farm owners make that decision, we are ready and eager to do so.

I strongly encourage Virginia farm owners interested in permanently protecting their land to contact our Office of Farmland Preservation (OFP). Our OFP coordinator, Kevin Schmidt, is available to answer questions and to provide additional information. You may call him at (804) 786-1346, or email him at kevin.schmidt@vdacs.virginia.gov.

 

Matt Lohr serves as Virginia’s 14th Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell on May 1, 2010. He and his family operate Valley Pike Farm, a 250-acre commercial poultry, beef, crops, and agri-tourism operation served by Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative.

 

 

 

 

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