Step up now to save Buncombe County’s farmland

Robert Turner

BY ROBERT TURNER

Buncombe County Commissioner Terri Wells’ proposal to substantially increase funding for land conservation offers abundant benefits: protecting biodiversity and mitigating climate change while improving food security, food sovereignty and community resilience. As a member of the county’s Land Conservation Advisory Board, I urge readers to contact their county commissioners to show support for this proposal.

Faced with significant development pressures, we must do what we can to protect some of the region’s natural habitat and biodiversity, as well as our most productive farmland.

Wells’ bold proposal calls for more than tripling county funding for land conservation, from the current $240,000 to $750,000 per year. The roughly $500,000 increase represents about 0.15% of the county’s 2020-21 general fund budget.

A sound investment

The county money is primarily used to help cover transaction costs, including surveys and attorney fees, when a landowner voluntarily places a conservation easement on his or her property. Such easements prohibit future development of the land in perpetuity, while protecting and preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems for future generations.

In her briefing in advance of the Feb. 16 Board of Commissioners meeting, Wells cited President Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order that calls for conserving 30% of the nation’s remaining natural spaces (including both land and water resources) by the year 2030 as part of an effort to mitigate climate change and habitat loss. The 30-by-30 target is based on scientific recommendations for addressing the rapid loss of biodiversity and using natural ecosystems to sequester atmospheric carbon. Wells believes Buncombe County can be a leader in this effort, setting an example for other counties to follow.

Conservation scientists say this aggressive approach is needed to halt a looming biodiversity crisis. Due to a growing global population, increasing worldwide consumption, rapid habitat destruction and a warming planet, species have been going extinct at up to 1,000 times the estimated background rate seen over the past 10 million years, scientists say. The United Nations has warned that 1 million species are now at risk of extinction across the planet in what has been called a “sixth mass extinction.” Biden’s order aligns the U.S. with more than 50 countries that have already signed onto this global effort.

But both in Buncombe County and nationwide, much of the remaining undisturbed natural space and biodiversity exists on private land, and the cost of the surveys and legal work needed to conserve a parcel averages about $40,000. For an owner who’s interested in conserving land by voluntarily surrendering the right to potentially lucrative future development deals, that could constitute a big financial burden. Many would agree that the county should at least help cover those transaction costs, since we all benefit from preserving and protecting our region’s natural beauty and biodiversity. Although landowners are sometimes compensated for a portion of the value of the land in question, most of that money has come from federal, state and private grants funneled through local land trusts.

Preserving our farming heritage

But conservation in Buncombe County isn’t just about habitat loss and biodiversity; it’s also about food sovereignty, food security and community resilience.

Conservation money helps preserve the region’s farmland as well as its watersheds and viewscapes. And by taking development out of the equation, “locking down” farmland with a conservation easement helps keep the land affordable for future generations of farmers.

This is critical, because rapid development and suburban sprawl are driving up the price of farmland and making it difficult, if not impossible, for young farmers in the region to acquire needed property. The cost of land is integral to a farming operation’s profitability. In some areas, the only people who can afford to pay current market prices are developers.

Farming has been an important part of the local economy for generations, and the growth of farmers markets and the farm-to-table trend in restaurants is evidence that we still value farming and local food production. But rapid growth and development threaten that economy and way of life.

Losing the ability to grow some of our food locally increases dependence on imports from faraway places. A 2002 study by the Worldwatch Institute found that food typically travels 1,500 miles or more from farm to table.

But the industrialized food system, which depends heavily on chemicals, fossil fuels and transportation networks, is simply not sustainable for the long term. Protecting and preserving our production capability is prudent behavior that also benefits the local economy, creating jobs and enhancing our quality of life. In the future, resilient communities will be those that have chosen to preserve and protect their agricultural sector.

The future involves way more than green homes and electric cars. It also demands sustainability and self-reliance. Because the local food movement is booming, we have so far retained much of the knowledge and ability to grow some of our own food. But that’s changing rapidly as farmland disappears to development: We’re losing capacity before we’ve even fully recognized its importance.

It starts with you

Biden’s pledge would provide some money through federal programs to compensate farmers and others for placing conservation easements on their land. Studies by the American Farmland Trust have found that over the last several decades, the United States lost tens of millions of acres of open land to development, including some of the nation’s most productive and versatile farmland.

Conservation easements are one way to preserve farmland and our ability to produce our own food. Another simple step that anyone can take is to buy local food when you can. It doesn’t have to be everything you eat: Just adding some local food to your diet will go a long way toward helping our farmers stay in business. Shop at the local farmers market, ask your favorite restaurants and grocery stores to source more produce locally, and try to “eat your view.”

The future will belong to those individuals, families, businesses and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world — and those who balance development with sustainability and community resilience.

Arden-based writer and farmer Robert Turner is the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. He serves on the Buncombe County Land Conservation Advisory Board and the board of the Organic Growers School.

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