Rappahannock has been my home base for more than 25 years and everyone can agree that it is a beautiful place to live. But open land without a program for growth and economic development is like a razor without a blade.
Although I am not a farmer, I am a big supporter of the “Farm to Table” movement and I even invested in a magazine on that subject. So, when I bought my little piece of heaven, I put as much of my property as possible in land use, not only for the tax benefit, but because I wanted to promote small farming. In that regard and aside from making hay, I have explored a number of farming options with young farmers in the area and who need to lease land at sufficient scale to make a decent living.
In the last several years, I have encountered increasing obstacles toward keeping my land in farm use and young farmers are experiencing even greater challenges today than me. People who have small tracts of land like me (i.e. under 50 acres) are finding it increasingly difficult to find farmers who will cut hay, unless the property owner spends $5,000 a year on lime and fertilizer. This means that the farmer gets all of the benefits and the property owners receive no benefit.
In trying to work through this issue, I was surprised to find that the commissioner of the revenue’s office was a much bigger obstacle. After all, they run the program and set the tone for the land use program in the county. Through several recent meetings at their office, I got the distinct impression that the commissioner’s staff would prefer that landowners with smaller parcels (in land use) would drop out, improving the bottom line for the county. How many properties are in land use that are under 50 acres?
I came to that conclusion because I suggested a qualified resource list to aid me in finding a farmer(s) to cut hay or run livestock this year. No can do. I suggested that they email everyone in the land use program at the beginning of the year, to remind and update us on land use program rules, changes and the many exceptions for which we may qualify (i.e. drought, wetland, etc.) No can do — they don’t use email! I suggested a newsletter, so that all of the land use participants can feel that they are a part of something important in this community. No can do.
Two years ago, I had a farmer who took acres out of my land use program without my knowledge or consent and the county did not offer to help me find another person to cut those acres. Instead, they rolled back those acres, costing me thousands of dollars. There was time to rectify this situation, but . . . no can do.
I don’t have it as bad as young farmers. They are leasing land in the county and are unable to borrow working capital from our local bank or Farm Credit, because they don’t own the land that is required as collateral for working capital. I am working on a possible loan guarantee program for young farmers that would combine a new lease structure and insurance that would protect the landowners. Farming is a scale business and these farmers need a minimum of several thousand acres to make a decent living. I’m willing to lease my land to keep the land open for these admirable young people and a vibrant land use program also enables the county to promote ecotourism and a variety of new types of guest housing arrangements and events — all big revenue generators for the county.
Land use for farming is too important to leave to paid and elected functionaries who are not actively and enthusiastically managing the county’s farm use program. I think we need a real change of personnel — especially the elected ones, as the current tone is negative, punitive and, as I was told, “we don’t get paid much to run the land use program.”
I don’t plan on leaving, although that too was suggested by a staff person in the commissioner of the revenue office. I hope the county voters clean house in the November election. Our land use program and the taxpayers deserve no less.