A new report has found that a decline in farming over the last several decades has reduced the Washington region’s ability to rely on itself for food production. Some farming advocates say placing more focus on the importance of agriculture will not only help economically, but could also prevent issues with food security.
The Farm Wedged Between Housing Developments
Imagine driving along Route 7 through Fairfax County, Virginia. Notice the businesses and sprawling housing developments. Nestled amongst the growth in Vienna is the 23-acre Potomac Vegetable Farm. That’s where Hiu Newcomb and her family have lived and farmed for more than 50 years.
“When we started, Tysons Corner wasn’t there,” Newcomb recalled as she stood near the farm’s greenhouses, where spinach, kale and other varieties of leafy greens continue to grow through the winter months. “And all the land that we used was all land that had formerly been in agriculture but not in active use. And so, we just rented it … cheap.”
Newcomb now owns this land. She’s watched from her modest farmhouse as subdivisions cropped up around her. The property is now sandwiched between two housing developments where, according to Zillow, prices start at about $1.5 million. And the interest in her property is high.
“Oh, I just got a letter two weeks ago,” she said. “I don’t even answer. I mean, I just chuck it. We’re not selling.”
There was some animosity between the Newcombs and their new neighbors in the beginning. Developers built some houses right up to the property line. A 7-foot-tall wooden fence separates the farm from one neighborhood, but that barrier hasn’t always done its job. Imagine the surprise when neighbors looked out their windows one day to see a flock of guinea hens grazing in their yards.
“Guinea hens are really kind of stupid, and they don’t have boundaries, and they don’t have borders, and if there’s a hole in that fence, they’ll just go right through it. So, somebody would call us up and say, ‘Your pigeons are over here!’ ” laughed Hana Newcomb, Hiu’s daughter and the co-owner of the Potomac Vegetable Farm.
Despite the actions of some unruly farm animals, the Newcombs say their land in Vienna will remain a farm for the foreseeable future.
A Look At The Numbers
Housing developments are abutting farmland, and in some cases replacing it, everywhere. Since 1982, development in Virginia has increased 73 percent while farmland has decreased 8 percent, according to a report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. A similar scenario is playing out in Maryland, where development is up 55 percent, and farmland has declined 14 percent. Newcomb’s decision to keep the land as a farm is an important one, said Lindsay Smith, a co-author of the report.
“The recreation, community building, entrepreneurial skills, access to food — there’s just a whole host of benefits that come with agriculture in a variety of forms,” Smith said.
Agriculture also has a significant financial benefit for the region. In Virginia, the industry employs roughly 334,000 people and generates $70 billion in economic impact. In 2016, the FRESHFARM year-round farmers market in Silver Spring generated about $6.6 million in economic impact, of which about half was increased revenue collected by nearby businesses. Smith said farmers markets are the “frontline ambassadors” of agriculture because they connect farmers directly with the public.
There’s also been an increase in the number of small-scale farms, including wineries and farm breweries. The USDA defines a small farm as being 180 acres or less. These farms are becoming popular for agritourism, an industry that Smith says is still overlooked in some counties.
“As the number of enterprises and interest grows in agritourism, I think that we will probably see greater and greater attention paid to it by our local jurisdictions,” she says.
The Hollowing Out Of The Middle
The rise in small farms has contributed to a decline in mid-sized farms that have the capacity to grow more food crops and be more economically successful.
As of 2012, small farms made up more than 93 percent of total farms in Virginia. In Maryland, the percentage of small farms totaled more than 88 percent. Conversely, the percentage of mid-sized farms in Virginia and Maryland was 2.6 and 5.5 percent respectively.
This is problematic because, according to the report, mid-sized and larger farms produce greater volumes of produce, have larger sales and enjoy better financial returns. Since interest in locally grown and locally sourced products continues to grow, “supporting ‘agriculture in the middle’ is important to ensuring farm size diversity and the capacity of the region’s farms to produce for higher volume wholesale markets,” the report found.
While small farms are good for promoting agriculture as tourism, many don’t possess the capacity to engage in medium and large-scale production.
Literally Room For Improvement
The region is expected to add more than 1.5 million people and 640,000 households by 2045. But, Smith said, there’s still plenty of room for more farms. Hana Newcomb agrees that more farming could make the region more self-reliant. She says it doesn’t take a lot of land to grow good vegetables; it just needs to be prioritized.
“I don’t think we don’t have enough land to do it – there’s Montgomery County, there’s Loudoun County, there’s the Eastern Shore. There’s a ton of land, that hasn’t been built on yet,” Hana Newcomb said. “[But] people aren’t thinking,‘Well, what’s going to happen if we can’t get our food from Florida or from California?’ Hasn’t even crossed their minds. Hasn’t even come up for them. But it takes a bit of lead time to be ready. And so, the way you create lead time is that you make sure that you’ve zoned your ground so that there’s some food security.”
She says elected officials could do more to protect and preserve farmland. Hana Newcomb points to the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve in Montgomery County designated by the county council in 1980 solely for agricultural purposes. She says zoning land for farming is an important tool for maintaining food security in a growing region.