Agriculture: I am a 12th generation farmer who knows killing the ARP threatens our industry

Nelson Morris, James Morris and Scott Morris, part of a family that has farmed near Pungo for generations, are shown in 2017 shortly before they were awarded the Virginia Beach Excellence in Agriculture Award. The following essay by Scott Morris originally appeared in print on Friday, March 30. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

PLEASANT RIDGE — I am a 12th-generation farmer of land in the Pungo area, and I would like for my son to have the option of being the 13th.  

We sat at the Virginia Beach Excellence in Agriculture banquet just a week ago. I listened as Todd Haymore, the former state commerce secretary, praised Virginia Beach for its forward-thinking preservation of farmland and lauded our city as a model. He mentioned the agriculture reserve program, or ARP, as an innovative, effective way to preserve and promote agriculture—the third largest industry in our city, behind tourism and military, and the largest industry in the state.  Listening to him, I felt secure in the future of farming for my family and generations to follow.  

A week later, I am afraid even for my own career as a farmer when I hear of a proposal to end the ARP, a program that has allowed me to pursue my passion for farming and preserve the agricultural value of the southern end of our city.

When the real estate market exploded in the early 1990s, I lost six rental farms in two years to development and was forced to seek employment in the manufacturing industry. Farming was in my family and in my blood. I continued to farm on weekends, working our family land. When the Ford plant closed, it was because of the ARP that I was able to return to farming as a full-time profession to support my growing family. Enrolling some land I had purchased in the ARP allowed us to build the financial foundation necessary to pursue farming as a career.  

This program is an invaluable option for so many stakeholders – farmers, landowners, residents and city government.  I want to share with you several reasons why discontinuing this program would be so devastating to our local farm families. I want you to understand why this idea is counterproductive to local flooding problems.

The ARP allows farmers or landowners who rent their land to farmers to preserve it without having to completely ignore the promise of large profits. The difference in agricultural value and development value is staggering, and it is virtually impossible to justify holding onto farmland in the face of development offers.  

Even those who desperately want to farm have found themselves put in the position of having to sell land, especially in those cases when land is inherited and then divided among heirs who have different interests or live in different places. Anyone wishing to hold onto the land would have to buy out other heirs. A farmer just can’t compete with the prices offered for development.  

The ARP, however, provides a way to do just that.  Landowners can profit off the land, though at a slower rate of return, in exchange for preserving the industry that is so vital to this area.  In our case, the money from the ARP allowed me to purchase another farm. It would likely be growing houses, not crops, had I not been able to buy it.  

I have a dilemma of my own. I have an application submitted to enroll this second farm. I want to continue to farm this land and pass it on to my children. Realistically, if the program is not available, I will likely have to explore developing the land at some point in the near future.

This leads to the second, and no less important, benefit gained from the ARP.  The ARP prevents development that directly impacts flooding and storm water drainage.  You don’t have to be an engineer to know that, when you put down concrete and asphalt, you cover the ground that would naturally absorb the water.  The more rooftops that go up, the more water that runs down with nowhere to drain. 

Developments such as Ashville Park, which faces significant drainage problems taxpayers are responsible for correcting, illustrate this. It is counterproductive to solve this problem by basically opening the gates to more development further south.  

One of the initial benefits of this program was that it saved the city a tremendous amount of money that would have been spent in infrastructure needed to support development in the south. Even with the relatively limited building we’ve had down here, our roads are crowded, homes are encroaching on farmland, and residents and farmers are clashing over farming practices and trespassing.

And flooding is a growing concern.  

Farmers have to come up with ways to try to adapt to some of the negative effects of building here. Farmland is flooding at a higher rate because of run-off, and we must stop planting crops in certain areas of our farms or change crop rotations to avoid planting during rainy times. These adaptations come at a cost to our profits. If building increases, we may reach a point where we won’t be able to adapt and still afford to farm. This is when farmers will have to sell their land and landlords will have to seek other sources of income.

There is no doubt that this rural area of the city is part of what makes Virginia Beach so unique, and it is wonderful that we have been able to preserve this historical aspect of the very industry that built our city.  Residents from north of the “Green Line” and tourists flock down here for Sunday drives. They make trips to local produce stands, pumpkin patches and corn mazes. Several local farmers have educational programs within our schools. 

Most residents who live out here want the open space, but weakening the industry that makes this possible is both selfish and unrealistic. I know other landowners would, like my own family, hate the thought of selling land for development, but there comes a point at which we are unable to turn down the financial appeal of developing the land.

This program is neither a “bailing out” of farmers nor a “selling out” on the part of landowners. It is an effective compromise on behalf of the city that allows farmers to continue pursuing their careers and preserving the land. The logistics of the program are highly cost-effective for the city, but I will leave any explanations of the details in the hands of City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents our rural communities.  

As I’ve so often heard, “God isn’t making any more land.” Once these family farms are sold for development, the farmland disappears and the roofs go up. There is no solid benefit to eliminating the very program that preserves land in order to fix a problem brought on by development. 

The money gained from eliminating the ARP would only be pennies on the dollar. In a few years, when this area of the city is flooding, where will we find the money to pay for its restoration? Certainly, the problem of flooding needs to be addressed, but eliminating the ARP is like removing a bandage that is holding together a wound to place it on an artery that needs extensive repair.  

My family and I urge you to weigh the benefits of the agricultural reserve program against the proposal offered by City Manager Dave Hansen. The ARP has received nothing but praise on many levels of government for its careful, effective and innovative design.  Hansen, on the other hand, offers a temporary and inadequate solution. The consequences would be irrevocable.

The author is a farmer who, along with Nelson Morris and James Morris, was recognized with the Virginia Beach Excellence in Agriculture this past year. He owns Scott Morris Farms. His family has farmed in what today is Virginia Beach since the late 1600s. This is adapted from a letter to the City Council.

© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC / Used with permission.

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