The Loudoun Board of Supervisors agreed unanimously yesterday to consider several ways to help preserve traditional farming in the county.
Supervisors received five recommendations from the Rural Economic Development Task Force and passed them on to the board's Finance Committee.
The measures include: hiring county staff members to help coordinate marketing and public relations efforts for commodity crops; starting a one-time program to subsidize farmers who are losing money in such commodity crops as corn, wheat, soybeans, hay and cattle; helping farmers to lower the cost of their liability coverage; supporting legislative changes that would exempt a traditional farmer from paying taxes on his home; and reducing developers' fees for grading permits if they used Loudoun-produced straw and mulch as ground cover.
As yet, however, there are no specifics on how much such programs would cost or how they would be implemented. County staff members said there is no policy precedent for providing county disaster relief to individuals or businesses.
"I don't think this county can cut a check big enough to keep traditional farming sustainable," said Supervisor Helen A. Marcum (R-Catoctin), herself a farmer. "But these incentives will be helpful."
Marcum pushed for the board's support for the task force recommendations, citing an even more critical need in the wake of the summer drought.
In an extensive report last year on the county's rural economy, the task force included a 26-page plan for slowing the conversion of Loudoun's 200,000 acres of rural land to residential housing by promoting profitable economic development that would preserve open space.
But Marcum and some county farmers said the initial report did not address the needs of traditional farmers sufficiently. The task force then appointed an ad-hoc committee, which made the five recommendations received yesterday.
The initial report "bypassed the traditional farmer," Marcum said. Some farmers said more measures are needed to help family farmers keep their land and to promote traditional agriculture and not just niche farming, such as emus and llamas.
"Traditional agriculture is the best way of preserving the open land space in the county," said Jack Merritt Jr., a Lovettsville farmer who served on the task force. "If they'd infuse money into the agricultural economy through traditional agriculture, they'd maintain the landscapes we now enjoy and it would reduce the need for schools and libraries"--services that are typically associated with residential development that often costs more than it produces in taxes.
At yesterday's meeting, farming experts said local producers are suffering from low commodity prices and the drought. Because of the drought, county farmers will have a $20 million loss of production this year, said Gary Hornbaker, director of the Loudoun County Extension Office.
Hornbaker estimated that for each acre, farmers will lose $113 on soybeans, $146 on corn and $67 on hay. He said cattle farmers' losses would amount to about $43 a head.
"The biggest factor hitting farmers is that due to a lack of pasture, their feed costs have doubled and they're having to use winter reserves," Hornbaker said.
With dropping commodity prices--wheat, for example, hit one of its all-time lows, at $2.30 a bushel this year--it is becoming increasingly harder for farmers to stay in business.
"It's causing them to use equity and savings they've accumulated, and eventually they have to sell off parts of their land," said Chris Hatch, a cattle and sheep farmer who is on the task force.
Marcum gave the board and staff several drafts of programs developed by St. Mary's and Montgomery counties in Maryland to help drought-stricken farmers. If it can be done there, she said, Loudoun should find a way to do it, too.