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Sustaining the Ag Reserve

The fierce fight to maintain and raise awareness about Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve

Thirteen Montgomery County farms participated in the annual Farm Tour last weekend, celebrating Montgomery County’s agricultural heritage. As people flocked to local farms to buy produce, enjoy hayrides with their children, and spend time in the open country, their support for local farms stood as a testament to the necessity of preserving the Agricultural Reserve.

The Ag Reserve is a green crescent of more than 90,000 acres of farmland that hugs the top fringes of the county. In the 1970s, as the Washington, D.C. area began to sprawl into what are now downtown Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Silver Spring, among other developed regions, Montgomery county government established a Rural Zone that prohibited the building of more than one house per five acres of land.

To sustain the farmland itself, Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) were established that allowed farmers to sell their land rights downcounty in areas that were marked as high density zones. In part because of TDRs, there are currently more than 500 farms, and more than 300 horticultural businesses, in Montgomery County. The Agricultural Reserve employs more than 10,000 people, according to the Montgomery Countryside Alliance.

POPLAR SPRING ANIMAL Sanctuary in Poolesville is perhaps the best place to witness what may happen to Montgomery County’s open spaces and the importance of Potomac’s strategic location in preventing that sprawl. Just behind the old, rustic barn, the open field and horses lazily chewing hay, across the river stands downtown Leesburg, Va. — its tall, glass buildings punctuate the skyline.

"Poplar Spring is one of the best places to go and see contrast between what Loudon [County] has done and what Montgomery [County] has done," aid Andrea Arnold, campaign director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance. "Montgomery has been able to preserve all of its farmland, and keep it agricultural, and then you look across and you see Loudon, one of the fastest growing counties in the country."

Potomac’s location and role in preserving the Agricultural Reserve is critical. Not only is Potomac designated as a TVR receiving area, but it also serves as a residential buffer between the Reserve and potential urban sprawl. Whatever happens in Potomac has the potential to spread to the Ag Reserve.

"Our role is to be a buffer and a barometer: If we see something coming into Potomac that can have an effect on the Ag Reserve because it’s infiltrating Potomac, we alert our colleagues who need to join us in opposing the infiltration," said Ginny Barnes, the environmental chair of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association and the president elect. "It is not enough to have a coalition in the Agricultural Reserve, there has to be a constituency downcounty who values the Ag Reserve and wants to keep it,"

THE QUESTION BECOMES one of sustainability. The pressures to develop the land persist, and recent droughts throughout the area demonstrate how farming can be a difficult business. Yet local appreciation of the Ag Reserve — its beautiful open spaces and rural landscape — remain prevalent as well.

"I’m a firm believer that the Ag Reserve needs to be maintained the way it was created: to preserve agriculture. Once you start to breaking up the Ag Reserve, agriculture becomes less viable, and then the region loses this treasure," said Dave Bowen, owner of One Yard at a Time, a landscaping company in the Ag Reserve.

The Ag Reserve’s future is ultimately up to the County Council and legislation that it does or does not pass.

"There are constant pressures from folks who want to upset the Reserve, but I think that Council is smart enough, and there are enough proponents that [the Agricultural Reserve] will remain more or less the way it is," said Bowen.

"I think there is a lot of pressure to develop the Ag Reserve, and so there are differences of opinion as far as what policies should be put in place at the county level in order to keep it agricultural and how to support preserving the land and preserving the farmers who work it," said Arnold.

The Ag Reserve, besides being a place where many make their livelihood, also offers other significant advantages, even to those living outside it.

"The whole issue of climate change has really brought home the importance of locally produced food. The Ag Reserve has enormous potential to provide that food and become the breadbasket of this area," said Barnes.

She added, "I think there is a lot to be said for any community preserving the parts of it that have rural roots. It’s about history, it’s also about refreshing the spirit. And you don’t have to go far to be in the country here, that’s really important. It’s important to humans, to have the countryside not be so distant from them."