Saving the farmland

Published 10:52 am Saturday, July 10, 2010

FRANKLIN—Officials say the downturn in the economy is helping prevent agricultural land in Southampton and Isle of Wight counties from being developed, a trend that also seems to be occurring at the state level.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announced Thursday that the rate of farmland lost to development appeared to be slowing statewide.

The department cited a report by the Farmland Information Center, which found that Virginia lost 81,500 acres of farmland to development from 1997 to 2002. But the rate of loss slowed over the next five years, from 2002 to 2007, when 60,800 acres were lost.

The report also found that rural land losses to development slowed as well. Between 1997 and 2002, the state lost 274,900 acres of agricultural, forested and rural land to development. But from 2002 to 2007, Virginia lost 206,700 acres of those land types.

VDACS said both figures are based on the 2007 National Resources Inventory, which is compiled by the National Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“On one hand, the recent state-level data from the NRI is heartening because it illustrates that the rate of farmland lost to development in the commonwealth has slowed,” VDACS Commissioner Matthew J. Lohr said in a written statement. “On the other hand, the loss of vital working farm and forest land continues, and we remain concerned about the implications of this loss given the many benefits of our working lands to Virginia.”

Southampton is approximately 385,944 acres in size, while Isle of Wight is about 202,156 acres.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes a census of agriculture every five years. According to data from the most recent census, Southampton had 342 farms totaling 161,650 acres in 2007, an area that comprises about 42 percent of the county. The average size of a Southampton farm was 473 acres.

Meanwhile, Isle of Wight had 195 farms in 2007 totaling 73,461 acres, or about 36 percent of the county. The average size of an Isle of Wight farm was 377 acres.

Both localities lost in total agricultural acreage since 2002. Southampton lost 7,059 acres of farmland, a 4 percent decrease, between 2002 and 2007. Isle of Wight fared worse, losing 13,060 acres, or 15 percent, of its farmland between 2002 and 2007.

“If land is going to be developed, it’s either going to be in the small areas that make up the towns or it will be agricultural land,” Beth Lewis, planning commission secretary for Southampton, said Friday.

Lewis said the rate agricultural land was being lost to development roughly paralleled the rate of new residential construction in the county. For seven of the last 14 years, that rate has hovered in the 40s and 50s, but there was a boom between 2004 and 2007. The rate peaked in 2005 at 164 new housing starts.

“It’s leveled off,” Lewis said. “It’s gone back to what’s more typical than it was during the boom in the real estate market. Today there’s less agricultural land being lost to residential use, and that’s most likely because of the economy.”

Don Robertson, spokesman for neighboring Isle of Wight County, agreed.

“The economy and the slowdown of development and housing are going to have an impact on the amount of farmland that’s being rezoned or taken up for development,” Robertson said. “But I wouldn’t read into that, other than it’s following the same trend as the overall economy. If the economy and housing picks up, you’ll see development occurring in rural areas. The loss of farmland would pick back up again.”