By Robert Turner
Agriculture and related businesses are worth more than $68 billion annually to the North Carolina economy, which makes it the number one industry in our state. But North Carolina also leads the nation in the loss of farms over recent years. Most of that loss is due to development, and this is particularly true in high-growth regions like Asheville and Western North Carolina.
As I noted in last month’s column, this worrisome trend threatens our long-standing agricultural heritage and culture while it diminishes our farm economy and the related income, and it reduces the availability of fresh, local food. The trend also affects environmental health and wildlife habitat.
Smithson Mills has been tasked with developing a Farmland Protection Plan for Buncombe County, and it’s a monumental undertaking. He’s trying to map out where we’re losing farmland and what we can do to limit loss and keep farming heritage alive in the county. The last plan was compiled by Sam Bingham in 2007.
Why is this important? Smithson plans to document the rates of farmland loss and set baselines, and identify land under greatest threat of development, which should facilitate serious discussion about planning for the future. It also allows local leaders to set priorities and goals for farmland preservation for the future.
While some articles in the recent press have stated that the number of farms and farmers increased in Buncombe County recently, the truth is the census of agriculture data used for those stories is not entirely accurate. While we may be seeing a small increase in the number of farmers, these are very small-scale farms and the actual total acreage of farmland has continued to decline over the years.
Smithson and others have been conducting a comprehensive review of existing data—including the Census of Ag, Present Use Valuation (PUV) records, building permits issued, and current regulations and ordinances. Their work includes the identification of rates of farmland loss, surveys and interviews with Buncombe County farmland owners, identifying prime soils and ranking the best farmland, and establishing criteria for prioritizing land for preservation. The goal is to make recommendations for local policies and programs that support farmland preservation.
In a recent PUV landowner survey, just over 1,000 surveys were mailed to Buncombe County addresses with farms in PUV, with 353 surveys returned—a very high 35 percent return rate.
Fourteen questions were asked, but the one I found most interesting was this one: “Have you been contacted recently about selling your land for development?” Forty percent of the respondents answered “Yes.” Farmers are being approached by developers eager to buy and paying top dollar now.
When asked the question, “What activities do you recommend the county engage in to help preserve agriculture and farmland in Buncombe County?”, 85 percent said promote programs that reduce taxes on farmland. Another big answer (about 50 percent) was to educate the public on the importance of farming to our history and culture. Teaching kids about farming in schools and promoting local food and farms were other frequent answers.
The new Farmland Protection Plan is estimated for completion in March. The plan must be adopted by the County Commission to be considered complete.
There are many people in the county working hard to protect and conserve land here, including Ariel Zijp, the county Farmland Preservation Coordinator who works at the Soil and Water Conservation District office. She helps run the Voluntary Agriculture District (VAD) program that encourages farmers to place their farms into farmland preservation programs. She also assists farmers with placing conservation easements on their land to protect it forever from future, non-farm development.
But, as mentioned in my previous column, there is no great incentive for a farmer to place a conservation easement on his land. By doing so, he gives up the “best-use” value of his land—the development rights—and that might cut the value of his land in half if he ever decides to sell it. We need a mechanism to encourage farmers to place their land into a conservation easement—some financial compensation for doing that—if we’re really going to save farmland at any kind of scale.
Gillian Phillips is a land planner whose job for the county involves approvals for new applications by developers for major and minor subdivisions at the Buncombe County Planning and Development office. She sees firsthand the impact of development sprawl and is acutely aware of the loss of farmland and open space in our area.
When we met, Gillian was quick to point out a new Conservation Development program that the county is promoting with developers of larger housing subdivisions. The program gives developers some design flexibility with no minimum lot size while it encourages the preservation of conserved open space and dedicated farmland at the same time. The developer can concentrate homes in a more condensed pattern, which reduces his cost for infrastructure (like roads and utilities) if he permanently conserves the remaining open space through a conservation easement or other legal protection.
That preserved open space around the new development now becomes an attractive selling point to new buyers, giving his “product” an attractive, competitive advantage because open, natural space offers long-term health and quality of life benefits for residents. It’s a good start, and we should commend county officials for this kind of innovative thinking in land preservation.
But this is just one idea. We need a lot more people and ideas if we’re going to preserve some of our farming heritage, which is important. If you want to learn more, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Turner is the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities and executive director of the Creekside Farm Education Center. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.