A program in which the county would purchase land development rights from property owners might be more hype than help

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Some 40 percent of land in Bedford County is farmland, according to the most recent census by the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

But that is a shrinking figure.

From 1997 to 2002 the county lost 8,000 acres, almost 4 percent, of its farmland. Over that same time the county lost 165 farms, 11 percent of its total, which is well above the state average. Across the state, during that five-year period, Virginia lost 1.5 percent of its farmland and 3.6 percent of its farms.

A new census is due to be taken and those figures are expected to continue the trend.

But the trends are obvious, even without that census, according to the Bedford County extension office: a loss of farmland and farms; an increase in the average age of farmers; and a drop in commodities like milk cows, corn for silage, wheat and tobacco. But even with that, the truth is agriculture remains a significant industry in the county, generating about $20 million in sales annually. And there are also the associated agricultural businesses that generate revenue, meaning, agriculture continues to be a viable part of the economy.

With those trends in mind, taking into account the ever-increasing demand for residential developments, county officials are considering implementing a Purchase of Development Rights program, which is administered by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This program could provide a way to preserve land by having residents sell their rights to develop their property to the county, allowing the county to then place development restrictions on the property.

Farms will soon be changing hands. The average age of farmers in the county continues to increase. As that occurs, the land, and the farms, draw closer to transitioning ? either to a new generation of farmers or for other land uses. The PDR program could be one way to help preserve that land for agricultural use in the future.

But it might be more hype than actual help.

The cost of implementing such a program is expensive, and there's generally more people who want to utilize it than there are funds available. By including the program in the county comprehensive plan, planners have at least kept it available as an option, if an emergency situation would occur, where it would be needed. That might be the program's ultimate significance in county planning.

Instead, the county's ongoing proactive approach to promoting agriculture is even more important. Just this past year, an Agricultural Economic Development Advisory Board was set up and appointed and a Web site is under construction to help promote agriculture as an economic development tool. The county must continue to look for ways to promote farming to a new generation. That means concentrating on the profitability of farms. If that's shown to be the case, the problem should take care of itself.

The county has helped with this by its value taxation program. In this, farmland is taxed at its farm value as opposed to its fair market value, providing farmers important financial savings to continue to use the land for that purpose.

That shows the county views agricultural property as important, rather than as land just waiting around to be developed. The county must continue to build on that. Agriculture has played an important role in Bedford County's past, it's playing an important role today and it should continue to do so in the future.