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Wednesday, 19 September 2007 00:00

Haywood to create farmland protection plan

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Haywood County commissioners have agreed to pay for the creation of a farmland protection plan they hope will guide efforts to preserve the region’s farming tradition for generations to come.

The farmland protection plan will provide the first comprehensive overview of the state of farming in Haywood County, challenges farmers face, and ideas and opportunities for future agricultural endeavors. The county is one of only three in the state — along with Polk and Buncombe — currently working on a plan. Alamance County is the only county with a plan already in place.

The decision to create a farmland protection plan couldn’t have come at a more crucial time, says George Ivey, a local farmland preservation activist who, along with the Agricultural Advisory Board, and local conservation groups spearheaded the effort. Developers are buying up farmland for lucrative prices at a more rapid pace than ever before.

“Farming has been under threat for years, so in hindsight, it would have been great to do this five or 10 years ago, but it’s better late than never,” Ivey said.

Leslie Smathers, with the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District, echoed Ivey’s sentiments. Smathers and others from the Soil and Water District will serve in an advisory capacity during the process, overseeing creation of the plan.

“There’s increasing awareness among the landowners that they need to do something to protect their property. There’s increased interest in it,” Smathers said.

The plan will cost $3,000 to develop, with half the funding coming from the county and half from the Pigeon River Fund.

 

Compiling data

Perhaps the greatest benefit of having a farmland protection plan — besides providing the first-ever comprehensive look at farms and agriculture in the area — is that Haywood County will now have to put up less matching funds for grants provided by the North Carolina Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.

Before, counties had to match 30 percent of the monies from each grant. With a farm protection plan, they’ll only have to put up 15 percent in matching funds. Grants from the trust fund can be used to fund conservation easements and agricultural development projects such as the Buy Haywood campaign (a marketing project aimed at increasing awareness and support for local foods).

This, in turn, will save the county money and make it possible to do more projects geared toward farmland preservation.

“We won’t always have to go to the commissioners and ask them to foot all the bill on all these projects,” Ivey explained.

Why would the state bother to encourage the formation of a farmland protection plan by giving incentives like that? Ivey says that at a state level, there’s an increasing focus on preserving North Carolina’s agricultural traditions.

“I think it’s a way for the state to encourage each county to be forward looking about agriculture when many may think agriculture is a thing of the past,” Ivey said.

Tangible proof that the state is putting more of an emphasis on farmland preservation lies in the fact that it gave $8 million to the Farmland Preservation trust fund this year. The trust fund had received no funding for several years before that.

Since it’s one of the first counties to implement such a plan, Haywood has the opportunity to tap into the $8 million at a lower cost than other counties.

 

Buncombe forging ahead

Though Haywood County’s plan has just begun, neighboring Buncombe County’s is nearly half complete. Commissioners gave nearly $15,000 in funding to create the plan — almost 5 times more than the $3,000 Haywood County is budgeting for its plan. Sam Bingham, a professor at Mars Hill College who is working on Buncombe’s plan, has spent hours combing through research to get a handle on different farms in the area.

“A lot of it is gathering what is already being done — this works, this is what we’re doing, and this is what we should focus on and do more of,” Bingham explained.

Bingham uses statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and a detailed report recently released by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to help him piece together information on farms in Buncombe County. Along the way, Bingham has learned some insights into agriculture in Western North Carolina.

“Agriculture is a big business and has a bigger economic impact than you think it does,” he said.

In writing the plan, Bingham says he’s trying to put forward some ideas for what he thinks would work toward farmland protection, based on his research and observations.

For example, a more profitable use of existing farmland — especially in areas of steep terrain — is raising livestock and allowing them to graze seasonally in an open field. This often requires less effort than crops and can bring in more revenue for the farmer.

Bingham will share more of his insights and discoveries when the plan is presented to Buncombe County officials for final approval. At that time, Bingham would like to incorporate a graphic presentation, showing existing fields, valleys and slopes of agriculture and what is currently protected or is valuable.

Early in their terms, Haywood County commissioners promised to make farmland protection a priority. When no money appeared in the county’s annual budget dedicated to farmland preservation, Ivey says he was disappointed. Now, he’s glad commissioners are stepping up to the plate to do something.

The county also recently granted $5,000 to pay for the transaction costs of a conservation easement. “I still think the county can and should do much more than these two piecemeal efforts. Still, that’s $7,000 that the county did not provide last year, and it’s moving in the right direction,” Ivey said.

Ivey said a farm protection plan will provide a useful, solid argument when persuading the commissioners to fund farmland preservation.

“I think it’s good to have a plan in place before you throw a lot of money at an issue,” he said.

Ivey is hopeful that the plan will educate commissioners, and the community, about the way in which agricultural fits into the local economy. He’s convinced the interest in knowing more ways to participate in farmland preservation is there too. A telephone survey in 2006 in the Bethel community (a hotbed of agricultural activity in Haywood County), showed that more than 90 percent of residents supported farmland preservation in Bethel. Sixty-five percent said they would support public funding of such efforts.

“We had no idea it would be that strong,” Ivey says of the survey results.

“We really need the whole county to think about agriculture and what it can do and not just view it as a Bethel thing, but be thinking about big and small things to be done to maintain our heritage,” Ivey continued.

“I think we’ve got a lot of dedicated people and now that we’re seeing commissioners embrace these issues even more, I think this will not just be something to collect dust on a shelf but something that will help us move agriculture forward for the next decade or so.”

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