Virginia’s Loudoun County is the nation’s second-fastest growing county, yet officials believe there is room for farming in its future.

Those farms may look different from those in the past. Fields of the future are more likely to sprout grapevines, Christmas trees or fresh vegetables than soybeans or other traditional row crops.

Officials believe that promoting such high-value crops is the key to achieving its goal of maintaining the rural character of the western two-thirds of a county where the population nearly doubled to 170,000 in the past decade, and another 12,000 pour in each year.

In an effort to rein in growth, the county—in a highly controversial move—last fall downzoned much of the land in the western portion of the county, limiting development in many areas by setting minimum lot sizes of 20 and 50 acres.

More than 150 suits have been filed challenging the action, which, according to a senior official from the Home Builders Association of Virginia, signaled that “this part of Virginia is closed for business.”

In fact, county officials say they are actively promoting business. But they have little interest is having large subdivisions or industries in the western two-thirds of Loudoun, which stretches from the Washington suburbs to the Blue Ridge.

“We cannot afford to convert that land into houses because it costs more for houses, in terms of providing public services, than it does for farmland,” said Lou Nichols, who is in the county’s Department of Economic Development. “All that does is drive your taxes higher and higher at the same time it is reducing your quality of life.”

In its western 200,000 acres, the county is promoting agriculture and rural-based businesses, rather than the types of industries that county development agencies typically try to attract. Nichols heads a four-person Office of Rural Economic Development, the largest office focused on agricultural and rural economies in the Bay region.

The size of the office reflects the county’s conclusion that just zoning for 20-acre and 50-acre lots will not preserve rural communities. “What are you going to do with a 20-acre tract?” Nichols asked. “You can only build one house on it. You are not going to mow the yard. And you also are not going to have a combine and do land-intensive agriculture because that does not make any sense.”

The solution is a complex strategy aimed at trying to bolster the entire rural economy. The county has 51,000 acres of hay, 77,000 acres of pasture and more than 15,000 acres of corn and soybeans. But in a booming area, officials believe much of the rural economy will increasingly focus on high-value, niche crops grown on smaller tracts.

So Nichols’ office helps people learn about alternative high-value farm products—everything from nurseries to vineyards. It aggressively helps to market not only the products, but also the rural communities that produce them in order to build public support among the county’s suburban dwellers.

The strategy was set forth in a 1998 report, “The 200,000 Acre Solution: Supporting and Enhancing a Rural Economy For Loudoun’s 21st Century,” which set a goal of doubling the value of county’s rural economy by 2007.

It called for promoting new, high-value specialty crops. It seeks to encourage the owners of the county’s 20,000 horses to buy more hay grown by Loudoun farmers, promotes Loudoun-grown beef, and calls for increasing the amount of Loudoun-grown vegetables, as well as the number of places that sell them. It would like the county to be a leader in biotechnology.

But it also calls for helping rural businesses grow, and to promote the development of new, rural-oriented businesses, including such things as bed-and-breakfast establishments and other tourism-related activities.

Nichols’ office works to help farmers and other rural businesses work their way through regulatory hurdles. It also works on building market demand. A popular annual spring farm tour takes urban and suburban dwellers into the county’s rural areas where they meet farmers—and buy their produce. Similarly, it created a tour of the county’s growing number of wineries. Those, and similar activities also bolster the rural tourism economy.

“We’re building a relationship between the urban community in the suburbs, and the rural area,” Nichols said. “We’re doing that for two reasons. The first is that we want to sell our product. When you go to the farm, you are going to get the freshest you can get.

“The second part of this is to create better public awareness among the urban and suburban dwellers of the value of farmland. They get on the back roads, they see how beautiful it is, and say, ‘I don’t want to develop this. I’m willing to pay a little bit higher taxes so we can support the farming community by allowing them to pay lower taxes, based on the agricultural value of their property.’”

The county works with local producer groups to help promote their products, and introduces fledgling farmers to different kinds of commodities. It hosts small agricultural trade shows so farmers can network with one another.

Nichols believes the county is not in danger of saturating any of those specialty markets. Himself a Christmas tree grower, Nichols said the county has a $1 million shortfall in the Christmas tree market alone.

State studies suggest a greater market exists for local wines, and locally grown vegetables can’t keep up with the demand from restaurants and markets.

Key to making all that work, however, is preserving the rural land base, Nichols said. If a large segment of the county does not keep its rural character, there will be no tourists, farm tours, and less of an ability to link consumers with producers. “You’ve got to have a viewshed if you are going to have tourists come out and look at the view,” Nichols said.“It doesn’t take much to screw that up.”

Some view Loudoun as a potential model of how agriculture, and rural areas, may be preserved in the face of intense development. What works in Loudoun may not work every place, Nichols said, although he said every county ought to at least have a farm tour. “It’s easy to do and it builds self-esteem for the community and those farmers,” he said. “It’s a big community pride deal.”

It’s hard to say for certain how much progress the county is making toward its goal of doubling the rural economy; there is no reliable measurement. But, Nichols said there is anecdotal evidence that things are going in the right direction.

One person, growing large trees for the landscape market, is grossing $100,000 off 12 acres. Another person, intensively growing vegetables with greenhouses, claims to be grossing $40,000 an acre.

Some farmers, he acknowledged, will have a tough time making a transition to the newer, high-value crops. Some won’t try, but others will. One cattle farmer took up growing vegetables, and is doing a brisk business at his roadside stand. “He won’t begin to tell me how much money he is making,” Nichols said, although he noted there was a new pickup in the driveway.

“Certainly, we are expanding the rural economy right now. How much is hard to say. But I think it’s fair to say that people feel positive about the rural economy here,” he said.
One good indicator: Some people in the county are starting to buy more land not for homes, but for agriculture.