02/29/08 — Officials examine future of farmland

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Officials examine future of farmland

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 29, 2008 2:05 PM

Members of the local farm community met with political candidates Thursday to discuss the future of the county's farmland.

Wayne County Cooperative Extension Agent Kevin Johnson said he had a mission -- to try to scare those in attendance into preserving agriculture's future in Wayne County.

He said the likelihood of it being greatly diminished is increasing unless steps to preserve farmland are taken, but he also said that the importance of addressing the issue now could not be overstated.

"Farmland preservation is so, so important," he said. "We've got to start right now on this or else there won't be any farming in Wayne County."

And, he continued, the first step -- and the easiest step -- is participation in the county's voluntary agriculture districts.

"That's something we've got to do, but that's just a start," he said. "We've got to do this. I want you to think about what's going to be on your farm in 25 years, 50 years."

Johnson used Johnston County and Mecklenburg County -- only one farm left in the entire county -- as examples, noting that development is steadily encroaching on all rural areas.

"I'm trying to scare you a little bit, but this is real," he said. "This is our future."

Hosted by the County Board of Commissioners, the Wayne County Farm Bureau and the county Cooperative Extension Service, the meeting started with a short session for candidates to introduce themselves. They included Efton Sager (Republican for state House District 11), Ronnie Griffin (Republican for state House District 11), Tony Moore (Democrat for state Senate District 5), Chuck Stone (Democrat for state Senate District 5), Charles Johnson (Democrat for state Senate District 5), Don Davis (Democrat for state Senate District 5), Patricia Oliver (Democrat for state Senate District 12), Nena Reeves (Republican for state Senate District 12), Van Braxton (Democrat for state House District 10), Bud Gray (Commissioner District 5) Willie Ray Starling (Commissioner District 5) and Andy Anderson (Commissioner District 1).

After the candidates spoke, County Manager Lee Smith talked about Wayne's future.

"2008 is going to be an interesting year," Smith said. "Urbanites are moving into farmland faster than we can count, and we're losing farmland faster than we can count. "You won't recognize Wayne County in 20 years."

For that reason, he said, the farming community needs to get heavily involved in the political process, lobbying local, state and national leaders for support and assistance not only in farmland preservation issues, but also for schools, water, transportation, infrastructure and other needs.

"We're looking not five years, but 50 years down the road because five is not enough. We need you to step up a little more," Smith said. "You need to be pro-active in the issue of agriculture. Lobby everybody you can get your hands on. The only way you can get anything done is to be the squeaky wheel and stay in their faces."

For farmers, he said, the key will be land protection, whether through such methods as the voluntary agriculture districts, easements or zoning -- the latter of which evoked a stir among those in attendance.

"(Zoning) is not a bad word, particularly when it comes to farms," Smith said. "We've got to do something to protect farming and the way to do that is through comprehensive planning and zoning."

And that, he continued, means working hand-in-hand with municipalities as they continue to grow and annex land to ensure proper planning.

For the county, it also means working to make Wayne more friendly to agriculture -- an economic engine that generates about $650 million a year -- through projects such as a proposed 60,000-square-foot regional agricultural facility near Cherry Research Farm.

Dr. Sandy Maddox, the associate director of Mount Olive College's Agribusiness Center, said the immediate focus is on the county's farmland preservation study, which is just now getting underway. Not only will it give a better picture of what land uses exist, she said, but once a countywide plan is in place it will also benefit those farmers wanting to take steps to either leave their land to farming or forestry in perpetuity or just until their children can decide what to do with it.

The goal is to finish the study by the end of the year.

Farmer Brad West of Fremont said the evening it was an important event for the agriculture community.

"795 has opened us up to a whole new spectrum," he said about the northern end of the county and the new interstate highway. "I'm seeing it now. I don't mind expansion and I don't mind neighbors, but they just need to know what they're getting into.

"We don't need politicians whose sole focus is agriculture or whose sole focus is big business. What we need is somebody who will listen and do what's best for the state."