11/13/07 — Officials watching farmland losses

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Officials watching farmland losses

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 13, 2007 1:58 PM

Despite the development pressures that are beginning to be felt in Wayne County, nearly half of it is still farmland. But its an amount that some feel might soon begin decreasing.

County Cooperative Extension Director Howard Scott said the latest farm census numbers from 2002 show the county with about 48 percent farmland, not counting those acres being used for forestry purposes.

And, he continued, while that percentage might be a little bit lower by now -- perhaps 46 percent or 47 percent -- it still represents a large part of Wayne County, as agriculture accounts for more than 20 percent of the local economy ($320 million in receipts).

The challenge, however, has become protecting that resource.

"With North Carolina's (and Wayne County's) No. 1 industry being agriculture, there is great economic benefit to us maintaining this farmland," said Mount Olive College Agribusiness Center's Associate Director Dr. Sandra Maddox.

Helping do that is a new pot of money established in 2005 by the state General Assembly -- the Agricultural Development & Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.

"The legislature appropriated $8 million for farmland preservation in North Carolina this year," Scott said. "It's not a whole lot, but it is a start."

And it is available to any farm or forest landowner, especially those facing urban development pressures.

"It's there for agriculture development -- anything that can make the farmland profitable and sustainable," Ms. Maddox said.

Such efforts could run the gamut from implementing plans for new crops, agri-tourism or other agriculture-related businesses, to purchasing agricultural conservation easements that would keep the land's development rights locked up either in perpetuity or for a certain number of years.

And, Scott continued, while such alternatives may not always pay as well as selling the development rights, they would allow farmers to help preserve open space and secure their farms for future generations.

"It's not dollar to dollar, but you can make sure the farm can go to the next generation without tying it up forever," he said. "The other issue for us, is that many of our farmers don't own (all) their own land. They rent their land."

And so, he continued, easement payments could help convince some landowners to continue to allow those farmers to make a living.

But, Scott emphasized, "this is not an anti-development program."

"It does not mean you can't build houses," he said. "It's basically investing in agriculture in the county."

Other benefits include the maintenance of a rural quality of life and better protected wild and open spaces.

"I think it's something we need to look at," said county Commissioner Atlas Price after a special farmland preservation seminar at Mount Olive College last week. "I think there is too much good farmland being developed."

He added that he is becoming particularly concerned about the northern end of the county.

"That's some of the best farmland in the county and we're letting some of it slip away from us," he said. "I think it's probably a good a program. It's something we're going to have to look at. You just have to put the puzzle together."

And the first step toward doing so is already underway with cooperative extension looking for funding to create a farmland conservation plan for the county.

"This is not something that will be done in 30 days. It'll probably take us 9 to 12 months," Scott said.

He explained that when complete, the plan will allow for a lower local match on any dollars received and will help the county during future planning efforts, especially if combined with the comprehensive plan currently being discussed.

"The reason we're looking at this now, is we need to be on the front side of the curve. This will give the county a pretty good document it can use during planning," Scott said. "It will give us a historical look at what agriculture is and where agriculture is in Wayne County. It'll give the county leaders the opportunity to see what's out there."