14,000 acres.

That’s how much farm and forest a Virginia effort has protected since 2008.

The commonwealth’s chief executive celebrated the accomplishment in Fauquier County last week during a visit to Messick’s Farm Market on U.S. 28 just east of Bealeton.

Gov. Ralph Northam praised the statewide land conservation program that has preserved agricultural land in 16 localities, including Fauquier, Rappahannock, Clarke, Shenandoah, Spotsylvania and Stafford.

This summer, the Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund surpassed the 100th-tract mark, which prompted Northam to visit the Messick family’s market and issue a proclamation on Thursday hailing achievement of all those conservation easements.

His administration has made farmland and forestland retention one of its highest priorities, recognizing the contributions such lands make to Virginia’s economy, he told local and state officials gathered outside the market.

He also spoke of rural land’s ongoing contributions to Virginians’ lifestyles.

“In addition to being a contributing part of our economy, agriculture and forestry are also central to our history and our outstanding quality of life that we enjoy here in Virginia,” Northam said. “The beauty of Virginia’s farms and forests attract thousands of visitors each week, boosting Virginia’s second-largest industry—tourism.”

In agricultural communities, the state boasts more than 300 craft breweries, 300 wineries, 70 distilleries and 25 cideries, he noted.

Agriculture, tourism and forestry are Virginia’s top three industries, the governor said. Maintaining “a critical mass of working farms and forest lands,” through the Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund, is key to ensure those economic sectors stay viable, Northam said.

Mary Leigh McDaniel, vice chairwoman of the Fauquier Board of Supervisors, spoke of the county’s commitment to preserving rural areas.

“Fauquier County has a long history of land conservation,” McDaniel said. “Some of the very first easements in Virginia were located in the northern part of the county, back in the late 1960s.”

As development pressure on the county increased in recent decades, community leaders “realized the importance of maintaining open spaces to keep the rural and scenic character of Fauquier intact,” she said, reported by FauquierNow.com.

McDaniel called the farmland fund “critical to our ability to achieve these results.”

Local and state investments in land preservation have paid off, enabling farmers to use development-rights money to “invest in their businesses, while growing the local economy and contributing to agritourism,” she said.

Under Fauquier’s PDR program, Jimmy and Ronnie Messick sold potential home lots to the county and used the proceeds money to build their farm market, which opened five years ago, FauiquierNow.com reported.

Northam lauded their hard work in a tough industry—dairying—and for hosting the ceremony.

State Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, also spoke, as did Jimmy Messic, Agriculture and Forestry Secretary Bettina K. Ring, and George Ohrstrom, vice chairman of the Clarke County Conservation Easement Authority.

“Protecting and conserving Virginia’s land and waterways, while preserving individual property rights and looking out for the business interests of our farmers and forest landowners, are among my top priorities,” Hanger said. “I am proud of my involvement in creating both the Office of Farmland Preservation and the Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund. The success and longevity of these programs demonstrate that preserving our working lands is important to all Virginians.”

Specifically, the fund has helped 16 local governments finance purchase-of-development-rights programs that bought 102 easements to preserve 13,917 acres. Those purchases have cost $32.8 million.

Local governments contributed $15.2 million. The preservation fund provided $11.9 million; the rest came from federal, private and other state government sources.

To date, Fauquier has received $2.1 million from the fund to protect about 4,000 acres. The county has the state’s most successful PDR program, placing 12,882 acres under easement since 2002.

To learn more about the fund, the office, and how localities can create their own Purchase of Development Rights Program, visit vdacs.virginia.gov/conservation-and-environmental-farmland-preservation.shtml.

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