Further Reading: Preserving Farm Land
If this subject is of interest to you, please continue reading. Most of the below information comes from the “Agricultural Development Protection Plan” compiled by Sam Bingham, located on the Buncombe County web site at: https://www.buncombecounty.org/Governing/depts/Soil/Farmland-Preservation.aspx
The Buncombe County Farmland Preservation Program was developed to encourage the voluntary preservation and protection of vital farmland from non-farm development. The Voluntary Ag District Preservation Program (VAD) is a state sponsored, local government program that allows farmers to voluntarily enroll their farm property in an agricultural district. The Farm is the subject of a conservation agreement, as defined in G.S. 121-35, between the county and the owner of such land that prohibits nonfarm use or development of such land for a period of at least 10 years. The program is voluntary.
Asheville and Buncombe County have been experiencing urban sprawl that threatens to overwhelm what remains of its rural heritage. There are an estimated less than 1200 working farms remaining in Buncombe County, and most are small scale, less than half actually profitable. The rural landscape and pastoral beauty of rolling farms are an integral part of the attraction of this area, and add greatly to the peace, happiness and harmony of the place. Asheville’s housing boom continues to chip away at the working private farm land on which the harmony of the whole depends. By keeping Creekside Farm as a working farm, we all enjoy and benefit from the natural beauty and fertility of the land itself. Our goal is to keep an agrarian landscape that remains fertile, biologically diverse, uncluttered to the eye, and productive.
Growth and Urban Expansion –
The pressure to convert farm land to commercial and residential use is common to all urbanizing areas worldwide. Especially in developed countries land prices have become so high on all but the most marginal land that no legal farm crop will pay the interest on a mortgage to purchase them. In most cases the return on farming will not even pay the property tax if levied on the market value of the land. Thus agricultural land and other open spaces tend to disappear quickly. South Buncombe County has already lost nearly all its farmland, and what remains is almost out of reach to young farmers starting out.
Unfortunately, the sellers’ market for farmland is not the only general economic force driving the conversion of agricultural land. Preserving farmland is hard to justify if farmers still can’t make a living on it. Because of the topography Buncombe County farms tend to be smaller and steeper than those outside the mountains, and they compete poorly against bigger, flatter farms in the Midwest for the production of bulk commodities.
Even relatively flat Buncombe County never had many large farms or large fields of row crops, and with the exception of Burley tobacco and milk, no significant production of major commodities. Most farms are now, as they have always been, small, specialized producers. Originally they were mostly small subsistence farms created by the original settlers. With the creation of roads such as the Buncombe Turnpike and “The Drovers Road” in the early 1800’s, cattle and other livestock from Kentucky and Tennessee were driven right thru Asheville and along the French Broad river to markets in Charleston, and an expansion of Indian corn production began to feed and support those large herds and men on the trail. Thousands of cattle, hogs and turkey made their way thru south Asheville each fall, and networks of stables and stock yards or “pens” were lined along the way to feed and support these moving herds. The Civil War and the railroads put an end to the trail and the local corn farms that supported them.
A major effort by local farmers in the 1960s and 70s to join the national march toward highly-capitalized, high-volume farming production models, generally failed in the mountain counties. Large, abandoned chicken houses, and empty milk parlors, bear witness to the attempt all over this region. The problem was too much feed had to be imported, the markets were too far, and the competition too stiff. A subsequent campaign to substitute tomatoes for tobacco as a small farmer’s mortgage-payer also collapsed in a squeeze between an unsympathetic market and labor costs. Much pasture that had supported a low cost, grass-based livestock production model was abandoned and reverted to forest during this period.
The real estate market is now the primary force eroding the position of agriculture in Buncombe County. Pressure on farms from growing populations and urban/suburban growth occurs worldwide, but Buncombe County farm owners experience it acutely, because, according to the Chamber of Commerce, 95 percent of our population growth comes from in-migration, much of it by wealthy people seeking an ex-urban lifestyle. Thanks in no small measure to a landscape defined by farms and the rural beauty, acreage prices in Fairview top the market in the County, and the development pressure there is extreme.
As Hickory Nut Gap Farm and a few other similar operations illustrate, mountain land will generate enough cash to support a family seeking a working rural lifestyle, but no combination of directly marketed crops will pay off a mortgage on the market value that the wider society sets on that land just because it is so pretty. No new farms are likely to pop up in that area, and the farm land that is now gone to development is gone forever.
The biggest challenges to preserving farmland are symptoms of this fact. The average age of a Buncombe County farmer is over 58. As he looks toward retirement, the farmer knows he could cash out and sell to a developer, or chop it up into smaller homesteads himself. His children may want the farm to stay in the family but can’t afford to buy it from Dad at its current market value. Younger farmers with new ideas and energy can’t afford to get into the business.
The money involved and the difficulties of planning transitions among multiple heirs make liquidation the most efficient way to settle an estate, and the enormous profit margins realized on subdivisions over several decades of a rising market have created a strong political resistance to regulations on land use, so there is no likely protection of farm land politically. There is now at least a general public awareness that a big piece of our economy and its supporting environment, once taken for granted, has become both threatened and vulnerable. However, no matter what incentives we may come up with politically, whether tax incentives, easements or subsidies, we will never have enough dollars available soon enough to slow the loss of farmland. Many are realizing now that the most effective way to preserve farmland may be to just try to help keep these farms in business by supporting them thru farmers markets and CSA programs.
The Buncombe County Extension Service leads the crusade for farm viability, though a number of non-profit organizations rank as essential collaborators, in particular the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, ASAP. Creekside Farms is a member of ASAP.
The county offers technical support for farms in transition, which includes advice on new crops and techniques through on-farm consulting by extension agents, organized seminars, and facilitating communication among farmers. It also helps by promoting direct sales so that more of the retail value of production comes back to the farm. This not only includes encouraging Farmer’s Markets and CSA programs, but also promoting and organizing sales to local bulk consumers including institutional buyers such as schools. The county also works on improving infrastructure, again so that producers can keep control of their product through more stages of the marketing process. Ready examples would be Blue Ridge Food Ventures, an incubator for value-added enterprises, where a producer can rent access to kitchen and other processing equipment for canning, baking, juicing, rendering, etc. Coordination with Madison Farms for cleaning and packaging vegetables also represents this approach. The Madison Farms facility in adjacent Madison County is the initiative of the Extension Service there. ASAP and the County Extension Service have also helped establish Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangements to help small farmers finance their production.