Future of farming concerning Greenbrier County residents 

 

March 10, 2003 

 

By Joe Myers, Register-Herald Reporter jmyers@register-herald.com 

The Register-Herald

P.O. Box 2398

Beckley, WV. 25802

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Publisher: Frank Wood fwood@register-herald.com

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Lewisburg, West Virginia - "I'm the fifth generation Coffman on this farm," Jimmie Coffman said, surveying his 250-acre cattle and turkey farm 5 miles outside Lewisburg.

Coffman is deeply rooted in the land. His ancestors came across the mountains in a covered wagon and are buried at a family cemetery down the road from his house.

But Coffman is worried about the future of farming in Greenbrier County. Since 1972, the county has lost 510 farms and 44,610 acres of productive farmland, he said.

It's not just the tough economics of farming that's at fault. It's commercial development.

Lewisburg is a perfect example. In the last 25 years, prime farmland surrounding Lewisburg has been bought up by developers and turned into a Wal-Mart Supercenter, a Kmart, a variety of shopping centers and numerous doctors' offices and housing developments.

"It's escalated over the last 10 years," he said.

Soon, Greenbrier County may face the same development pressure that has nearly eradicated farms in the Eastern Panhandle.

Agriculture is an important part of Greenbrier County's economy. But it could all be lost, he said.

And with it, the county could lose its scenic, open space and the rural flavor that makes it a pleasant place to live and an attractive place for tourists to visit. The county will become just another victim of unsightly, unplanned, urban sprawl.

"If it keeps on at the present rate, there may come a time a generation or two from now that somebody's going to be looking for something to eat and there's not going to be anything grown here in Greenbrier County," Coffman said.

Greenbrier is not unique.

Vanishing farmland is a nationwide epidemic that is fast becoming a homeland security issue as the United States becomes more and more dependent on foreign-grown food to feed its population.

But Coffman is working to change that. As a member of the Greenbrier County Farmland Protection Board, he is part of a nationwide movement promoting the use of conservation easements as a way of preserving farmland.

Conservation easements

A deed of conservation easement is a legal document executed by the landowner that specifies the land must continue to be used for agricultural purposes, woodland or open space and not be subdivided or developed. The easement is recorded at the courthouse and noted on the basic land deed.

But getting farmers to use conservation easements does not come easy.

For many "land rich, cash poor" farmers, their land is their retirement nest-egg. As they approach retirement age, they find it hard to resist the cash offered by a developer eager to turn their land into a shopping center or apartment complex.

The conservation easement gives the farmer an alternative. Instead of selling the land for development, he can sell his development rights to the farmland protection board and keep the land. He continues to own it and farm it. He can deed it to his heirs, who can own it and farm it. Or if he wants to, he can sell the land to someone else, and they can own it and farm it.

They just can't develop it.

Where does the money come from to pay the farmer?

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allocated $50 million for farmland protection, said Pat Bowen, assistant state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. West Virginia got $400,000, which was used to purchase conservation easements in the Eastern Panhandle.

Bowen said he plans to ask for $1.4 million this year for West Virginia.

Coffman said the Greenbrier board, one of six such groups in the state, wants to get some of that funding and use it to purchase easements. Applying a detailed ranking system, the board will give priority to farms that are under development pressure and in strategic locations that provide visible open space to the public.

Hopefully, other easements will be donated by farmers who want to ensure their land continues as farms through future generations or who want to take advantage of certain tax advantages, he noted.

Opposition

In December, as authorized by the Legislature, board members asked Greenbrier County commissioners to raise the real estate transfer tax by 50 cents per $1,000 of valuation to pay for administration of the program. The tax would generate an estimated $48,000 a year.

But at a public hearing last month, dozens of residents - many of them farmers -- raised a number of objections.

Most simply opposed the tax. "You're just opening the door to higher taxes in the future," complained Clark Thacker, a Renick farmer and a member of the Greenbrier County Farm Bureau board.

Others questioned whether the tax money would go to the state or be diverted to other counties.

A sizable number feared the program would lead to additional government encroachment. "We don't need any more rules and regulations on our land," R.L. Burns complained.

Clintonville resident Vernon Hayslette said farmers will be turning over their property rights to the state. "You are -- in effect -- zoning farms," he claimed.

The program will only benefit a select handful of farmers, another man complained.

But Coffman said people don't understand the program. It provides value to society and is worth the tax, he said. It will be run locally. The money will stay in the county.

It is completely voluntary. "The beauty of the program is, it's not a mandatory thing," he said. Participation is up to each individual farmer.

USDA may have some oversight, but only to ensure federal funds are spent in the manner intended.

Property rights are not ceded to the state. Landowners will still control the land -- not the government. It is not zoning and it does not lead to zoning.

"Actually, it's an alternative to zoning," he noted. "This is doing what a lot of people in Greenbrier County say they want done."

Federal money is available and Greenbrier might as well take advantage of it, he argued.

Those who see the program as benefiting a few farmers should look at the larger picture, he said. Preserving open space actually benefits the public at large.

"If we only did one farm, I think we'd be in better shape than we are now."

Despite the criticism from residents who showed up at the hearing, Coffman said there is widespread support for the program. The Greenbrier County Farm Bureau, the Greenbrier County Cattlemen's Association and the Greenbrier Soil Conservation District all voted overwhelmingly two years ago to ask the county commission to adopt the program, he pointed out.

Now, board members are waiting on a decision from the county commission. "Ideally, we'd like to have funding from the county," Coffman said.

But if commissioners decide not to adopt the transfer tax, it won't be the end of the world. Board members can seek funding from other sources, he pointed out.

The important thing right now is to promote the program, encourage farmers to apply for easements and attract some of the federal funding that should be available this year.

"We're not giving up," Coffman insisted.

The program is crucial to the future of the county, and it's a Godsend to the farmer who has put a lifetime of hard work into his farm and may be wondering what will become of it after he passes on.

"It's a means of assuring him there will always be a farm there," he said. 

 

Copyright 2003, The Beckley Register-Herald. 

 

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