A Call to Action: Supporting Farmers and Protecting Farmland in the Triangle

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By Edgar Miller, Government Relations Director for the Conservation Trust for North Carolina

Across the Triangle, farmers face a range of complex forces putting farmland and their livelihoods at risk. In the more rapidly developing counties in the region (Durham, Orange, Wake), on average one of every five acres of farmland has been lost to development over the past 20 years. The Conservation Trust for North Carolina, alongside community partners, met with more than 100 agricultural resource professionals, farmers, community leaders, and other stakeholders to address this concern and develop a comprehensive strategy for protecting farmland and enhancing the local food economy.

The resulting, “Triangle Farms for Food: Strategy + Action Plan,” offers six regional strategies encompassing more than 70 action items to protect farms and assist farmers in Chatham, Durham, Johnston, Orange, and Wake Counties. The report also recommends six place-based strategies that focus on local assets and opportunities to address the multiple causes of farmland loss and build a stronger local food system throughout the region.

Nearly one-quarter of the Triangle’s almost two million acres is farmland.

According to the USDA Agricultural Census:

  • In 1997, the five-county Triangle region had nearly 550,000 acres of active farmland.
  • Over the past 20 years, more than 80,000 acres (15 percent) of farmland were lost to development.
  • The region’s population grew by almost 30 percent from 2000-2010, putting even more pressure on farmland targeted for expanding infrastructure needs.

While this pressure did result in the loss of farmland, the growing population in the region has fueled the demand for locally-produced food. Direct market sales from farmers to consumers increased by more than 80 percent between 1997-2012, with direct sales to consumers totaling $3.65 million per year. Yet this is just a drop in the bucket of total food sales in the region approaching $4 billion.

If the region achieved the Center for Environmental Farming System’s 10 percent local food consumption goal, an additional $400 million in direct economic impact would be generated for the area’s economy. How can we make this happen?

Regional strategies

Implementing Regional Strategies

First and foremost, we need a coordinated approach by local and regional government agencies to protect farmland and agricultural communities. Much progress has been made in the region to integrate farmland preservation in local planning and land-use efforts, but more needs to be done.

The report uses a comprehensive Geographic Information System (GIS) methodology to prioritize the best farmland in the region. Farms for Food identifies nearly 800 parcels comprising more than 50,000 acres in rural areas of the region and 65 parcels totaling 850 acres in urban areas.

Key action items include designating agricultural priority areas and enterprise zones at the county level and expanding incentives for farmers to join Voluntary Agricultural Districts (VADs), while developing strategies to connect urban growers with vacant or underutilized publicly-owned lands.

In addition, we must value farmers and farmland and continue to support programs that assist and educate new farmers. The average age of farmers in the state is approaching 60 years old. We must develop new strategies such as incubator farms, expanded community college curriculums, regional farm schools, and other cost-effective methods to educate new farmers.

Other action items include building partnerships with agriculture development organizations to implement branding and marketing strategies that link local food production and farmland preservation, and providing new farmers with access to affordable, productive farmland through land link programs, conservation easements, and long-term leasing agreements.

Furthermore, from a market perspective, we must create a comprehensive local food infrastructure that supports economically-viable local farm operations through more extensive food and farmer business networks and business incubator programs. To increase the demand for local food products we need to promote employer-sponsored Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, institutional procurement of local foods, and expanded nutritional assistance program benefits for fresh and locally produced food.

Finally, we need a significant increase in state and local funding for farmland preservation and agricultural development.

Assuming an average value of $7,500 per acre for farmland in the region, to permanently protect just 40 percent of the 50,000 acres of high-priority farmland identified in the report, it would take $75 million dollars to acquire easements on the land.

Blue – Top scoring rural farm parcels. Red – Top scoring urban farm parcels.

Blue – Top scoring rural farm parcels. Red – Top scoring urban farm parcels.

The Role of Land Trusts

Easements typically reduce land value by approximately 50 percent. Land trusts are working to pass these savings along to new farmers by selling the conserved land to them at agricultural land values through “option to purchase at agricultural values” or “OPAV” language in easements. These acquire-protect-sell programs have been very successful in protecting tens of thousands of acres of farmland nationally and making the farmland available to new farmers at reasonable prices.

To incentivize these efforts, the state should consider reinstating the conservation tax credit for donated agricultural easements and provide additional tax incentives for landowners that lease or sell farmland to new farmers. Programs to enhance farm and food businesses’ access to capital and low interest loans for land and equipment are needed to enhance farm profitability and address food insecurity issues and improve local food access.

Promoting Place-Based Strategies

In addition to the regional strategies, the report recommends six place-based strategies developed from input received from stakeholders throughout the region, GIS results, and recommendations in county-approved farmland protection plans.

These strategies focus on supporting larger farming operations in southeastern Johnston County and western Chatham County; expanding new farming operations and transitioning existing farmland in northern Orange and Durham counties, including agritourism opportunities; developing urban agriculture in Durham and Wake counties and small farm networks along the Wake and Johnston county line; and maintaining and protecting a “farm ring” around Siler City in western Chatham County.

The place-based strategies provide an excellent starting point for local food councils and local and regional government entities to secure the long-term future of agriculture in the region and secure the region’s ability to meet a portion of its food needs.

The report estimates that 225,000 acres of farmland will be needed in the future in the Triangle just to meet 10 percent of the region’s food needs from local sources. This is more than half of the remaining farmland in the region.

The multi-faceted approach laid out in the report will be the most effective way to keep farmland in farming, support current and new farmers, advance agricultural awareness and build a strong local food economy.

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Farms for Food was made possible with grant support from the Triangle Community Foundation and Sustainable Foods NC, with special thanks to project partners including Community Food Lab, Triangle Land Conservancy, Eno River Association, Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.

If you are interested in efforts to implement the action items in the report, please contact Edgar Miller, Conservation Trust for NC director of government relations and farmland protection, at edgar@ctnc.org.

ABOUT EDGAR MILLER

Edgar represents North Carolina’s 23 land trusts before the North Carolina General Assembly and other state and federal agencies. He led the successful effort to establish a Voluntary Agricultural District in Davidson County, where he lives and has a small hop farm, and is a member of the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund Advisory Committee.

ABOUT CTNC

For 25 years Conservation Trust for NC has saved the places you love – streams, farms, parks, forests, trails, and vistas. We work with local land trusts, landowners, communities, and government agencies to protect North Carolina’s natural treasures for all people – forever. We protect land along the Blue Ridge Parkway, assist 23 local land trusts, and connect people from all walks of life to the outdoors. More information can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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