Few people living in Prince William County today remember the dairy and crop farms that covered the land that is now subdivisions in Woodbridge and Manassas, but it was not that long ago. Up to the early 1960s, the County was a state leading producer of milk and other dairy products. In 1959, there were almost 500 farms totaling just under 90,000 acres or about 40 percent of the acreage in the County. However, the County was about to start a rapid change from rural countryside to suburban sprawl and become one of the fastest growing areas in the country.
There are many reasons for this, but the completion of Shirley Highway from Washington to Woodbridge in 1952, expansion of that highway into I-95 in the early 1960s and the completion of I-66 from the I-495 beltway to Gainesville in 1964, literally paved the way for this sea change. As a continuously expanding network of roads was developed, relatively cheap farmland was converted into thousands of lots for new homes, shopping centers, schools, and other public infrastructure.
But not all of the farms disappeared. According to 2012 USDA statistics, there were 330 farms with a total of 36,659 acres or about 17 percent of the total acres in the County. Ninety-one of these farms were for raising cattle. The most common field crop was forage. The average farm was 108 acres.
Farming in a suburban environment is not easy. The cost of operations, scarcity of low-cost labor and lack of supportive government policies make it difficult to make a profit. Although just a fraction of the total farms, non-traditional farming is growing in popularity. Speciality products like organic produce, agritourism, vineyards and direct sales to consumers can have higher profit margins.
However, the temptation to sell the farm is very real. At an estimated value of $8,827 per acre and almost a $1,000,000 total value for the average farm, it is easy to see why farmers nearing retirement seriously consider selling. Given that the average farm owner is in his or her mid 50s, it is possible that many of the County’s farms will change hands over the next decade.
Most of the remaining farms in Prince William County are in the Rural Crescent and, therefore to some extent, protected from becoming quarter acre lot subdivisions. Most are restricted to the one home per 10 acre zoning classification. However, as farmers get closer to retirement, will there be enough pressure from other farmers and developers to change this? Should we be thinking about alternatives that can protect the open land and still be fair to farmers?
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