Rays of hope for Loudoun County (Editorial)
We were pleased to learn in Virginia last week about Loudoun County’s efforts to preserve, to the extent possible, agriculture’s future in that increasingly busy corner of the Washington metro area.
For several decades, residential and commercial growth has incrementally swallowed farmland and prime agricultural soils as the need for affordable housing in the region grows and corporations, lured by juicy tax breaks and greater proximity to their workers, move to the suburbs.
It was also encouraging to hear that a vote last month by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors to tighten development restrictions of those soils found common support among residents of the county’s denser eastern half.
Decades of fealty to voracious developers, it seems, is moving homeowners in a new direction.
“People are done with seeing houses out here. They’re done,” Robin Bartok, legislative aide to county Supervisor Tony Buffington, told the Delmarva Farmer.
We hope that’s good news for farmers. In Loudoun, they could use it.
About 67 square miles of farmland disappeared from the county’s rural western half between 2002 — when its population was 170,000 — and 2017. That population has more than doubled since, and the number of farms — 1,500 two decades ago — has fallen by 10 percent. Agriculture there, as in many places across the Delmarva region, has been steadily disappearing — and Loudoun’s agrarian roots run deep. When the U.S. government leaned on farmers to help feed allied forces during World War I, Loudoun County producers were among the first to embrace new technologies and methods developed at Virginia Tech that helped improve yields and boost production.
Bright spots exist today as well. The county still has a robust community of produce and livestock farms, wineries and other agritourism operations that have flourished along with the local food movement.
The coronavirus has also been a boon for some of those farms, which quickly stepped in to fill holes caused by the nationwide disruption of our food supply chain. Agritourism, Bartok said, remains a critical piece of the county’s rural economy, a piece that would disintegrate if Loudoun continues to grow as blithely as it has.
If things don’t change, support services for farmers will deteriorate well before many of the remaining farms do. County Farm Bureau President Chris Van Vlack told the Delmarva Farmer it’s already difficult to find someone to spread lime. It’s harder to rent equipment and buy fertilizer. With the county’s population expected to reach nearly 458,000 by 2040, those problems, without some kind of intervention, could worsen considerably.
It remains unclear what these new development restrictions in Loudoun will look like. The board of supervisors is waiting on county staff for a recommendation it will consider later this month, but officials said it will likely require developers to preserve a significant percentage of prime agricultural soils in every new residential development.
It would be a good start. More than 72,000 acres of the county are under conservation easements, so agriculture is unlikely to disappear entirely from Loudoun.
But if it seeks to meaningfully preserve its current culture — never mind agriculture — against the powerful forces of development, more will be required.
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