Farm Bureau sounds the alarm on disappearing agricultural land

Haywood County Farm Bureau President Don Smart speaks during a breakfast event at the Lambuth Inn. Cory Vaillancourt photo Haywood County Farm Bureau President Don Smart speaks during a breakfast event at the Lambuth Inn. Cory Vaillancourt photo

The Haywood County Farm Bureau’s legislative breakfast is an annual tradition where the usual topics of conversation include crop prices, ever-escalating expenses, fuel and fertilizer costs, migrant labor policies, subsidies and what is — and isn’t — in the federal government’s current or proposed Farm Bill.

But this year’s gathering, held at Lake Junaluska on April 1, took on a darker tone concerning a major issue that certainly is no joke. 

“Today we’re going to talk about something special, something different,” said Don Smart, president of the Haywood County Farm Bureau. “We’ve lost a lot of farmland. This county 40 years ago had nearly 80,000 acres of farmland. We’re down to less than 50,000.”

Although agriculture isn’t Haywood County’s largest industry, it is North Carolina’s largest industry. Nationally, a full 10.4% of all full- and part-time jobs, more than 22 million, are directly related to agriculture and the hard work of just 1.9 million farmers.

The slowly dwindling number of farms and farmers, however, presents more than just an employment catastrophe waiting to happen. Agriculture is an economic issue, a food security issue, a national security issue, and at least in Haywood County, an identity issue.

Across the United States, there are more than 850 million acres of farmland or woodlands, and 350 million of them are considered “prime.” Last year, the state passed the $100 billion mark for agricultural products, at least $30 million of which flowed into Haywood County’s economy. 

Related Items

Smart said that Haywood County has already lost 80% of its prime farmland.

“We got 10,000 acres of cropland, about 20,000 acres of pastureland and the rest is timber land. What our problem is, we can’t manage it,” he said. “We waste it. You go into European countries, they don’t waste it, they don’t build houses everywhere. They don’t go out in a 20-acre field and put up a house.”

Ryan Manning, farmland preservation program coordinator with the Haywood County Soil and Water Conservation District, explained it as the price of growth in a state that’s been twice named by CNBC as the top state for business and is a perennial top-three destination for people moving to new states.

“We all know the truth, which is that North Carolina is growing and changing rapidly,” Manning said. “And that growth often comes at the expense of farmland.”

If things continue as they are, Haywood County is projected to lose another 4,400 acres, or about 9% of all remaining farmland.

Since 2021, Haywood County native Kaleb Rathbone has served as an assistant commissioner to N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, overseeing agricultural programs and small farms in Western North Carolina. In speaking to the federal, state and local officials gathered at the breakfast, Rathbone said the preservation of farmland, statewide, has been Troxler’s top priority.

“The American Farmland Trust last year released a study saying that North Carolina was the second most at-risk state in the union for loss of farmland between now and 2040. The prediction is, if we continue current development trends we’re looking at losing another 1.6 million acres of farmland across our state,” he said. “That’s a big number, especially when you look at our total farmland in the state somewhere around 8.5 million. Looking at losing another 1.6 million of that is quite, quite disturbing.”

While there are various conservation and easement programs that can help to preserve farmland — North Carolina has recently crossed the 36,000-acre mark — there’s still a long way to go, according to Rathbone, and easements aren’t the ultimate solution.

Manning said that the state’s conservation program had a record number of applications last cycle, which was almost double the amount that they had the previous cycle. Those 100 applications, however, would cost around $60 million, but the trust fund only has about $20 million in its budget.

“Farmland preservation, it’s about protecting the farmland itself, but you’re not going to save farmland if farmers aren’t profitable,” Rathbone said. “Looking at ways to help improve profitability in our in our state for our farmers is key.”

The General Assembly recently appropriated $10 million for each of the next two years to recruit more agricultural manufacturing and processing facilities to the state, and Rathbone says they’re looking at ways to deploy that funding.

Smart sees that as a chance to capitalize on the state’s growth.

“We’re losing land, but these people coming in here present us an opportunity to sell these rich Yankees something,” he said.

Austin Ferguson, who works in preservation with the county soil and water office, said that last September they’d closed on three easements totaling more than 175 acres at a cost of $475,000. They expect to close on another 180-acre easement in the coming weeks, then another 200 acres at a cost of $750,000 and further down the line, another 400 acres.

Although he didn’t know the exact total for the county, Ferguson believes it’s fairly substantial.

“We’re touching probably 500 to 600 acres just in the past year,” he said.

All those acres mean nothing without people actually willing to farm them; Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon) said that now that his grandkids live on his family land, they are the eighth generation to do so. Many schools across the region offer coursework in farming, but that’s in danger of vanishing too.

“Every year the state, federal government is trying to cut our funding for these programs,” said Jimmy Rogers, a longtime member of the Haywood School Board. “That’s allowing us not to have as much funding and to offer the kids as many opportunities as we can.”

Corbin’s neighbor, Rep. Karl Gillespie (R-Macon) serves as House majority whip as well as vice-chair of the agriculture committee. A farmer himself, Gillespie lamented the lack of attention paid to the state’s vanishing farmland, and also addressed comments by Terry Rogers, a farmer from Crabtree, about foreign investment in American farmland.

“China is buying up our farmland,” Rogers said. “That don’t need to be happening. They own 384,000 acres of farm and range land in this country.” 

That’s less than 1% of all foreign-owned land and only 3.4% of agricultural land, but based on the preponderance of statements at the breakfast, it’s clear that every acre counts.

Gillespie helped write H463, the NC Farmland and Military Protection Act, which would prohibit adversarial foreign government acquisition of certain lands, including those within 25 miles of an American military installation. The bill passed the House by a margin of 114-0, but still awaits its chance in the Senate.

Amid ongoing economic diversification in a post-mill Haywood County, Rathbone wants to be sure there’s never a “post-agriculture” Haywood County.

“North Carolina is changing in a lot of ways, quicker than we can keep up,” he said.  “With that growth comes change and that change is inevitable in a lot of ways, but the challenge that I leave with you this morning is, we’re going to make sure we don’t lose who we are in that process.”

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.