Farmland Conservation: Preserving Our Agricultural Heritage

Farmland Conservation: Preserving Our Agricultural Heritage

Eat Your View

By Robert Turner

A farmer friend told me a story about a real estate developer who knocked on his door and said, “Mister, I can make you a rich man.” And you know what? He wasn’t lying.

Rapid development and suburban sprawl are driving up land prices and changing the landscape before our very eyes. This is making it difficult, if not impossible, for young farmers to find affordable farmland.

Most citizens of Buncombe and Henderson counties value the rich, rural heritage of this region. Farming has been an integral part of the local economy for generations, and the farm-to-table trend is evidence that we still value farming and local food production.

We need a vision and hope for a future that protects and preserves farming and a rural landscape in the face of the inevitable suburban development pressure. The citizens of towns like Arden, Fletcher and Mills River have a deliberate and bold choice to make in order to protect what they have left. The vision could allow for development in a structured and systematic way and provide for a sustainable economic development strategy that includes farming and agriculture. If citizens of Buncombe and Henderson counties value the pastoral beauty and farming heritage of the region, then we must find ways to fairly compensate farmers for placing their land into conservation or agricultural easements that lock it down forever.

The beauty of the natural environment is what draws most people to WNC. Mountains, forests, gardens and farmland, have a significant psychological and social benefit for human beings. Studies show that immersing yourself in nature for just 20 minutes reduces blood pressure and improves cardiovascular health. Nature is good for the soul and adds to the quality of life.

But for years we’ve stood by and watched as farms and nature have morphed into new housing developments, shopping centers and parking lots. There haven’t been a lot of hard facts about the demise of the family farm—mostly just a lot of anecdotal evidence.

In my recent book Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities, there is a chapter I titled “Say Goodbye to Iowa,” which describes the loss of American farmland to development in some detail. Over the past two decades, the US lost nearly 31 million acres of land, which equates roughly to the size of Iowa. That’s 175 acres an hour, or three acres every single minute.

While most of the country has seen the impacts of suburban sprawl, high-growth regions like Asheville have felt it acutely in recent decades. With so many people moving here for the climate and all that Asheville has to offer, we are losing open green space, natural habitats and farmland at an alarming rate. The population of the Asheville metropolitan region, which includes parts of Buncombe and Henderson counties, is expected to reach a half million people by 2025. We need a plan.

With the average age of a farmer in Buncombe County now at 59 years old, half the farmland in the county will likely change hands in the next 10 to 12 years. We can only hope that land goes to another farmer. But the truth is, with the prices of farmland near Asheville now approaching $30,000 per acre (which is directly related to growth and development), others can’t afford to pay the current market value and make a living by farming the land and paying the mortgage on it. The cost of farmland is integral to the profitability of a farming operation. The only ones who can afford to pay the current market prices are developers.

We risk losing not only the pastoral beauty of the region but our ability to grow some of our own food, which comes with other risks, like dependence on food from faraway places. The average vegetable in our grocery store travels 1,500 miles to get there. The current food system is dependent on fossil fuels and long-distance transportation, and is not sustainable for the long term. Protecting and preserving our capacity to grow food is prudent behavior while also benefiting the local economy, creating jobs and adding to quality of life. Resilient communities of the future will protect and preserve agriculture and the food-producing capacity of their region.

Current programs that attempt to preserve and protect farmland, like conservation easements that restrict future development, are available, but don’t really compensate farmers for giving up the “best use” value of the land. By voluntarily giving up future development rights, farmers could be forfeiting as much as half the value of their land if they sell it. On a 100-acre farm near Asheville, that could mean more than a million dollars.

We need new ideas and funding to compensate farmers for conserving farmland. Some ideas include the agrihood model at Creekside Farm in Arden, where homes are concentrated on a small piece of land, and the bulk of the farm is kept intact as a valuable amenity to the new neighborhood. Transfer Development Rights, together with planning that promotes development in specific, concentrated areas and keeps the bulk of farmland in farming, might be another tool. Programs like this can help keep farmland prices down so that younger farmers can afford it.

The future is going way beyond green homes and electric cars. It’s moving toward sustainability—sustainability to the point of self-reliance—including the knowledge and capacity to grow some of our own food. Anyone in land planning or urban design should understand that.

To learn more about land conservation and how you can help, visit Robert Turner is executive director of the Creekside Farm Education Center.

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