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mh 31jan01 - WVA farmland

January 31, 2001

To preserve ag lands, ask farmers for input



Last Saturday's Shepherd College forum on growth in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle identified farmland preservation as a major concern for the approximately 120 citizens who attended.

But other than the idea of buying development rights, there were few solutions offered. Let us suggest another approach: Instead of wondering what farmers might do if this or that happened, why not invite them a to a meeting and ask them?

It would be the right thing to do, because, no matter how much ownership citizens might feel for the rural countryside, the reality is that in the absence of some strict land-use controls - or some development-discouraging mechanism like impact fees - landowners can pretty much do what they want to with their land.

There have been plenty of reports about falling prices for farm products, even as costs for equipment, seed and the like have increased. For someone who's faced such adversity all of their life, the current price problems may be just one more storm to weather. But for the next generation, the idea of working 12-hour days for a salary that's less than most can get for just eight hours in the office, farming may not seem worth the trouble.

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Like those who came to Shepherd last week, we don't see much alternative to the purchase of development rights, or even the outright purchase of agricultural lands. Just as some historic preservation groups do, a Panhandle group could purchase a farm, add a development restriction to the deed, then sell it as a working farm.

One possible hitch is that farmers use the equity in their land as collateral for purchases. Land that couldn't be developed would be a greater risk for a bank to accept as a security for a loan. Such property might also sell for less after a deed restriction was in place.

But groups concerned about preservation won't know whether some of the ideas will work until they try them. As state Sen. John Unger noted, there's been a lot of brainstorming, but not a lot of action so far.

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