When it comes to all kinds of land use, we reap what we sow

Summer 2014 is finally here and signs of growth are all around. At local farmers markets, tomatoes and peppers and squashes are showing up after a slow spring. Local residents seeking local fresh-grown produce visit the downtown streets of Charles Town and Shepherdstown to buy direct from (and support) local growers. Local market growers are also sending produce into the farmers markets and restaurants of the metropolitan areas an hour or two to our east.

At the same time, wheat and barley are maturing in field after field of golden brown, and newly cut hay dries in long, serpentine rows waiting for the bailer. Tractors with folded-up seeders and harvesters negotiate the back roads, work the fields and then head back to the barn to await their next need. Both the field crops and the vegetable crops take part in an eternal dance of the seasons of agriculture.

But also sprouting up are lawn signs announcing sales at some new residential and commercial development plunked down (like a wad of cash) in what once was an orchard or farm field. The bulldozers and rock crackers, the scrapers and graders that do this work do it only once (followed soon enough by the pavers). The harvest is cash, not food, and that cash is extracted and sent to work on other projects (often in other places). The cycle of this land use is boom and bust, which seems to be eternal in a different sense of that term, since once the dozers and pavers have come across the land it is unlikely to ever be good for agriculture again. Once they have finished, the dance is done, like a game of musical chairs.

The irony is that they do build on prime agricultural lands precisely because it is easier to prepare, and in doing so they prevent the land (financially and biologically) from being farmed again.

I was hired just over three years ago as the agricultural development officer for Jefferson County. It was the only such position in the state, and fitting as such, since Jefferson County is by and large the number one agricultural county in West Virginia. But we are also the closest county to Washington, D.C., and the only county in the state considered by federal statistics as part of the Washington metropolitan area. This plays highly into the land use contest between agriculture and suburban development.

When I took the job in 2011, I saw it as an opportunity to affect the development of the county where I grew up and where my mother’s family has lived since the early 1700s. The kind of development that has occurred since I graduated from Charles Town High School in 1967 had slowed, and it seemed like an ideal opportunity to demonstrate that agriculture (in both its extensive and intensive forms) could provide an alternate – and more attractive – form of economic development than the suburban model of Loudoun County or the industrial model of Berkeley County.

But to do this is no simple task. The dominant forms of agriculture in the county are commodity grain production, a livestock industry that is mostly cattle and horses and the hay and forage production that supports those two. If you drive the roads of our county, and appreciate its rural landscape and vistas, you can thank these agricultural sectors (and the few orchards that are still left). The orchard business is already in decline due to national and global competition and orchard land is being converted to commodity grains. But the profitability of commodity grain production is highly dependent on demand in global markets plus federal subsidies, neither of which can be counted on, even in the short term, as energy costs and changing government priorities can radically affect the cost-price ratio.

Economic development is not the same as economic protectionism. We need to look out 10, 15, 20 years into the future and assess what the agricultural system will look like then if we want to preserve the sense of rural and small town community we are now so lucky to enjoy. We need to envision a kind of agriculture in Jefferson County that embraces the future, that realizes our farms are likely to get smaller and produce more dollars per acre in crops – and value-added product – than they have in the past, and that we have just as much of an opportunity in our nearness to the metropolitan areas as the home builders and big-box stores think we do. Then maybe we can preserve the life and style that made us proud of our county in the first place and continue to develop what is unique about it rather than mimic or chase the paths of the counties around us.

— Shepherd Ogden writes

from Shepherdstown

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