12/27/06 — More voluntary agriculture districts created

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More voluntary agriculture districts created

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on December 27, 2006 1:52 PM

With nearly $1.1 billion in combined annual revenues, many people consider agriculture to be the economic backbone of both Wayne and Duplin counties, and for the last two years, officials in both have been working to promote that idea through a new program known as voluntary agricultural districts.

In Wayne County, where receipts total about $328 million, more than 4,200 acres have already been designated for the program since 2004 and another 800-plus acres are pending. It is the third-highest grossing agricultural county in the state.

In Duplin, where the receipts total approximately $800 million, 52 landowners have put 14,502 acres into the program since 2005.

"Agriculture and agribusiness is the No. 1 business in Duplin County and it accounts for at least 75 percent of the tax base," county Cooperative Extension Director Ed Emory said. "Duplin County is the top agricultural county in the state and in the nation. 2006 Farm Futures magazine called it the second best place to farm in America."

The program, which allows farmers to voluntarily protect their land from non-agricultural development by registering it with county cooperative extension offices, is a relatively new one.

When Wayne County Commissioners approved creating the voluntary districts in 2004, county Cooperative Extension Director Howard Scott said there were few eastern North Carolina counties interested in implementing the program. Now more than half of the state's counties are involved in voluntary agricultural districts.

"We need to give people who want to farm the opportunity to farm," he said.

The districts also let neighboring property owners know that the land is being actively used for farming.

"The purpose of the program is to protect farmland, promote farm ownership and recognize the role agriculture plays in Duplin County," Emory added. "The other thing it does is inform purchasers of real estate in those districts that farms are there and that they were there first."

But a farmer's land must meet a list of requirements before it can be approved for the program.

In Wayne County, the program is divided in six regions -- the townships of Great Swamp, Buck Swamp and Fork are combined into one, the townships of Nahunta, Pikeville and Stoney Creek form another, and the townships of Goldsboro, Saulston and New Hope are a third. The other regions include the Indian Springs, Brogden and Grantham townships.

Each region must include a minimum of 100 contiguous acres of qualified farmland and any district must be connected to that property.

Any farmers in these regions can apply to become a voluntary agricultural district through the county's Cooperative Extension office. The application is reviewed by members of the Wayne Planning Department, Cooperative Extension and the Agricultural Advisory Committee within 60 days.

For farmland to qualify, at least two-thirds of the property must be certified by the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture as having good soil quality best suited for providing food, seed, fiber, forestry, horticultural crops and oil seed crops.

The land must also "have been actively used in agricultural, horticultural or forestry operations ... during each of the past five years," according to the county's ordinance for voluntary agricultural districts.

In Duplin County, the requirements and the process are much the same. The biggest difference is that in Duplin, any farmer with a minimum of 25 contiguous acres of qualified farmland can be approved for an agricultural district.

And while the districts do not involve any zoning requirements or restrictions, they do allow farmers to protect their interests.

"The people will know they are buying within a district set for farming. And that it comes with the smells, farming tactics and everything else that comes with farming," Scott said.

Wayne Cooperative Extension employees said they hope that by adding the option of voluntary agricultural districts, more farmers will take advantage of the opportunity to protect their farmland.

"We think of it as another tool in the farmer's toolbox," Scott said.

For more information about voluntary agricultural districts, visit the Wayne County Cooperative Extension office at 208 W. Chestnut St. or call the office at 731-1521. In Duplin County, visit the Duplin County Cooperative Extension office at 165 Agriculture Drive in Kenansville or call (910) 296-2143.