Saving the land

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Ken Smith had long known that he was sitting on a potential gold mine. With 520 acres just outside of Warrenton, the dairy farmer could have sold his land to developers and retired with millions in the bank.

Instead, Smith is permanently protecting his farm from development, putting all of the land into conservation easement under the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program in Fauquier County. The move, which netted him a cash payout and years of state tax credits and federal tax deductions, ensures that his farm will remain as productive farmland or open space in perpetuity.

“I feel like I’ve created an ancestral legacy not just for my family but for the community,” says Smith. “Every time people turn the corner and go past my farm, they’ll see green pastures and cattle grazing and open views. I feel like that’s a real gift for future generations.”

With Virginia losing an estimated 23,000 acres of farmland each year to development, state leaders are pushing new programs that make it beneficial for landowners to hang on to their land and keep it productive. Two of these programs are aimed directly at farmers: the PDR program and FarmLink, a Web-based database that tries to match up farmers that want to sell with buyers that want to farm.

Ray Pickering, director of agriculture development for Fauquier County, says that his county has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people that want to protect their land from a potential future as a suburb. “Farms are small businesses, and in many cases, taking this step fits quite nicely into their business plans,” Pickering says, explaining that the cash payouts and tax benefits enable farmers to expand their operation, invest in capital improvements or pay down debt loads.

Last year, the Virginia Outdoor Foundation, the state’s largest holder of conservation easements, reported that it had handled easements totaling 64,840 acres, its second best year on record.

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