Virginia Farmland

Nancy Richardson doesn’t have to peer deep into the future to understand the importance of protecting her Northampton County farmland from development.

She only needs to look out her kitchen window.

“It’s beautiful here, and I love it,” says Richardson, who owns the nearly 300-acre Mill Creek Farm near Cape Charles. “We look out on Mill Creek and Magothy Bay, and I have a view from my kitchen of Mockhorn Island, which is one of the barrier islands that protects the peninsula. I lovingly call it mine.”

Richardson’s family has owned Mill Creek Farm since her late husband’s parents bought the property in 1945. After she and her husband married, they moved into the farm’s Civil War-era home in 1958. Richardson’s husband passed away in 1992, but she still lives in the home, and her son, Bruce Richardson, manages the farm.

To preserve it, Richardson worked with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and Land Trust of Virginia to enter her property in a conservation easement, thus preventing it from ever being sold to developers.

“This was a wonderful opportunity to preserve our farmland,” Richardson says. “It was a win-win situation for our family.”

State’s Top Industry

Preserving farms like Richardson’s is of utmost importance to Kevin Schmidt, coordinator for the Office of Farmland Preservation in the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“The loss of farms is definitely a growing concern,” says Schmidt, whose office uses several programs and tools to help farm owners understand the importance of farmland preservation. “It’s hard to get a handle on the numbers and the acres (of farms being lost), but more and more, we’re having concerns with land not staying as agricultural use.”

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Agriculture has a rich history in Virginia, dating back some 400 years to when the Jamestown settlers first planted crops. Schmidt points to a report that shows the state’s agriculture industry accounts for more than 500,000 jobs and more than 10 percent of employment. Every job created in agriculture or forestry results in another one-and-a-half jobs.

“The economic contribution of agriculture in Virginia is pretty extensive,” Schmidt says. “It’s still the No. 1 industry here.”

Among reasons cited for the loss of working farm and forest land is the fact that farmers are getting older. A 2007 Census of Agriculture shows the average age of Virginia farmers is just over 58 years, and many of those are retiring without a family member to take over the farm.

Farmland Preservation

To help offset that trend, the Office of Farmland Preservation uses a program known as the Virginia Farm Link. It’s designed to help established farmers, as well as beginners, find opportunities for better production.

The OFP also introduced a new initiative in the summer of 2012 known as the Certified Farm Seeker program, which provides individuals seeking farming opportunities with tools to possibly find and purchase farmland.

“This program gets to the scenario where someone would like to get into agriculture, but doesn’t have the family farm, or they’d like to expand their agriculture operation, and is trying to figure out where that land base is going to come from,” Schmidt says. “It’s a really interesting concept, and I’m excited to see what happens. But it’s a young program and could take a while.”

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In addition, Schmidt’s office maintains the Century Farm program, which recognizes farms in Virginia that have been in operation for at least 100 consecutive years. The program lists more than 1,200 farms.

“The further we go on in time, the less you’re going to see the multigenerational farms of 100-plus years,” Schmidt says. “But when they come in to get on the list, it’s always neat to see the kind of background information they provide and to hear about their farms.”

Future Generations

Even though Richardson’s Mill Creek Farm doesn’t qualify for the Century Farm list, it’s still a classic representation of the Virginia farming legacy. Crops grown on the 136 acres of cleared farmland include soybeans, corn, wheat and white potatoes, among others. There are 100 acres of forest and 50 acres of marsh.

“I think it’s extremely important to protect and preserve our farmland, not only for the people but also the animals, and wildlife and waterways,” Richardson says. “I have three grandsons and a granddaughter, and they all love to fish and hunt, and it pleases me that they’ll always be able to do that and their children will as well.”

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