CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Ask West Virginia Farm Bureau Executive Secretary Steve Hannah the best way to preserve dwindling farmland and he will tell you “get prices where they ought to be for commodities and farmers won’t want to sell.”
That being unlikely in the immediate future, the West Virginia Farm Bureau has thrown its support to a Voluntary Farmland Protection Act proposed by state Sen. John Unger II, Berkeley County Democrat.
Under the bill, farmers can donate or sell a “protective easement” for fair market value and still retain private ownership of the land for farming or business directly related to marketing farm products while the easement prohibits development of the land.
Unger is also working with the Eastern Panhandle People’s Empowerment Coalition to pass this legislation. The act would enable West Virginia to establish a locally driven open space and farmland protection program and obtain funds from the federal Farmland Protection Program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
The Voluntary Farmland Protection Act has been introduced to the state legislature and referred to committee. Further action is pending, according to Kim Sencindiver, assistant to Unger.
Unger’s farmland protection bill has the support of West Virginia Department of Agriculture. Deputy Commissioner David E. Miller noted that a similar bill was originally introduced in January 1999, but “it was late in the session and went nowhere.” After the session adjourned, work on fine tuning the legislation continued.
Miller said the West Virginia bill follows a structure similar to bills already enacted in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland to protect open space and farmland from urban development.
The northern and eastern panhandles of West Virginia are the areas most affected by the rapid expansion of housing and industrial development.
No funding mechanism for purchase of development rights is yet in place. Miller indicated that once the bill is passed, the funding apparatus will be addressed. Any state funding applied can be matched with funds from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, according to State Public Affairs Specialist Peg Reese.