The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announced earlier this month that loss of farmland to development appears to be slowing in the Commonwealth.

Virginia lost 81,500 acres of agricultural land directly to developed uses between 1997 and 2002 but lost 25 percent less — 60,800 acres — between 2002 and 2007.

A similar trend occurred with regard to other rural lands as well. Virginia lost 274,900 acres of agricultural land, forestland and other rural land directly to developed uses between 1997 and 2002 but lost 25 percent less — 206,700 acres — between 2002 and 2007.

(For a look at some national figures on farmland and erosion losses click here.)

That’s according to findings of the U.S. Depart-ment of Agriculture’s 2007 National Resources Inventory, released in late April.

"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," said Matthew J. Lohr, Virginia’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer services. "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."

Farming and forestry combined remain Virginia’s No. 1 industry, accounting for a total economic impact of $79 billion in 2006, and every job created in the states’ agriculture- and forestry-related industries results in another 1.5 jobs in other sectors.

Farm and forest land also have a positive impact on the fiscal health of individual Virginia localities. Numerous studies have found that farm and forest lands generate more in taxes than they require in pubic services.

Since opening in 2007, Virginia’s Office of Farmland Preservation has worked to establish local purchase of development rights programs that protect working farm and forest land by paying landowners for permanently preserving their land with a conservation easement. Twenty-one localities have established such programs, and since February 2008 the OFP has allocated 
$5.15 million in state matching funds to 16 of those local PDR programs. To date, $4.2 million of those funds has been used by 11 localities to help protect 3,652 acres of working farm and forest land.

"Riparian corridors, wildlife habitat and historic resources are all important conservation goals," noted OFP Coordinator Kevin Schmidt, "but when you’re talking about working farmland, you’re talking about an act of economic activity and opportunity going on on that property."