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Virginia bills to help conserve agricultural land amid development pressures will become law

An agricultural field in King William County in April 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)
An agricultural field in King William County in April 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

The effort to preserve Virginia’s agricultural and forested land will get a streamlined process of protection from future development, following legislation that will become a law later this year.

This story was reported and written by our media partner The Virginia Mercury

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the bills from  Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, and  Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, that created the Office of Working Lands Preservation by consolidating state resources for grant easements, legally enforceable mechanisms that prevent development on land in perpetuity.

“Currently there is no one entity solely focused on conservation of workinglands,” Pillion said while presenting the bill in January. “Forestland owners and farmland owners are frequently one in the same, and the resources needed to protect these lands have much overlap.” 

The bill — which moves the easement process from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to exist under the Department of Forestry — was sought by the Virginia Farm Bureau, Virginia Agribusiness Council and Virginia Cattlemen’s Association. It was introduced just before the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest  census report in February showed the number of farms in Virginia shrunk by about 10% from 2017 to 2022, mirroring a national trend.

The farm and forestry industries welcome the measure, solar energy developers say it will heighten the state’s continued challenge of balancing land preservation with clean energy infrastructure creation. 

USDA, farmland preservation reports

The number of farms in Virginia decreased from 43,225 in 2017 to 38,995 in 2022, while Virginia farm acreage decreased from 7.8 million to about 7.3 over that same time period, according to the USDA report.

While some counties like Charles City and King William grew over that time span, the decline in the number of farms in Virginia was spread throughout a vast majority of counties in the state. Among one of the sharpest declines was Rockingham County, which lost about 304 farms.

The number of farms producing certain commodities, such as corn, decreased from 3,117 farms to 2,875. Barley farms decreased from 243 farms to 201.

The agriculture industry is the largest in the state, producing about $82.3 billion in economic activity annually, according to the Virginia Farm Bureau. The top-earning counties in the latest census were Rockingham at $1.2 billion, Augusta at $448 million and Accomack at $326 million. Yet some advocates said a variety of challenges are making it harder for farmers to earn a living and turn a profit.

“Increased regulations, rising supply costs, lack of available labor and weather disasters have all squeezed farmers to the point that many of them find it impossible to remain economically sustainable,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall in a statement.

According to information from the American Farmland Trust that was used in a 2022 Virginia Office of Farmland Preservation  report, the loss of farmland acres has historically been because of conversion to the urban and suburban “creep” into rural areas.

The AFT’s data found the land changed to single family homes or buildings with a low number of units. That land conversion data didn’t include non-residential development, including utility scale solar, “which is a growing industry in Virginia,” the Office of Farmland Preservation report stated.

“Farmers and foresters will continue to face increasing threats as land prices increase and fragmentation expands,” the report stated.

“The statistics that came out of USDA are alarming with the amount of acres lost,” said Martha Moore, vice president of government relations at the Virginia Farm Bureau. “There are many competing uses such as solar facilities that are causing this decline.”

Easing the easement process 

Currently in Virginia, the government can hold conservation easements for forested and agricultural land under the Open Space Lands Act.

The government’s easements for farmland had been overseen by the Office of Farmland Preservation, under the VDACS. With the bills’ codification into law, that office will now move to the renamed Office of Working Lands Preservation under the Department of Forestry, to oversee easements for both forestland and farmland.

The previous Office of Farmland Preservation process would obtain easements through a purchase of development rights, or PDR,which involved the government paying farmers who voluntarily placed an easement on their property. 

The development rights funds came from the state, but required a matching amount from localities; that meant that typically, only the more affluent jurisdictions, like Faquier and Albermale counties, would participate. The dollar amount needed to purchase the easement would be the difference between the property’s assessed value prior to development and after development, if it were to exist.

That PDR program will remain but is being transferred to the new Office of Workinglands under the Department of Forestry to join its existing donated easements process, which worked by compensating landowners for the easement in the form of a tax credit. That process will now be extended to farmland owners.

“The beauty of this is it is entirely voluntary,” State Forester Rob Farrell said. The standing easement process has existed for about 20 years under the Department of Forestry, which is gearing up to celebrate its 100,000th acre of Virginia land that has been protected from development. “Virginia has a strong landowner rights ethos. This will enable private landowners who want to stay in forestry and farming, with a very light hand from the government.” 

In addition to the Department of Forestry’s online mapping capabilities, it has four people on staff devoted to its easements program that will now fall under the office, which will be joined by the one staff member at VDACS. The forthcoming Office of Working Lands will  assist farmers by connecting them to programs to improve water quality, oversee a Century Farm Program that recognizes farms that have existed for a hundred years and a Farm Link program that connects retirement-bound farmers with prospective farmers, similar to “a dating app for farmers,” Moore said.

It’s not that VDACS was doing a bad job, the Virginia Farm Bureau’s Moore said, rather, the new office creates synergies by having “all of these options in one place.” 

Balancing interests

The new office comes amid the continuing debate about developing farm and forested land for solar, which may provide more lucrative benefits than farming and forestland operations. 

According to solar professionals, leasing land for solar projects can go for about $800 to $1,800 per acre, depending on how suitable the piece of property is. Conversely, a soybean farmer may get a return of $40 per acre, while a forested landowner may get about $2,200 per leased acre at the end of a 25-year period, after incurring costs up to that point.

“If we don’t have viable working lands in the future, who’s going to produce our food? Where are we going to get the timber we need to support our forestry industry in the state?” Moore asked in an interview with the Mercury. “As we look at these conservation goals, there’s not one single entity looking at working lands.”

Modern Virginia farmers’ experiences demonstrate the need for the concerted statewide easement and conservation effort.  A farmer has to maintain enough land within a county, spread out over 10 or 15 different parcels, to make their agricultural operations sustainable, explained Cliff Williamson, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council. 

“You need 12,000 acres,” to be economically sustainable, Williamson said. “Not 120.”

The financial strain of farming also includes the cost of equipment, which can sometimes be as much as $250,000, he added.

Huge swaths of land are needed for larger utility-scale solar development, said Tony Smith, president and founder of Secure Solar Futures and chair and co-founder of the Virginia Distributed Solar Alliance. Smith characterized the change in the land easement process under the future Office of Working Lands as part of “a huge wicked problem” that may make it harder for solar developers to install clean energy solutions statewide.

Working lands do need to be preserved, Smith said, while pointing to “win-win” opportunities — like having sheep graze under solar panels and installing pollinator species under panels  — to promote both interests. His company prioritizes rooftop solar installation instead of utility scale solar on the ground, he said, despite the latter being more economically viable, in an effort to not take up land.

“Ideally we’d have a more balanced and holistic approach in which parties recognize the validity of different points of view,” said Smith. “We just need to get more creative. Roll up your shirt sleeves, spend some time working.”

Moore struck a similar tone in wanting to have people understand competing interests.

“We’re not trying to take away what people want to do with their property,” Moore said. “All of these issues come down to, we only have so much land. We need to have balance.”

House Bill 206 from the 2022 legislative session created a 91-member workgroup that advised the Department of Environmental Quality on regulations for developing solar on prime agricultural and forested land. The group, which discussed easements as a way to prevent development on those coveted lands, was unable to reach consensus.