Lisa Stifler is a Research Associate with the Community & Economic Development Program.
A previous post discussed preserving working waterfronts as an economic development tactic. In a similar vein, preserving working farmland can also be an important community and economic development tactic for rural communities.
Agriculture and agribusiness (including farming and forestry) remains North Carolina’s top industry, accounting for more than $70 billion of the state’s income. However, from 1990 to 2002, the state lost 1 million acres in forestland, 75% it to development, and between 1997 and 2007, more than 970,000 acres of this state’s farmlands were lost. Six thousand farms were lost between 2002 and 2007, representing more than 600,000 acres. With these numbers, North Carolina leads the country in farm loss. (Click here and here for the data.)
Preserving working farms and forests is important for North Carolina rural communities for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious benefits are the economic benefits that working farms and forests bring to the state and communities. The farms bring in money for the local communities, provide jobs, and can stimulate entrepreneurship and business development. The farms also provide a steady source of local food for the surrounding communities, food that is typically healthy, safe, and fresh, which can be difficult to find in some rural communities. Another important benefit that comes with working farms is a lower cost burden on local governments – studies show that farm and forestland costs counties significantly less in needed services than they provide in revenue than residential property. Other benefits farms and forests bring to rural communities include environmental protections, historical and cultural heritage, and open space.
In 2005, the NC General Assembly passed a bill establishing the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. The Fund supports the agriculture industry (farm, forestry, and horticulture) by supporting the purchase of agricultural conservation easements, funding conservation agreements focused on active production of agricultural products, and funding public and private enterprise programs that support agricultural development on family farms. The Fund awarded its first round of grants in 2006 and will be awarding the third round of grants in the near future. There were 45 applications requesting more than $7 million. The maximum grant amount is based on a project’s potential beneficial impact, resources available in the Trust Fund, and the needs of the project. Grants fund the purchase of agricultural conservation easements or public or private enterprise programs that sustainable and profitable agriculture through assistance to farmers, particularly in the areas of developing food, fiber and value-added products; agritourism; marketing and sales of agricultural products; and agriculturally-related business activities.
In addition to the statewide Trust Fund, N.C. Gen. Stat. §106-735 though §106-744 provides for the establishment of voluntary agriculture districts and enhanced voluntary agricultural districts. The purpose of the program is to preserve and protect working farmland from non-farm development, and the statute authorizes counties to adopt ordinances in order to protect the farmland in their counties. For voluntary agricultural districts (VADs), in exchange for restricting nonfarm use or development on the land for 10 years, eligible landowners receive a variety of benefits, including increased protection from nuisance lawsuits, eligibility for funding, waiver of water and sewer assessments, representation (through an Agricultural Advisory Board) of agricultural issues at the local government level, and other benefits specific to the particular county program. A landowner may revoke the conservation agreement at any time, but in doing so, loses the protected status that comes with the program.
Enhanced voluntary agricultural districts provide for the same agreements and benefits as VADs, except: 1) the prohibition against nonfarm use or development for 10 years is irrevocable; 2) the conservation agreement is automatically renewable for 3 years unless the landowner gives notice of revocation of the agreement; 3) the landowner is eligible to receive up to 25% of gross sales from nonfarm products and still qualify as a bona fide farm; and 4) the landowner is eligible to receive a higher percentage of cost-share funds under the Agriculture Cost Share Program. All but 26 of NC’s 100 counties have established voluntary agricultural districts, but 20 of those counties have VADs coming down the pipelines.
Although some of the efforts described here are relatively new, they highlight the possibilities in how local governments, public agencies, and private organizations can become involved in preserving the state’s working farmlands. North Carolina is particularly lucky to have many organizations and agencies that are working throughout the state on issues related to farmland preservation, including sustainable agriculture, business development among farmers, establishing local food systems, and transitioning farms from tobacco production. Together, the state supported programs, county-enacted ordinances, and various public and nonprofit programs seem to be among the first steps at preserving the working farmland in and supporting economic development opportunities in rural NC.