ust four words stand between Raymond Shuffler and big bucks. Every week, it seems, developers, in their quest to push Charlotte’s outskirts rapidly northward, call on Shuffler to sell parts of his 400-acre beef cattle farm.
Though they offer up to $7,000 per acre, especially for land closest to Interstate 77, he remains adamant. “I just tell ’em, ‘It’s not for sale,’” Shuffler said.
Shuffler is among many Iredell County farmers looking for alternatives that will make farming attractive enough so that they can continue to turn down the developers.
“We are going to have to do something,” he said, “or we are going to be covered up.”
His concern about preserving the quality of life he’s come to enjoy in Iredell County drew him, one sunny September morning, to the lawn of a neighboring farm. Here, state officials and the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences pledged that they would, indeed, be doing something.
Dean Jim Oblinger joined then-Gov. Jim Hunt, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary (outgoing) Bill Holman and then-Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham to sign a cooperative agreement to work together to promote farmland preservation across the state. The partnership comes on the heels of Gov. Hunt’s call for North Carolinians to add a million acres to the state’s permanently conserved open spaces over the next decade.
Hunt, Oblinger, Graham and Holman gathered at Daltonia Plantation because it exemplifies what they hope to achieve through farmland preservation programs: to protect the environment, to conserve open space and to preserve a bit of the state’s agrarian tradition.
Daltonia Plantation in Houstonville has been part of that tradition for more than 200 years. The farm — 622 acres of rolling cropland and hardwood forests — has been in the same family since the original land grant from the state in 1783. A tobacco brand called Billy Totem had its origins here, helping to establish Iredell as a tobacco-manufacturing center in the late 19th century.
The plantation house, surrounded by log and frame outbuildings dating from the 18th and 19th century, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. In addition to its historical significance, Daltonia Plantation is also ecologically significant, with substantial frontage along a pristine creek and a deep bog considered the best of its kind in the county.
In 1999, the owner, Dr. Amelia E. Kennedy, decided to ensure these features would be protected for future generations by placing a conservation easement on the deed. With funding from the state Department of Agriculture’s Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, the nonprofit LandTrust for Central North Carolina paid transaction costs associated with establishing the easement.
Hunt said that the farm “speaks of who we are as a state and where we come from. It’s all about quality of life: We may not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it.
“If you want [to preserve] green space, the very best place to do that is on the working farms of North Carolina.”
Preserved farmland costs less to taxpayers because farmland doesn’t require roads, schools, sewers and other improvements that development calls for. Not only that, farms “feed our families and help us protect our environment from sprawl and congestion,” Hunt said.
But Hunt and other officials agree that preserving farmland from development will not be easy. Most farmers’ biggest asset is their land, and estate and property taxes are among the disincentives to farming that face producers when developers offer to buy.
“I hear from farmers all the time who tell me they are constantly approached by developers who want to buy their land,” said Commissioner Graham. “And for farmers who have continually faced tobacco cuts, low commodity prices and uncertain growing conditions while trying to support their families, those offers start sounding mighty good.
“But many people also realize that once a field is developed, it is lost forever as productive farmland,” he said.
The rate of such loss is high in North Carolina.
And, when compared to the nation’s other nine most populous states, North Carolina has the least amount of preserved farmland, according to an April 2000 report on the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Division World Wide Web site.
From 1992 to 1997 in North Carolina alone, 506,600 acres of farmland and forestland were lost to development, and 2,400 farmers left the business. And the trend is expected to continue well into the future: The estimated 2 million people who will be added to the state’s current 6.7 million population over the next 20 years will need homes and roads, schools and shopping centers, and places for work and play.
Such statistics have galvanized the state’s agricultural leaders into action.
Little more than a year ago, farm advocates gathered at the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation headquarters in Raleigh to talk about the issue, and during its 2000 session the General Assembly put $1.5 million into the state’s Farmland Preservation Trust.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit American Farmland Trust hired a full-time staff member in North Carolina — the organization’s first in the South — to work with farmers and local governments.
Just days after the Sept. 28 signing ceremony at Daltonia Plantation, farmland preservation was again highlighted as the state’s agriculture leaders gathered for the Governor’s Summit on Agriculture. The daylong summit, held at the Global TransPark in Kinston in October, focused on innovations in North Carolina agriculture, the outlook for farming and the challenges that lie on the horizon.
Farmland preservation and agricultural biotechnology were proposed as pieces of a larger strategy aimed at sustaining agriculture through difficult financial times.
At that event, Gov. Hunt expressed his concern about the loss of farmers and farmland.
“I am ... concerned that many farmers are leaving the farm — not because they want to but because they have to. They would like to stay on the farm, enable their children to continue farming and to maintain farming as a way of life.
“But they and their children see greater economic opportunity elsewhere, or they see the need to sell the land at a good price to developers in order to meet extensive financial obligations. Thus, the issue of farmland preservation is becoming more and more critical in North Carolina.”
Environmental assessments conducted by North Carolina Cooperative Extension centers across the state confirm Hunt’s concerns. When Cooperative Extension asked its 25,000-member advisory network last year to identify critical local needs that could be addressed by Extension, farmland preservation and land-use planning were frequently cited.
To address these needs, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics has created a compendium of resources related to land preservation in North Carolina.
The Land Preservation Notebook “addresses a pressing need for information in light of the fact that interest in land preservation in this region is just exploding,” says Ted Feitshans, a lawyer, Extension specialist and lecturer in agricultural and environmental law.
The two-volume notebook contains information about conservation easements, estate planning, federal and state laws providing tax credits for conservation, all county farmland preservation ordinances and programs, fact sheets from the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and the American Farmland Trust, and more.
The notebook’s editors, Feitshans and research assistant Brandon King, continually update the notebook as new ordinances and information are created. [See box, left.]
Feitshans also spoke to elected officials and planners about farmland preservation and conservation trusts during an Extension-sponsored conference on sustainable tourism last summer.
Meanwhile, Cooperative Extension and N.C. State University’s College of Design have formed a Community Planning Assistance Team to ensure that the available knowledge base is brought to bear in land-use planning discussions and decisions taking place across the state.
Cooperative Extension educators also are playing a key role in helping community leaders and farmers understand the pros and cons of agricultural districts, conservation easements and purchase-of-development-rights programs.
In Rutherford County, for example, Darrel Conley, the county Extension director, has worked in partnership with farmers, local agencies and government officials on issues related to the adoption of the county’s farmland preservation ordinance. Enacted a few months ago, it lays the ground work for preserving more than farmland. “Combined with a diverse agricultural economy, open lands also act to enhance tourism in the county,” Conley said.
Conley’s counterpart in Iredell County also has been instrumental in farmland preservation efforts.
County Extension Director Kenneth Vaughn provides leadership and support as an ex officio member of the county’s Balanced Growth Committee. The committee has been charged by the county commissioners with developing a managed growth plan to ensure that economic and environmental interests will be balanced and “that efforts to provide industrial, commercial and residential development do not jeopardize the quality of life.”
As property values escalate
under the pressure of development, taxes can become harder to manage,
especially when the farm is being passed from one generation to the
next, says board vice chairman Phillip McLain.
McLain has a corn, wheat,
cotton and barley farm in Iredell County. His son and namesake, a sophomore
in agricultural business management in N.C. State, would like to return
to the family farm when he graduates. And, the younger McLain told those
who gathered at Daltonia Plantation, farmland preservation partnerships
could help ensure his ability to do so. Dean Oblinger agreed, saying
that the time to act on behalf of tomorrow’s farmers is today. “We know,” he said, “that
our future is rooted in the past. We know that preserving part of our
agricultural heritage, renewing it for the future, will have benefits
for the future of our state’s farmers and communities. “To meet the food and fiber
needs of a growing population — to ensure that we have enough productive
farmland for a viable agricultural industry — we need partnerships and
McLain has a corn, wheat, cotton and barley farm in Iredell County. His son and namesake, a sophomore in agricultural business management in N.C. State, would like to return to the family farm when he graduates. And, the younger McLain told those who gathered at Daltonia Plantation, farmland preservation partnerships could help ensure his ability to do so.
Dean Oblinger agreed, saying that the time to act on behalf of tomorrow’s farmers is today.
“We know,” he said, “that our future is rooted in the past. We know that preserving part of our agricultural heritage, renewing it for the future, will have benefits for the future of our state’s farmers and communities.
“To meet the food and fiber needs of a growing population — to ensure that we have enough productive farmland for a viable agricultural industry — we need partnerships and innovative thinking.”