By Julie Reardon
Why yes—at the moment there are more farm animals than people in Fauquier County, and that used to be the case in Loudoun County as well. However, our neighbor to the north has been steadily losing farmland and farm animals as it’s had the dubious distinction of ranking at or near the top of the three fastest-growing counties in the nation for the past dozen years. Once thought of as “out in the boondocks”, Dulles is surrounded by a wall of suburbs marching inexorably west toward the Blue Ridge, halted briefly by the recession but again gathering steam as people continue to move to the area from all parts of the state, the country and in fact, the world.
But Loudoun and Fauquier still have more horses than any place else than the state, even if the once-numerous dairy farms have all but disappeared and the number of beef cattle have declined, particularly in Loudoun. Beef cattle have in some instances replaced milk cows in Fauquier County, particularly the southern half of the county, once home to many productive dairy farms. But across the state, and particularly in Northern Virginia, horses have steadily increased in number since 2001. The 2006 Equine Survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture counted 215,000 horses, ponies, and mules in Virginia, an increase of over 25% since 2001. The two counties with the largest horse populations were Loudoun and Fauquier. The most common breeds were Quarter Horses (49,000), followed by Thoroughbreds (30,900). In contrast, the 2012 Census of Agriculture identified only 86,840 horses on 12,058 separate farms, a number in-between the 2007 survey total (90,363 horses) and the 2002 survey (81,344 horses). Sixteen other states had more horses than Virginia in 2012. However, the 2012 survey counted only horses on farms selling $1,000 or more annually in agricultural products. Many horses in Virginia are maintained in suburban or rural pastures by individuals on properties not classified as “official” farms, so the 2001/2007/2012 agriculture censuses were not designed to identify the majority of horses in Virginia. But their economic impact to the state is no less important than more traditional agriculture, particularly as farm size decreases and farm income becomes secondary to other income for Virginians.
The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service did a study funded by the Virginia Horse Industry Board in 2011 that revealed the economic impact of Virginia’s horses was a staggering $2.8 billion. U.Va. economist Terance Rephann, who headed the study, said even the tax impact was important. “The horse industry in Virginia generates $65.3 million in state and local taxes,” Rephann said. “The value-added income is $670 million”, he noted, explaining that this economic measure is similar to gross domestic product.
“Though the $1.2 billion annual economic impact to the state is sizable, the equine-related state tax revenue of $37 million was a small part of overall general fund tax revenue of about $15 billion for fiscal year 2011 ¬ about two-tenths of 1 percent”, Rephann said. “It provides about the same proportion of local government revenue”, he said.
Key findings from the University of Virginia equine survey include:
- The horse industry’s largest areas of economic impact continue to be in Northern Virginia, with more than 1,600 horse-related jobs in Fauquier and Loudoun counties. The largest employment impact in the state is in Rockbridge County, the location of the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington. More than 1,330 jobs are industry-related in Lexington and Buena Vista.
- The industry generated more than 16,000 jobs in 2010 in Virginia, with the greatest effects in the agricultural and agricultural services sectors, and a lesser effect in the areas of trade and construction.
- Horse owners spend $873 million annually on horse-related expenses, including feed and bedding, boarding, training, tack, capital improvements and labor. These expenses average $4,060 per horse.
- Nearly 1,200 horse shows and events were held in Virginia in 2010, generating $25 million in revenue.
- Some 939,000 people attended Virginia horse shows and competitions last year. Out-of-state participants spent an average of $3,100 per event.
- Virginia’s equine population ranks 12th in the nation.
- According to the Census of Agriculture Statistics, while the number of farms in Virginia decreased between 1997 and 2007, the number of farms with horses actually increased from 10,972 to 13,520 during that same period, offsetting a more significant decline in farms in general.
The biggest blow to Virginia’s horse industry in recent times is not loss of land, however—it was the closing of the state’s only parimutuel race track in 2014. Virginia has a storied history of horse racing and breeding of champions dating back to colonial times. In the 1730s, a Samuel Gist of Hanover imported an Arabian stallion, Bulle Rock, to breed to local stock; and in 1798, Caroline County farm owner John Hoomes imported the thoroughbred stallion Diomed from England, who was an ancestor of the prominent sire Lexington. Many champions were born and raised in Virginia, including, of course, Triple Crown legend Secretariat, foaled down the road in Doswell almost two centuries after his ancestor Diomed arrived by boat. While flat racers had to travel out of state to earn their laurels, steeplechasing remained the only form of live racing available for Virginians until 1996, when off track betting and parimutuel wagering were approved in certain locations. In 1997, Colonial Downs, Virginia’s first flat racing track, opened with a brand new facility in New Kent County, offering race meets for Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. Sadly, it lost money almost from the start and closed in 2014; its future remains uncertain.