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Posted May 2, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Seth Coffman: Local land conservation fosters economic development

View imageBy Seth Coffman

In the world of economic development, it's well established that the best investments are those supporting a community's existing enterprises. For Detroit, that means the auto industry and for Las Vegas it's casinos.

For Shenandoah County, currently Virginia's fifth largest farm and forest products producer, that means investing in agriculture -- by ensuring our existing farms thrive and are passed on to the next generation, diversifying our agricultural sector, encouraging new farms and farm families, helping our producers reach additional markets.

On April 10, more than 90y people attended Shenandoah Forum's Farm-to-Table dinner on the local benefits of land protection. The key takeaway from the night: investing in the county's farmland protection program is a necessary and effective investment in local economic development.

Matt Lohr, a fifth generation farmer and Virginia Agricultural commissioner, drew a clear parallel between local land conservation programs and a successful agricultural industry.

"The more steps we take today to protect the land for agriculture, the better off the industry and our society will be," Lohr said.

Mike Kane, formerly an economic development professional who is working as a conservation officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council, used an example of his own family's centry farm when he told the story of how his mother and her sisters had to choose between two options: continue farming with no capital for children's college and farm improvements or to sell the land for development.

"Easements give farmers an opportunity to invest in the future of agriculture in their communities," Kane said. "Today there is a third way to unlock the value of land for retirement, college, investment while keeping the family farm and the business it supports intact."

Nobody represents this better than Ken Smith, a fourth generation dairy farmer. He told the crowd he was first in line when his county announced their land protection program.

"It was an important thing I had to do for the next generation." He sold an easement on the 520-acre Cool Long Farm to the county, and used the funds to retire debt, make gifts to his children, and develop an idea he and his wife had for a community gathering place. That idea become the Moo-Thru Dairy Barn (www.moothru.com) in Remington -- just voted No. 1 ice cream in Northern Virginia by NoVa Magazine. Smith told the crowd that Moo-Thru employs up to 30 young people every summer and generates a quarter million dollar payroll with funds spent locally.

George Ohstrom, chair of Clarke Planning Commission and chair of the Clarke Easement Authority, told the audience that a solid land protection program is critical to fiscal responsibility in local government. It also protects prime soils, farmland and our natural resources. In 10 years, Clarke County has purchased 79 easements protecting 4,860 acres, which translates into 162 potential housing lots retired. Each housing lot retired saves the county $7,000 a year in local services -- roads, sewer and water, schools, emergency services -- or $1.13 million total each year.

Those stories from the evening's speakers made it clear that the investment our county has made in a conservation easement program is not only an investment in our farming heritage but also an investment in local economic development. It is an investment in maintaining current jobs, diversifying farm operations, and creating new jobs. These investments also have the essential benefit of preserving family farms in the county and the rural setting they create.

Future modest contributions from the county to leverage greater state and federal funds will be needed to maintain the momentum built by the Farm-to-Table series and the good work the Conservation Easement Authority has done to jump start land protection in our county and invest in our farming future.

On the web, visit www.ShenandoahForum.org for materials from the April 10 Farm-to-Table dinner.

Coffman is chairman of the Shenandoah Forum, a non-profit group that encourages active and informed participation by county residents on important community issues. Visit the Forum at www.ShenandoahForum.org.

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