At the height of Buncombe County’s housing boom, "Development was so popular in this area, people were buying land sight unseen or just with a flyover," notes Valerie True of Blue Ridge Forever. The resulting loss of farmland — 125,000 acres across Western North Carolina between 2002 and 2007, according to figures compiled by her group — sparked its formation in 2004.
And while the subsequent economic crunch has slowed the pace of development, she concedes, it’s also sharply curtailed the funds available for land conservation. "We get calls every day from people wanting to protect their farms, yet there's less resources to work with." Blue Ridge Forever is a coalition of 13 local, state and national conservation organizations working to protect land and water resources in the region.
Meanwhile, the graying of the region’s farmers (whose average age is 58, according to Blue Ridge Forever) threatens to trigger yet another wave of farmland conversion.
"Their land is their retirement plan, so they can't just say, 'No, I'm not going to sell it to a developer for millions of dollars. Instead, I'm going to put this conservation easement on it and reduce the value of my land.' They need a little compensation to do it," True explains. "Even if a farmer donates their easement outright, it could still cost $20,000 in legal fees, surveys, etc. to close on that project."
Against this backdrop, some 175 advocates gathered at A-B Tech Nov. 30 for the WNC Farmland Access and Preservation Forum, which True’s group helped organize. The message that emerged from the full day of speakers, meetings and brainstorming sessions was that preserving farmland is essential because of its vital economic, cultural and environmental impacts.
"There are a lot of folks working through different avenues to protect farmland and keep farming going in WNC,” True points out. “This was a good opportunity for all those folks to come together and see if there's some opportunities to help each other out."
To rally more support for land preservation, proponents need to focus on the economic benefits of farming, argued keynote speaker Bob Wagner of the American Farmland Trust. In 2009 alone, he noted, WNC’S roughly 13,000 working farms generated $900 million; in 2007, they accounted for about 33,000 jobs.
But while Phyllis Stiles of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina hailed Buncombe County government’s efforts as "the envy of other counties in WNC in terms of farmland preservation," Buncombe nonetheless led the list with 22,847 acres lost, the Blue Ridge Forever study found.
No magic bullet
During her opening remarks at the forum, Buncombe County Commissioner Holly Jones touted her board's ongoing initiatives while acknowledging the considerable obstacles that remain.
In a later interview, she echoed those sentiments, asserting, "I think we're ahead of the curve in the state.” The commissioners, noted Jones, have helped fund easements, covered closing costs, designated agricultural districts and supported marketing efforts for locally grown food.
"Our board is very committed to doing what we can do going forward. … But there's no magic bullet. … It's not like all our farmland loss will go away: We've got to keep on working on it," she stressed, acknowledging that finding funding in next year's budget will be particularly tough.
"If we've got to be a big financial player in the easements … that's going to be super, super challenging, because we have no idea how the state budget is going to impact the county," Jones explained.
State Rep. Susan Fisher of Buncombe County, who also attended the forum, predicts that the looming budget deficit together with the Republican majority in the General Assembly doesn’t bode well for financing conservation programs.
"I think in terms of anything that costs money, we're not going to see a whole lot of anything happen in the next little bit, because we've got such a deficit to deal with," she observes.
But Fisher also stresses her own ongoing commitment to supporting local farmers. "I've been a proponent of … incentives [that] would benefit the small organic farmers in our mountain counties,” she notes. “Small farmers are small businesses too, and we've been talking about how small businesses are going to get us out of this recession."
Private funding sought
State trust funds designed to help cover the costs of conservation easements have already been slashed by half in recent years, True points out; further drastic reductions would be hard to take. Meanwhile, she notes, between 1982 and 2007, North Carolina ranked fifth nationwide with 766,000 acres of farmland lost, according to her group’s study.
"We're very lucky we're one of the few states in the Southeast that has those state trust funds, but of course those are getting severely cut," she says. "Two of those trust funds rely on real estate closings to fund them — the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund — and since those are down, the funds are down as well."
To help make up the shortfall, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina is establishing the Western North Carolina Farmland Preservation Fund. Building on a $25,000 seed gift the group recently received from an anonymous donor, the group is aiming to raise $100,000 before sending out a request for proposals. Stiles says they're working on several creative fundraising strategies, including asking local businesses to consider adding a voluntary surcharge on transactions.
"If enough retailers would do that — you and I won't miss it if they add a penny or two to our bill when we eat out — but with all the thousands of people in the area going out, it really starts to add up to something," she explains.
Meanwhile, local trends mirror the national picture, Wagner emphasized in his keynote speech. Between 1982 and 2007, 23 million acres of U.S. farmland were lost to development. Nonetheless, agriculture remains the nation’s dominant land use, with 922 million acres in production as of 2007, he said.
A taxing situation
Wagner and other forum speakers also stressed the need to educate local governments about how land preservation impacts tax revenues. Studies, he reported, have shown that on average, farmland contributes more to the tax base than residential developments, when the cost of new services and infrastructure is factored in.
Stiles echoed that point, observing, "There's a myth out there that if you approve a new subdivision outside of town where we have a farm right now, the property taxes are going to roll in and it's going to solve our municipal or county debt problem. Not so," she asserted. "They're going to require new services: police, fire, water, all of those things. So it's a net loss to the community in terms of property taxes."
Clearing up that misunderstanding could help "leverage dollars and political support," Wagner agreed.
He also specifically praised this area's growing support for small organic farms, saying the marketing efforts of groups such as the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project rank among the best in the nation.
"The local-food movement has exploded; it's a niche market that holds a lot of opportunities for this area,” he declared, adding, “This is a rising tide that will lift all boats.”
Jones concurred, noting, "It helps a lot to have a community that cares so deeply about this. Those ‘local food’ bumper stickers are everywhere: It's awesome. … We're fortunate that we have a lot of partners moving forward."
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at email@example.com.