Field of dreams: New farmers struggle to find land in WNC

YARD WORK: Vannah Roddy holds turnips she grew using no-till, organic methods. Photo courtesy of Roddy

Vannah Roddy didn’t even have a garden growing up in rural Medina County, Ohio. Yet, “I was superpassionate about finding solutions to growing food during climate change,” she says. She moved to Western North Carolina in 2019 and soon found work as a farmhand and manager for a few small-scale organic farms in Asheville. After a year, however, she wanted more control over the type of planting she did. She needed farmland of her own.

She knew it would be a challenge. In 2021, agricultural lending cooperative Carolina Farm Credit estimated that 5-20 acres in the Asheville metro area, which includes Buncombe, Haywood, Transylvania, Henderson and Polk counties, cost on average $14,583 per acre. That was a 36% increase from 2020. McDowell County, where Roddy has concentrated most of her search, was significantly cheaper in 2021: $5,833 per acre. Nevertheless, that figure was still higher than the statewide average price of farm real estate in 2021, which was $4,750, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. (Farm real estate figures include all agricultural land and buildings, including cropland, pastureland and farm dwellings.)

And that’s if she can even get a loan, she says: “I’m 22 years old. I find it incredibly challenging to even get a lender to speak to me.”

In the meantime, she had to get creative if she was going to farm her way and build her business, Encompass Farm. So, in 2020, she drove through Black Mountain and scoped out yards that looked favorable for growing. The first two doors she knocked on, the homeowners gave her permission to plant. Word spread, and she was soon growing over an acre of annual crops and cut flowers.

“This time last year, I had 10 sites in production. I was growing year-round,” she says. Every day, she would cart her tools around in her car to multiple sites and spend hours in the soil, and soon she couldn’t keep up with the demand for her organic, no-till crops. She still receives calls from people eager to offer their yards, but Roddy considers this unique solution a temporary one.

“Growing on yards is not my long-term vision,” she says.

Nevertheless, it’s the kind of creative solution she and other young and beginner farmers — farmers under the age of 40, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, or farmers in operation for 10 years or less, according to the USDA — are compelled to invent to access affordable farmland in Western North Carolina.

Local nonprofits, state cooperative extensions and federal programs are increasingly working to address land access, especially for young and beginning farmers. However, as Andrew Branan, N.C. State University assistant extension professor of agriculture and resource economics, explains, “Buncombe County has a unique issue. It’s an international destination in a mountainous place where there’s very little land that you can farm on.”

Looking for land

Landownership has traditionally been the way that farmers have built equity, according to Branan. Farmers borrow against the land to grow their operations, funding equipment, seeds, livestock and additional acreage. Leases — especially short- or medium-term leases — can mean investing in the infrastructure and soil health of land and then suddenly losing access to it.

“You don’t save money farming; you invest farming money,” he says. When he ran his agricultural law practice, he says, he always encouraged young and beginner farmers to set up leases that included an option to purchase. “And not just a right of first refusal, but a right of first offer,” he adds.

According to a 2022 survey done by Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, 21% of 176 respondents owned and leased the land they farmed, with 11% solely leasing. (Respondents are limited to those who have achieved the ASAP Appalachian Grown certification, with the majority of responses coming from WNC.)

For those looking for farmland, the N.C. State Agricultural Extension runs FarmLink, a website that posts information both for farmers looking for land and for landowners seeking farmers.

Iva Philips, a Fletcher native who majored in agroecology at Warren Wilson College, is trying to find land for her business, True Earth Herbs.

One day, she envisions a 5-acre farm where she can grow not only herbs but also host community outreach events similar to those at Root Cause Farm, where she volunteers. At the moment, however, she is priced out of land with any kind of crucial infrastructure, from greenhouses to root cellars to housing. She’s planning to use a 10-by-10-foot plot on family property to grow her herbs.

Paying for land

Through its farm service agencies, the USDA provides direct loans for landownership at competitive interest rates. However, most farm loans are provided through the Farm Credit Administration, which works with outside lenders.

Roddy says those loans are hardly the deal for farmers they claim to be. “Often, they don’t have competitive rates, [and] you end up paying extremely high interest [rates],” she says. “If I went with that option, I’d be sinking all of my time, energy and resources into something that still is pretty insecure.” She is only now eligible to start looking into direct USDA loans, having recently registered Encompass Farm with the USDA.

For Hispanic farmers, acquiring loans, much less farmland, can be near impossible, says Delia Jovel Dúbon, a founder and co-owner of Cooperativa Tierra Fértil in Hendersonville County.

“Because we are immigrants, that is already a huge no for many opportunities. You don’t have access to loans,” she says. “People think, ‘It’s impossible that an immigrant is talking to me about a piece of land’” because they automatically assume someone with immigrant status will not have the capital to afford it, she adds.

Tierra Fértil’s three co-owners and five staff members currently farm 1 acre at Tiny Bridge Farm. However, Tiny Bridge itself leases its land and has only a year left in its contract.

Solutions will always be challenging when only 3% of land in Western North Carolina is prime soil for growing annuals, says Chris Link, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy farm and food program manager.

SAHC has several programs to provide training and pave the way to land access. Link connects them with real estate agents who specialize in farmland sales, boosts their profile on social media and lets landowners know these farmers are looking for land. The results have been mixed, he says. “It’s been everything from ‘We’re no longer farming anymore’ to ‘I found a good lease’ to ‘I bought land.’”

Roddy says these programs lack definitive results. “Every time I see workshops about land access coming up, I’m on board,” Roddy says. “But I haven’t seen a whole lot of solutions, to be honest,” she says.

“They’re presenting opportunities outside of ownership, whether it’s leasing, or temporary land access solutions, like a farm incubator. And for me, that would be a lateral step — I already have temporary access to land that I’m growing on. My goal is ownership and long-term tenure. And I haven’t seen a lot of programs address that.”

Leasing for life

One success story is Wild East Farm. Lyric Antio and Noah Poulos considered federal loans to start Wild East Farm in Marion but found the bureaucratic process moved far too slowly for the pace of the real estate market. The FSA told her that it could be up to six months to get approved for a loan.

A FARM OF ONE’S OWN: Lyric Antio looks out over the 44-acre plot in Marion where she and her partner, Noah Poulos, have a five-year lease, with the mutual intention with the landowner. Photo courtesy of Antio

“Finances were a pretty significant barrier for us since we don’t come from any family wealth,” says Antio. “As we looked at properties and assessed our needs and our vision for the farm, it became clear that it wasn’t going to be possible in any immediate time scale. So, we started opening ourselves up to alternative options.”

They had considered moving to Vermont last year, then they discovered the owner of a 44-acre plot in Marion was looking for farmers. As Antio describes it, “the sole intention to lease it at an affordable rate to young and beginning farmers.”

“It’s a five-year lease, [but] it’s written into the contract that the mutual intention is that [it] would continue beyond the five years’ trial term, which felt comfortable for both of us,” she explains.

Antio says she and Poulos were hesitant about leasing because it wouldn’t build equity. Now, she appreciates how their lease not only saves them from paying for infrastructure but also removes some of the uncertainty of ownership.

“You miss the mortgage payment a couple of times, there could be some really serious consequences. But if you’re able to have a dialogue with a human being about why that’s happening, it can be more nuanced, and potentially more organic and forgiving,” she says.

“It’s exciting to think about this form of direct philanthropy being replicable, especially in our region where so much farmable land is held in absentee estates,” Antio says.

For the love of farming

In the meantime, Roddy still farms in yards, though burnout led her to decrease the number of lots from 10 to four.

She hasn’t given up on her dream farm. She added a donate button to the Encompass Farm website earlier this year and received a few donations. She is also considering a board of directors structure for Encompass Farm, in which she would invite experts in real estate and agricultural law to help her achieve land access. “I’d want to provide value for them as well. I just haven’t figured [that] out yet,” she says.

To make ends meet, she also provides landscape consulting and has a part-time job, like 60% of farmers nationwide, according to the 2017 U.S. Agricultural Census.

“It just goes to show the people who are growing our food are doing it because they want to, not because it’s lucrative,” she says.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Sara Murphy
Sara Murphy lives in Leicester. Her work has appeared in 100 Days in Appalachia, Facing South, Polygon, and Lifehacker.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.