When it comes to saving the family farm, Robin Reeves knows a thing or two. As a member of the sixth generation to grow up on her family’s Madison County farm — a lineage that predates the Civil War — Reeves was faced with being the last generation. The solution? A conservation easement made possible by the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy that gave her enough cash to keep the farm going.
After her father died in 2009, Reeves moved back to the farm to help her mother keep the family homestead going. But times were tough. “Financially, it was hard,” she explains. “It was basically me trying to run the farm alone.”
Reeves’ story is a familiar one in North Carolina. According to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the state’s $78 billion agricultural industry employs 16 percent of the workforce, leads the nation in tobacco and sweet potato production, and ranks second in poultry, Christmas trees, hogs and trout. But U.S. Census Bureau figures indicate that between 1997 and 2012, Western North Carolina lost 18 percent of its farms.
Encroaching development, the rising cost of land and an aging farming population have put a strain on agricultural pursuits across the state. In the mountains, where topography and poor soil conditions limit the amount of arable land, the loss of farmland is felt even more acutely.
Preserving farmland, notes William Hamilton, farmland program director for the SAHC, is important to ensuring “food security, soil preservation, open space for wildlife, groundwater recharge, the preservation of our cultural heritage and the long-term security of a unique economic resource.”
To this end, government agencies and private land trusts are working hand in hand with farmers to preserve rural communities through conservation easements and other agreements.
Easing the struggle
Facing an uphill financial battle, Reeves and her family asked a friend about securing an easement to protect their property. Eventually, she was put in contact with the SAHC.
“I always had this thing about not liking people telling me what to do with my property,” she reveals. “There’s a lot of farmers with the same stubborn mindset that I have, but the Southern Appalachian crew are great to work with.”
Under a conservation easement, the property owner sells the right to develop the land but retains possession of the land. The purchasing money comes from grants, government programs and land trusts, which coordinate the process and hold the easement once the transfer has been made.
Securing an easement is a complicated process that often takes several years, notes Ariel Dixon, farmland preservation coordinator for Buncombe County’s program. “In general, we have just a handful of different grant programs that the county can apply for,” she explains. “Occasionally, we’ll get other small grants, but that’s not always the case.”
Private land trusts like the SAHC have more wiggle room when it comes to securing private donations to supplement government funding. “Supporting SAHC as a member or philanthropic leader is a great way to provide direct, needed support for our farmland conservation efforts,” notes Hamilton.
“We want to make [farmers] understand that even though they’re working with a government agency, the county is not going to take their land,” Dixon says. Hammering out the details requires compromise on both sides. Open communication and a positive working relationship among the parties during the application process are crucial, he adds.
For those who aren’t ready to commit to a permanent easement, voluntary agricultural districts, which consist of 50 or more acres of farmland within a 1-mile radius, can exempt farmers from nuisance ordinances, sewer and water assessments, and other restrictions. Landowners can withdraw from the district after 10 years and are free to apply for a permanent easement at any time.
Provisional agreements like voluntary agricultural districts “get the farmer in the door and get him used to operating under an easement,” says Edgar Miller, director of government relations at the Conservation Trust for North Carolina.
Toward greener pastures
Despite local entities’ success in preserving agricultural land, there are a number of obstacles to accomplishing grander goals.
“Every year, [funding] gets cut again and again,” says Dixon. As a result, her department is getting creative in how it markets the county’s easement program.
Recently, Buncombe’s farmland preservation program received a grant to establish a pilot “farm heritage trail” in the northwest area of the county, which is designed to bring potential paying customers to the farms and build public support for preservation. The trail is expected to be completed in the first half of this year.
Land that has already been preserved can pose another challenge: how to put it back into active use. Farming schools, like the Organic Growers School in Candler, have gone a long way toward rekindling young adults’ interest in farming, Miller says. But, in many cases, “young farmers can’t afford the land” they need to get started.
To help address this, the SAHC established a 103-acre community farm in Alexander as an incubator program, giving beginning farmers low-cost access to land and hands-on learning opportunities.
Planting the seeds
For Reeves, the conservation easement had both immediate and long-term benefits. The money she received enabled her to buy a new tractor and hay equipment, and she’s working on building a facility for on-site retail sales.
She says that keeping prime farmland available is really a matter of the entire region’s survival. “We want to support local food — Asheville’s great about that. But if we lose all the farmland to development, we won’t have that local food here.”
Preserving agricultural land for future generations “is a long process, but it’s worth it,” asserts Reeves. “That way you know there won’t be a bunch of houses looking at each other on prime farmland that’s fed your family for many years.”