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Virginia Beach farming industry saw overall growth, some changes in past year; budget anticipates restored agricultural reserve program dollars

David Trimmer, Virginia Beach’s director of agriculture, is seen during a visit to the Cullipher Farm Berry Patch in April. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

COURTHOUSE – Agriculture in Virginia Beach had an estimated $124.6 million economic impact in 2016, an increase of $3.8 million or 3.1 percent from the previous year, according to the local cooperative extension office.

The estimate from a fact sheet produced annually and some local industry details will be provided by David Trimmer, the city’s agriculture director, to city leadership. The number is based upon the industry related to the estimated $40.86 million value of agricultural products — everything from grains and produce to hogs and horses to aquaculture and receipts from the city-run Virginia Beach Farmers Market.

That information follows Trimmer’s brief to the city council on Tuesday, April 18, on the departmental budget and activities this past year. The fact sheet was shared previously with the Virginia Beach Agriculture Advisory Committee earlier this month.

The information provided to committee members then discussed aspects of an industry that remained strong this past year, though different facets of the industry ebbed or flowed. “It was not across the board,” Trimmer told the city council during his briefing. “It was up and down.”

Harvested crop acreage fell from 27,447 to 27,032 this past year, a reduction of 1.5 percent. Commodity prices and land availability are among a range of issues that can influence how many acres are farmed and what is farmed upon them. Wheat acreage declined by 20 percent due to a 7.8 percent drop in market prices.

Revenue from areas such as agritourism and forestry rose by 8.5 percent and estimated livestock value grew by 1 percent, in part due to the equine industry, though hog production decreased by about 15 percent, generally due to market price. 

The information in an economic impact report is from estimates compiled by Roy Flanagan, the Virginia Beach extension agent, with Trimmer and Jenny McPherson, the city’s rural community coordinator. [Flanagan is kin to John Doucette, editor of The Independent News.]

Data in the report was based upon surveys of local farmers, a variety of government agriculture statistics, extension publications and reports on crop values.

Trimmer told members of the city council the information would be forthcoming during the briefing on his departmental budget on Tuesday, April 18.

Soybeans were the agronomic crop with the greatest acreage this past year, with 12,908 acres compared to the second leading crop, corn, with 6,234 acres. Wheat was down to 4,073 acres. That generally was influenced by market prices, Flanagan said.

Nationwide, wheat plantings are expected to again decline in 2017 to 46.1 million acres, according to the “Prospective Plantings” estimate released on Friday, March 31, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As the survey-based report noted, the wheat acreage sum “represents the lowest total planted area for the U.S. since records began in 1919.”

In Virginia Beach, many wheat acres are double-cropped, or grown on the same land, with soybeans. Overall, the value of the three grain crops here increased by 2.6 percent, and the estimated value of fruits and vegetables rose by 5.6 percent in Virginia Beach.

In his briefing to the city council, Trimmer discussed a proposed departmental budget that would increase from $5.05 million to $5.75 million, mainly due to the planned restoration of a percentage of real estate tax revenue to the agriculture reserve program.  

Last month, David Bradley, the city director of budget and management services, said real estate tax revenue removed in 2015 from a dedication to the agricultural reserve program, which helps buy development rights to keep land farmed, would return under City Manager Dave Hansen’s budget proposal. 

“We will use it to preserve land in the transition area,” Bradley said at the time, speaking of the rededicated portion.

That approach had been sought by City Councilmember Barbara Henley, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District, to preserve land and address drainage issues in the area between the city’s suburban north and rural south — an area in which flooding has been felt in the Sherwood Lakes and Ashville Park communities. Members of the agricultural advisory committee agreed that the idea should be explored.

A budget proposal by City Councilmembers John Moss, who holds an at large seat, and Jessica Abbott, who represents the Kempsville District, would not restore the funding that had been moved from the ARP to help the now-defunct effort to extend The Tide from Newtown Station to Town Center. It would go instead toward stormwater projects. 

Moss has argued that fighting flooding is a higher need — though, to be clear, the reserve program is a small piece amid a wider discussion about that proposal. Following a sometimes-contentious city council work session on Tuesday, April 25, in which their alternate plan was discussed, some council members expressed concern about the impact of what Moss and Abbott put forward upon other priorities. 

In the city manager’s proposed budget, funding for the ARP, as the farmland preservation program is called, would grow from about $4.2 million to $4.9 million if the property tax funding is restored in the final budget. That would be an increase of 17 percent, according to the presentation by Trimmer. 

The city pays for development rights while allowing farmers and property owners to continue to use the land for agricultural purposes. Virginia Beach was the first municipal government in the commonwealth to establish such a program. Some of its funding pays for interest on agreements for acres that already have been preserved through the ARP.

In 2016, the reserve program took in 290 acres with an easement value of $2.3 million. Since it’s inception in 1995, the program has preserved 9,610 acres, and it is always seeking to preserve more farmland.

“We would add 71 acres to that because we just closed on 71 acres on West Landing Road,” Trimmer told the city council.

Before some of the program’s funding was removed to help pay for light rail, the program was challenged by low interest rates that made it less appealing to property owners, officials said at the time. Since then, officials have made efforts to make the program more enticing and stable when it comes to interest rates.

During his briefing, Trimmer told the city council the remainder of the department’s budget is supported significantly from revenue in addition to tax dollars. This comes from sources such as the Virginia Beach Farmers Market, which Trimmer said had a strong 2016. 

The market offers special events, entertainment opportunities and educational programs. From it’s location at Dam Neck and Princess Anne roads in the Landstown area, it also serves as a kind of ambassador for rural communities with their suburban neighbors. Market receipts were nearly $2.8 million in 2016.

“Revenues exceeded expenses,” Trimmer said, noting that an estimated 500,000 people visited the market last year. In 2018, 100 events are planned at the market.

Soybeans were the grain crop with the greatest acreage in Virginia Beach this past year, with about 12,900 acres compared to the second leading crop, corn, with more than 6,200 acres. Amid low prices, wheat was third. [File/The Princess Anne Independent News]


© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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