BY JOHN ROSS
Buncombe County’s farmland has changed a lot since I first got to know it more than 50 years ago. Gone are dairy herds and milking parlors. And when willow leaves were the size of squirrel’s ears a few weeks ago, it marked the time when farmers would have been planting tobacco back then. Yet despite all the changes, thousands of tranquil acres still surround Asheville’s suburban sprawl.
They look so pastoral, but each is performing a vital task that supports the 263,000 county residents and welcomes 12 million tourists per year. Grasslands filter groundwater, ensuring that those dependent on wells have an ample supply of pure drinking water. Pastures strain runoff into the streams that feed the French Broad, long the lifeblood of Buncombe.
Grasslands are also natural carbon sinks. They sequester carbon in their roots. Forests capture carbon too, storing it in their branches, bark and leaves. Grasslands and woodlands are natural hedges against climate change.
Meanwhile, in the last decade, demand has exploded for produce grown locally without chemical stimulants, pesticides or herbicides. The market for naturally raised vegetables and meats has given small family farms new life: They now supply scores of restaurants and supermarkets in the area.
For these farms, the future is looking brighter and brighter. While researching my new book — Through the Mountains: The French Broad River and Time — I interviewed economists who study sustainability. The picture they painted amazed me.
Today and tomorrow
Imagine that each farm installed a small solar field, an acre or so, and batteries to store the electricity that’s generated. Besides powering its own farm equipment, passenger cars and home, each family could sell surplus power to the rural cooperatives that provide energy to small communities like Leicester. Like the old half-acre tobacco allotments of my grandad’s day, that additional income could help farmers hold onto their land and continue to live on it sustainably.
Commissioner Terri Wells has proposed that Buncombe County commit $750,000 per year — less than 0.2 percent of the county’s annual operating budget — to support self-sufficient rural sustainability. The funds would be used to help farmers and others in the county place their grasslands and forests under conservation easements to preserve them for future generations.
Some folks claim that these easements prevent development, but that’s not true. Easements can allow the construction of new buildings if they’re consistent with the conservation goals and safeguards.
The big, water-dependent industries like American Enka and Beacon Manufacturing that once were mainstays of the local economy are long gone. Tourism and outdoor recreation are what has replaced them.
The fresh vistas of rolling farmland rising into rugged mountains are foremost among the various reasons that Buncombe County, Asheville, Weaverville, Black Mountain and a host of small villages have attracted our residents as well as those millions of annual visitors. Commissioner Wells’ proposal is a minuscule price to pay for securing our future.
Local author John Ross’ latest book — Through the Mountains: The French Broad River and Time — will be released by The University of Tennessee Press in June. Based on a half-century of subsequent research, the book extends Wilma Dykeman’s 1955 classic, The French Broad, and considers how evolving trends may affect the watershed in the decades ahead.