11/21/07 — Speaker: Lost land threatens U.S. farm position

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Speaker: Lost land threatens U.S. farm position

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 21, 2007 1:46 PM

Speaking at the 2007 Wayne County Farm-City Banquet Tuesday night, North Carolina State Grange President Jimmy Gentry discussed an issue that has been front and center on the plates of local officials for several weeks -- farmland preservation.

Of all the issues facing the state and its policymakers right now, he explained that maintaining North Carolina's farmland is one of the most important.

"There are many problems out there," he said. "But do you think we would be pleased if we were in the same situation with food as we are with oil?"

However, he continued, that's the direction agriculture in America is heading, with consumers becoming more and more dependent on foreign food sources.

For example, at the 2007 Wayne County Agricultural Expo on Monday, county Cooperative Extension Agricultural and Natural Resource Agent Kevin Johnson explained how other countries are beginning to feed the world.

Because of its available farmland and multiple growing seasons, Brazil is already the world leader in soybeans, tobacco, ethanol, coffee, sugar and oranges, and has the potential to be No. 1 in beef, chicken and most other crops.

Soon, Johnson continued, it will be "the new bread basket of the world."

"It's going to happen. There's nothing we can do to stop it," he said.

On the other hand, Gentry said, America's dominance of the world food market is declining -- largely because of its loss of farmland.

But, he added, people can rarely be blamed for no longer farming when it ceases to be profitable and selling the land to the highest bidder.

Still, it is a problem, he said.

"We understand that pro-cess," Gentry said. "And you can't criticize the landowner for doing that."

Quoting statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said that every minute, the U.S. loses two acres of farmland to development.

He also said that North Carolina leads the nation in the loss of forest and farmland with 2.8 million acres developed in the last 20 years -- 300,000 between 2000 and 2005, and 100,000 between 2004 and 2005 alone.

"Once the land is lost to development, it's gone forever," Gentry said. "It will never come back and we will be more dependent on foreign countries to feed us."

Currently though, Johnson said during his presentation Monday, agriculture in Wayne County is still strong.

According to Farm Futures magazine, Wayne County is considered the fifth best county in America for farming -- in large part because of its agricultural diversity in livestock, soybeans, tobacco, wheat and cotton.

Additionally, despite the fact that Wayne is considered an urban community with a population of more than 113,000 people, agriculture and forestry still account for nearly 50 percent of the total acreage. And agriculture is the county's No. 1 industry with about $320 million in gross receipts last year -- about 20 percent of the county's total economy.

However, Gentry noted, that is no guarantee for the future.

"In North Carolina, agriculture is currently the No. 1 industry, but if this trend continues, that will change," he said.

Helping to preserve and possibly improve the status quo, though, is the state's new $8 million Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund -- a pot of money the county is beginning to learn how to tap into.

Its goal is to pay for conservation easements and other programs to help preserve farmland and make farming more sustainable and economically viable in the future.

"I'm not sure the solution has been found yet, and $8 million is not going to be near enough, but it's a good start," Gentry said.