By Sally Voth
EDINBURG - Dairy farmer and entrepreneur Ken Smith gets a little overcome when he talks about preserving his family's agricultural tradition.
"I'm a fourth-generation dairy farmer, and I'm very proud of that," he said Wednesday during a farm-to-table dinner and workshop hosted by Shenandoah Forum at the Edinburg Mill. "I get real emotional when I say it. Those are things I can't translate in words, but I can express to you an emotion."
Smith was one of several speakers at the forum discussing the importance of farmland preservation programs such as conservation easements and purchase of development rights.
At his Remington farm, Smith said he has several signs, including one designating him as a conservation farmer of the year. But, he brought with him the most important sign -- the one saying "This farmland is permanently protected through Fauquier County's PDR program."
"[This sign] tells what I'm going to do for the rest of my life," Smith said. "You can't script how you feel about your land. You can't script what you expect the next generations to do with your future or their future or anything else, but what you can do is lay guidelines."
He said he went to his county government as soon as he learned about the PDR program.
"I thought it was a good way to get some cash to make sure that everybody else was happy, so that the girls could buy a lot," said Smith, the father of four daughters and one son. "With our PDR money, we retired debt, and we had an idea."
That idea was a dairy barn, Moo Thru. Moo Thru ice cream, made from the family's cows, was among the local food served at Wednesday's dinner.
"What I really wanted to accomplish was create a community gathering point, create a good place to have ice cream because I love ice cream. I will be the first one to say I eat ice cream daily."
Moo Thru has been open three years, and employs around 30 young people in the summer. It adds about $250,000 to the local payroll, Smith said.
"There's 28 or 30 kids spending [locally] every dollar they can get their hands on," he said.
Nearly a half-million Virginians work in farming and forestry, said Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Matt Lohr. Last year, the state had more than $2.6 billion in agricultural exports.
"So, agriculture is important," Lohr said. "It's big business. I get very excited when I think about the future of agriculture and where we're going.
"More and more folks want to connect with where their food comes from. There's an enormous amount of growth and potential that we have yet to experience as we go forward."
Lohr, himself a fifth-generation farmer, said when farmers put their land into a conservation easement, they're giving up the right for it to be developed in exchange for tax credits.
"It's permanent," he said. "It stays with the property no matter how many different hands take ownership of it."
In the case of a PDR, a farmer receives cash rather than a tax credit.
Those give farmers another option, said Mike Kane, Loudoun County and Northern Fauquier County conservation officer with the Piedmont Environmental Council. That was an option his mother didn't have when it came to the family farm in Minnesota, he said.
Money from a PDR could go toward needs such as retirement, college costs or farm business expansion, Kane said.
"That really just opens up a whole new universe for a lot of our traditional farm families," he said. "It gives you an opportunity to protect the land that you love."
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org