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Deserted factory to morph into agriculture venture

An abandoned, county-owned furniture factory in Whittier could transform into a center for agritourism in Jackson County, or it could become something entirely different.

Trial by dirt

coverWhile sunlight, water and good soil may seem a simple enough equation for getting a plant from seed to fruit, like anything it becomes a lot more complicated when people are involved.

During the past decade, community gardens have been sprouting up across Western North Carolina — from Canton to Cherokee to Sylva. Churches and charity organizations use them as a supply of produce to feed the needy; schools use them as places to teach kids about agriculture and plants; and gardeners use them as social gathering spots and as a source of healthy food. 

Forestry, farmland tax breaks reduced

Haywood County landowners who get a property tax break for agriculture or foresty will see a reduction in that benefit next year.

A countywide revaluation will hit the books next year, bringing home and land values in line with market values. While residential and commerical property is appraised on a case-by-case basis, those with farmland exceptions have an across-the-board value.

Next year, the value of agricultural land will go from $355 per acre to $495 per acre, up 39 percent, affecting 1,625 parcels. Horticulture will go from  $710 to $1,020 per acre, up 43 percent, affecting 56 parcels.

Those who get tax breaks for foresty will see a much higher increase, however. Not only has the value of the land increased since the last revaluation five years ago, but commissioners voted 3-2 this week to move forestry land into a higher value class, in line with recommendations from the state.

Forestry will go from $80 to $185 per acre, up 131 percent, affecting 532 parcels.

The new values are based on recommendations from the N.C. Department of Revenue, in conjunction with a state committee led by university researchers. Recommendations are given based on studies of soil quality, geography and other considerations, and commissioners then have the final say about what level values will be set.

The soils in Haywood County are ideal for growing trees, making forestry a more profitable operation, and pushing up market value for foresty lands.

Commissioners, however, were at odds over whether to accept the state’s pricier soil class for forestry land.

Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick came out in favor of higher forestry values to keep the tax burden evenly distributed across the community.

“If they [forestry land owners] are not paying a fair amount or paying on a fair value, then that means that someone else is paying more than their fair share,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’m trying to be fair to all the taxpayers, not just the ones who have property in deferred use.”

Commissioner Mark Swanger was also in favor of the higher value, saying he was wary of arbitrarily rejecting well-researched recommendations.

“I would be hesitant to just arbitrarily move around values when the entire document [provided by the state] is based on mathematical statistics and studies and scientific evidence,” Swanger said at the Monday morning meeting.

Commissioners Kevin Ensley and Skeeter Curtis voted against the increase, citing concerns about consistency in taxation year on year and reluctance to increase the tax liability of residents.

Tax Collector David Francis said, however, that the decision would have minimal impact on the county’s coffers or its farmer’s livelihoods.

“This does not amount to a great amount of revenue for the county,” Francis said. “For 600 acres of forestry, you would see approximately $300 in tax increase. To the average farmer, the impact is not going to be that great.”

Growing demand prompts organic research at research station

This year, Mountain Research Station in Waynesville is investigating organic farming on the Western North Carolina landscape on a greater scale than ever before.

The launch of the test farm’s new organic unit has already turned heads and sparked mixed reactions from area farmers.

“So many people are excited, saying, ‘We’ve been waiting for this,’” said project coordinator Emily Bernstein.

Others are more hesitant about the addition of organic research to the test farm’s portfolio. Staff members are quick to point out that organic is by no means replacing conventional farming research at the station.

“We hope by using that word, we’re not excluding people,” said Bernstein.

“We’re not here to promote an opinion,” said Kaleb Rathbone, superintendent of the Mountain Research Station. “We’re not here to compare conventional versus organic.”

The test farm’s 410 acres studies everything from tobacco to Christmas trees and livestock. It has delved into organic research on and off for the past seven years, but the new unit marks the first serious commitment to organic.

For now, the unit is exploring how 20 different kinds of heirloom and heirloom-type hybrid tomatoes fare when produced organically.

It is also studying ways to combat one of the top obstacles to profitable organic farming — weeds — in the most economical and least labor-intensive way possible.

Researchers are exploring the feasibility of producing organic broccoli during autumn, along with assorted methods to prevent soilborne disease using grafted tomatoes.

Organic heirloom tomatoes are commonly more susceptible to disease, but growers now have the option of grafting their favorite tomato cultivars to disease-resistant rootstock to have the best of both worlds.


Why now?

It’s tough to get an official count, but Bernstein estimates that at least 300 farmers in WNC are already employing organic methods.

The majority of them skip the arduous process of getting certified officially, but farmers here do have an interest in joining the growing all-natural movement.

WNC consumers, too, support organic food — whenever it is an affordable option. Rathbone learned that Ingles customers overwhelmingly choose organic over conventionally grown carrots whenever they are sold for the same price.

“As times change and consumer demand changes, it’s important for farmers to keep up,” said Rathbone. “The best way to make sure farms are profitable is to diversify.”

The only problem is finding a cost-efficient way to supply the flourishing niche market. At this point, organic farming is more labor-intensive, and demand often outweighs supply.

That’s where the research comes in.

So far, staff members have surveyed 250 farmers to determine the prime issues associated with organic farming in WNC. Farmers have listed disease, weed and insect management; fertility; and marketing as their top concerns.

The research station is already testing out a variety of weed barriers and mulches on organic vegetables.

Rathbone said the station is trying to provide as much practical information as possible to all interested WNC farmers.

The organic unit is being funded by a $45,000 specialty crop grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mountain Research Station hopes to continue receiving funding so that it can form a long-range plan with the help of local farmers’ input.

Challenges specific to the area include farming on rocky slopes and helping small-scale farmers learn how to stay viable growing organic produce.

For a start, learning how to produce organic broccoli in the fall — when few other growers can — will allow farmers to fetch higher prices.

“We’re looking to produce something nobody can and get a premium price for it,” said Rathbone.


Clearing the air

Misconceptions reign about what is and isn’t organic despite the growing popularity of all-natural food. Bernstein and her co-workers plan to do community outreach by working with local schools, gardeners and farmer’s markets.

“It’s complicated for consumers. They’re not sure what [organic] really means,” Bernstein said.

For example, many believe that growing organically means leaving crops entirely untouched. Rathbone said that’s not the case.

Consumers also incorrectly assume that organic produce is always healthier, according to Bernstein.

Rathbone said the problem is that organic growers don’t all use a standard method of production. A variety of producers use wildly different production methods, but all call the end result “organic.” These farmers’ environmental impact is sometimes minimal and other times not.

While navigating somewhat uncharted territory in WNC, Mountain Research Station will stick to some basics.

“Being able to help farmers improve their viability, that’s our main goal,” Bernstein said.

According to Bernstein, agriculture is shaped by consumer demand, economics and tradition. The organic unit will take all three into account as it decides how to move forward.

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