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In Loudoun, rural economy grows differently

Woodtrail Graziers in Round Hill. Courtesy/Ann Higgins
The federal numbers are in for how much the U.S. Department of Agriculture has contributed to Virginia's rural economy, but Loudoun's own agrarian endeavors may have outstripped these bolstering efforts.

In 2009, the USDA began a campaign to renew rural business growth nationwide by putting money into housing, manufacturing and the businesses themselves within the rural industries of the country, creating incentives for workers to come and stay in those communities.

The small businesses of rural U.S. support one in three jobs, according to a data release from the Department of Agriculture. Local food sales generated $11.7 billion in the state.

Exports from Virginia's ranches and farms contributed to $1.2 billion of the state's economy.

The USDA expenditures on the rural business communities of the area are largely aimed at attracting and keeping residents and employees of the more rural parts of the state.

In Virginia, the USDA invested in 131 food projects and invested $31.1 million in rural manufacturing in 2014 and spent $470.1 million on water supply efficiency and connectivity.

“We see this as contributing to a richer and fuller understanding of agriculture and its diversity in the U.S.,” said Secretary of the U.S.

Department of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “A lot of small town folks appreciate it because it's increasing job opportunities … The reality is we're seeing a rather dramatic growth.”

Loudoun didn't see many of these funds, according to Kellie Boles, agricultural development officer with Loudoun's Department of Economic Development.

It's not because the county is being shortchanged. As a leader in agriculture, Loudoun defines “rural economy differently than the government in this instance,” Boles said.

The rural localities benefiting from the federal finances are generally low density, low income areas.

A county with booming growth in both residential and commercial development, Loudoun doesn't have the same trend in its rural areas.

Nor does Loudoun have the “food deserts” that government funds are being thrown at in rural areas to solve food shortages.

The government puts the funds into foundational planning for these agrarian businesses throughout the state.

Loudoun already has that foundation in place, so any help it gets from the government goes toward specific areas of the county's agricultural economy.

The two areas in the county's focus right now are the booming wine and brew farms popping up in the county.

The breweries and micro-brews are the more recent focus, and Boles said the county was at the front of the trend right when it boomed, traveling to Warsaw, Va. to teach a seminar for local farmers on all aspects of brewing.

Boles points to Loudoun as the first county to integrate a Virginia state law relaxing regulations on farm-based breweries by approving a hops processing facility based in the county.

“We've been at the forefront [of rural economics] since the mid 90s, and lots of people in Virginia and in the region look to Loudoun because they've been engaged in this since the mid 90s. We're not resting on our laurels,” Boles said. “It's again just having that forethought to put in place all those pieces to put them where we need.”

In the past, the dichotomy between eastern Loudoun's high commercial industry and western Loudoun's agrarian focus has created a split in priorities.

However, the possibility of conflict between the boom of the east with the growth from the west shouldn't be cause for concern, Vilsack said.

Commercial and residential growth means more people, which provide revenue from food and locally sold farm produce.

“This effort should not in any way shape or form be discouraging,” Vilsack said. “This is not necessarily a counter purpose here. They feed on one another if you will. It's not an urban- rural thing. It's a regional-economic thing and how do you create diversity in the economy so there's balance.”
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