In the wake of news that 10 percent of Loudoun’s farmland—about 20 square miles—disappeared over the past five years, some of the county’s young farmers gathered the historic barn at Georges Mill Farm on Wednesday to talk about ongoing work on the county comprehensive plan.
Led by Lovettsville Farmers Club President John Adams and Loudoun County Farm Bureau President Chris Van Vlack, the farmers gathered in farmer Sam Kroiz’s barn to talk about the importance of decisions being made now to their way of life—and the importance of their work to the county at large.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture found Loudoun’s farmland is disappearing at a rising pace. And Loudoun may be at a tipping point for farmland. If there isn’t enough farmland to support the businesses that support farmers, Van Vlack said, those businesses will go away—and then the farmers who remain won’t be able to get the services and products they need to keep farming.
Van Vlack said he is already seeing those businesses leaving, and is having a harder time finding some of the things he needs to keep his own small farm going.
“If we can keep western Loudoun in a sustainable agriculture basis, that contributes to a regional infrastructure that will continue to support you down the road,” Adams said to the gathered farmers. “But if you have the equipment people leave you—if you have the large animal practice veterinarians, for example, leave you—that really hurts, and it will drive many people out of business in the long run.”
When one attendee asked how much acreage the county needs to sustain its farms, Van Vlack pointed to a 1998 proposal, “The 200,000-Acre Solution, A Rural Economic Development Plan” by the county’s Rural Task Force. That plan, adopted by the county, set out to double the value of Loudoun’s rural economy, in part by preserving at least 200,000 acres of farmland, seen at the time as a critical mass of acreage for agriculture. Van Vlack pointed out the U.S. Department of Agriculture found Loudoun in 2017 had only 121,932 acres of farmland.
“It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but we’re getting close to that number,” Van Vlack said.
The Planning Commission’s draft of the new comprehensive plan has been stripped of open space and agricultural land conservation programs, including a Purchase of Development Rights program in the county’s current plan.
Van Vlack said if the farms are replaced by houses, the county taxpayer will be on the hook for the roads, schools, deputies, and other services the county will have to provide.
“So even if we spend a little money up front to not have those homes go in, the taxpayer in all of Loudoun still comes out ahead,” Van Vlack said.
And he doesn’t buy the claim that allowing more development will help Loudoun’s problems with housing costs.
“The argument that we’re going to build density doesn’t hold water here, because it’s the same argument that’s been made to every board, and we continue to have expensive houses,” Van Vlack said.
He and other farmers are pushing to put something concrete in the new comprehensive plan to stem the loss of farmland. As Adams pointed out, farmland lost is lost forever.
“Once you put a house on prime, best soil, it’s never going to come back, and that’s what’s happening in this county,” Adams said. “Where are they putting the houses? They’re putting it on the best soil, because it’s well drained.”
Adams and Van Vlack encouraged other farms to speak to the Board of Supervisors at two upcoming public hearings on the comprehensive plan. They pointed out at those public hearings, farmers will likely face a coordinated push from development and Realtor interests. They referenced a recent Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce event on housing.
“A lot of those folks speaking there are being paid to be there,” Van Vlack said. “They’re being paid by the builders, they’re being paid by the Realtors, and that’s fine—those are those people’s jobs. But there’s plenty of areas for those people to operate in. This is the only area we have to operate in, and if you take away the land, we don’t have a job anymore.”
Adams said even Loudoun’s two western supervisors don’t seem to fully grasp the situation—that Loudoun’s farmer’s markets, farm-to-table restaurants, equine industry, vistas, farm breweries and wineries rely on the farm economy.
“I come away with the feeling that they really don’t get it,” Adams said. “They really don’t understand that the basis of what they’re trying to do relies on agriculture. It relies on open space. It relies on people farming. Who wants to come out here to a brewery and look at townhouses?”
And he encouraged the young farmers at the meeting to organize.
“You need to come together and form some sort of organization so we can have meetings like this, and understand what the issues are so we can develop the strategy we need to address it,” Adams said. “If we just keep going our separate ways, it’s not going to work.”
Two of the farmers attending are also candidates for the Board of Supervisors: host Sam Kroiz, who is running an independent campaign for the Catoctin District seat, and Democratic candidate for the Blue Ridge District seat Tia Walbridge.
The Board of Supervisors will host public hearings on the new comprehensive plan Wednesday, April 24 at 6 p.m. at the county government center in Leesburg, and Saturday, April 27 at 9 a.m. at the Loudoun County Public Schools Administration Building, 21000 Education Court in Broadlands.