Food Lifestyle Sustainability

Conserving Carolina Works with Farmers to Protect the Future of Productive Lands

Plumlea Farm. Photo courtesy of the Roberts family

By Emma Castleberry

Conserving Carolina has recently added two tracts of farmland to the more than 47,000 acres that it protects for posterity. The total 41 acres includes most of Plumlea Farm in Henderson County and most of San Felipe Farm in Polk County.

Rafael Bravo with a young visitor at San Felipe Farm

San Felipe Farm is operated by Rafael Bravo and his wife Mary, who raise sheep on the 18.5-acre tract. They implement the practice of rotational grazing to ensure the sustainability of the soil. Plumlea Farm is owned by Fletch Roberts, the member manager of Plumlea Family Associates, LLC which he owns with his sister, Ruth Roberts. The Roberts protected two tracts totaling 22.7 acres of farmland which are currently used to grow corn and support pasture ponies. “My sister and I wanted to preserve the farm because more and more land is being developed for residential and commercial purposes in Western North Carolina and it is important to keep land open for farming,” says Roberts. “Also, we want to continue to improve farming methods to prove that farming can be environmentally sound.”

Oak trees at San Felipe Farm

There are unique challenges and benefits presented by protecting agricultural land, in comparison with other, wilder natural spaces that the nonprofit encounters in its conservation projects. “A conservation easement is permanent, but a farmer operator must have flexibility to respond to a changing agricultural economy,” says Tom Fanslow, land protection director for Conserving Carolina. “We must carefully plan out sites for future farm-related development that does not unnecessarily compromise productive soils and other natural resources.” Additionally, these conservation easements eliminate most development rights and prohibit subdivision, which in turn reduces a farm owner’s options for loan security.

To receive a payment for a conservation easement, a farmer must meet certain requirements. Some of the stipulations include a debt-free land title and the ability to make an in-kind donation of 25 percent of the easement value. Furthermore, to qualify for funding, a farm must have above-average soil quality, have at least ten acres in production and be enrolled in the local voluntary agricultural district (VAD). Funding to protect these particular farm land tracts came from the NC Agricultural Development & Farmland Preservation Trust Fund and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Lambs at San Felipe Farm

Ultimately, says Fanslow, the long-term societal benefits of conserving farmland outweigh any complications or drawbacks: “The chief payout of our investment in farm conservation is not necessarily the continuation of the current farming operation. The public needs to understand that farmland preservation is like saving up for a rainy day. We are permanently banking productive soils to serve our nation’s future needs. Farmland preservation should be considered an element of national security.”

Furthermore, there is the personal benefit for the farm owner, who can ensure that the time and capital invested in the land will not be squandered in the future. “I consider the farm a blessing from God,” says Roberts. “While I own the land legally, I look at myself more like a steward and a servant to God who created it. I feel obligated to share it with others to promote joy and happiness.”

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