WINCHESTER, Va. — It’s the economy.
That was the word from nearly every speaker at the 10th annual Forum for Rural Innovation held March 14 in Winchester.
The meeting focused on the inevitable co-dependencies linking farming and all levels of government and education, if agriculture can survive in the face of development pressures and rise to the challenge of feeding a world population nearing 9 billion.
Kellie Boles, agriculture development officer in Loudoun County’s Department of Economic Development, led the day off with an overview of her team’s successful efforts to establish a rural economic business development strategy in one of the fastest growing counties in the country. The path to success (so far) in Loudoun might assist other jurisdictions trying to do something similar, Boles said.
It all started in 2000 when a core group of farmers and rural entrepreneurs persuaded the county supervisors to create the Rural Economic Development Council. In April 2011, the supervisors authorized the Rural Economic Business Development Strategy Council.
At that time, Boles said, both the chairman and vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors told her “not to waste any time making your case. We already know that.”
Fast forward to 2014. All the supervisors are facing re-election. The supportive vice chairman is gone. And one of the sitting supervisors has commented: “What happens in the rural jurisdiction just happens. It has nothing to do with economic development.”
Boles said she was “devastated. Here we are in the middle of this and we have to go back and prove our case.”
They turned to the economy to make the case: 1,427 farms on just under 143,000 acres in the county’s Rural Policy Area bank $33 million a year — $19 million from crop sales.
The New Cost of Services Subcommittee of the Rural Economic Business Development Strategy group gathered the cost-benefit figures for the elected decision makers: For every dollar a commercial entity in Loudoun County pays in taxes, it takes back 38 cents in services. For every dollar in taxes farmland and open space pay in taxes, they get back 75 cents in services. For every dollar in taxes a residence pays, the county forks over $1.62 in services.
“These numbers were very powerful to the Board of Supervisors,” Boles said. “Our supervisors are very business friendly. My advice for any jurisdiction making your case: Do it with numbers. It’s about economic development.”
Look to other jurisdictions that have risen to these challenges, Boles said. Her group toured the New York Wine and Culinary Center in the Finger lakes. They liked it a lot, but decided it was too costly for Loudoun at this time.
Then they visited the Cornell Technology Farm, a small business and manufacturing incubator. It was an idea they liked, and plans are afoot to establish a Loudoun agricultural and business accelerator, where entrepreneurs can network.
The accelerator will focus on leading-edge business development in food, wine, biotechnology, manufacturing and related fields, Boles said.
Other plans hatched by the strategy committee include a redesign and enhancement of the loudounfarms.org website, developing a multi-use trail system, creating marketing programs to bring the rural west and suburban east together, developing a rural business awareness brand, and getting a consolidated year-round farmers market into business.
“Always stress economic development,” Boles said.
A panel of planning and zoning professionals from four counties followed.
Pat Giglio of Loudoun County’s planning department, said: “It is sound fiscal policy to have a thriving rural economy.”
In 2001, the county adopted its current comprehensive plan that attempts to rein in residential growth in the 228,000-acre Rural Policy Area. Out there, he said, about 142,000 acres are in farming, which accounts for 60 percent of the land area. The area also includes six of the county’s seven incorporated towns and nearly all of its tourist attractions.
Clarke County is also attempting to channel residential growth to existing towns and to “preserve farmland in large tracts,” said Brandon Stidham, director of planning. Stidham said the county has turned to sliding-scale zoning, where each tract is assigned a certain number of “dwelling unit rights.” The larger the parcel, the lower the density of dwelling unit rights.
A 10-acre parcel, for instance, has four dwelling unit rights. A 500-acre parcel has 11 dwelling unit rights. A 1,000-acre parcel has 14.
In 1980, when this plan was adopted, Stidham said there were 6,500 dwelling unit rights in the plan for Clarke County. To date, 3,700 have been used.
“The plan discourages rezoning for higher density,” he said.
In addition, the county adopted an aggressive approach to putting farmland under conservation easements, and thus far, 23,000 acres are in permanent easement. The county also uses “purchase of development rights,” where they pay landowners for their development rights. The landowner then gets an added financial boost from state and federal tax benefits.
Coming next, Stidham said, is an Economic Development Strategic Plan that emphasizes agriculture, agricultural businesses and tourism, and streamlined permitting for rural businesses.
Fauquier County has also turned to sliding-scale zoning, said Chuck Floyd of the county’s planning department.
In 1967, the county set up a plan to direct growth into areas, dubbed service districts, that can support the growth — incorporated towns with water, sewer, school and transportation infrastructure — and major transportation corridors. All else was to be rural.
Unfortunately, the county didn’t change the zoning that allowed one dwelling unit on every five acres in the rural area.
“We were getting suburbanization of the rural,” Floyd said.
Today’s zoning ordinance uses sliding-scale zoning to determine what is allowed in the rural areas. The county has designated nine service districts and as of the last census, 80 percent of the county’s growth has occurred those districts.
“In 1967, we predicted the county population in 1980 would be 76,000,” Floyd said. “We’re at 65,000 residents now, surrounded by the fastest growing subdivisions in the area.”
Daniel Robison, dean and professor at West Virginia University’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, addressed issues of research and education planning for agriculture.
Carl Antolini, spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, hailed “the $6 billion opportunity.” West Virginia, he said, imports and eats $7.3 billion worth of food each year. But it only produces $635 million in food.
Antolini said state Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick is working with Sysco Foods to get the company to buy high-quality West Virginia potatoes rather than 10 tractor-trailer loads a week from Idaho.
“We are going to connect farms with buyers to feed West Virginians,” Antolini said.
Kim Niewolny sketched in the basics of the Virginia Tech Extension-based Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Coalition. New and expanding farms, she said, need access to land, credit, markets, education and networking. She said the coalition, with the help of USDA funding and the support of a long list of local partner organizations, is making that happen.
The annual Forum For Rural Innovation is a cooperative educational effort led by the offices of agricultural economic development and Cooperative Extension in Clarke, Fauquier and Loudoun counties in Virginia; Berkeley and Jefferson counties in West Virginia; the Town of Berryville; and the Small Business Development Center of the Eastern Panhandle.
Every year for the last 10 years, the forum has showcased innovative ideas, projects and programs to enhance farm profitability in northwestern Virginia and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. The focus this year was how individual farms, communities, land-grant institutions and state departments of agriculture are planning for agriculture and how agriculture is becoming the most promising market for drones.