Funds can help save farmland from development

Almond Farm in Stanly County. Photo: Crystal Cockman

Agriculture and agribusiness account for one-sixth of North Carolina’s economy and employees, and more than 17 percent, or $84 billion, of the $482 billion Gross State Product. It’s no wonder farmland preservation is viewed as important to the future of our state.

One way agricultural lands in our state are being protected is through Voluntary Agricultural Districts. The purpose of the Agricultural District Program is “to encourage the preservation and protection of farmland from nonfarm development.” Counties adopt Voluntary Agricultural District Ordinances and Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural District Ordinances, which provide for creation of an Agricultural Advisory Board to administer the programs. The boards determine where agricultural districts will be and review and approve applications for qualifying farmland.

Of the state’s 100 counties, 87 have the agricultural district programs, and 27 have the enhanced program. And 54 counties have farmland protection plans approved by the N.C. Department of Agriculture. Benefits of being in a voluntary agricultural district include:

  • Recognition and public education about agriculture including signage.
  • Increased protection from nuisance suits including noise, odor, dust, or slow-moving farm vehicles.
  • Waiver of water and sewer assessments.
  • Required public hearings, by the local agricultural advisory board, for proposed land condemnation.
  • Increased eligibility for funding.

You can download an informational brochure here for more details on the eligibility requirements for and benefits of enrollment in the programs.

The N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund was created in 2005 to support the farming, forestry and horticulture communities by supporting the purchase of agricultural conservation easements, funding public and private enterprise programs that promote profitable and sustainable farms, and funding conservation agreements targeted at the active production of food, fiber, and other agricultural products.

This fund will pay for a portion of buying a conservation easement on farmland. Conservation easements, which are voluntary, allow some land uses for a piece of property including farming and forestry but limit the development rights.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a similar program, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which “provides financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands and wetlands and their related benefits.” There is an Agricultural Land Easement component where the USDA pays for a portion of the purchase of conservation easements, which protect the agricultural use and conservation values of the land.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service may contribute up to 50 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement, 25 percent can be a donated easement or bargain sale, and 25 percent has to be a cash match. The N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation (NCADFP) Trust Fund can contribute this cash match component.

Both programs require grant applications in order to have a chance of obtaining funds to buy the easements. Those grant cycles are usually in December for the NCADFP Trust Fund and in January for the USDA’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, part of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Local governments and nonprofits may apply for these grants but are limited to two applications per year for permanent conservation easements through the NCADFP Trust Fund.

If you are interested in exploring this option as a way to keep your farm as agricultural land in perpetuity for the benefit of future generations, please contact the LandTrust for Central North Carolina at landtrust@landtrustcnc.org or by phone at 704-647-0302. In the Charlotte area the Catawba Lands Conservancy also has worked on farmland preservation. Reach the CLC at alesia@catawbalands.org  or by phone at 704-342-3330.

Panorama view of the Bishop Farm, part of Rocky Pee Dee Farms in Anson County. The Bishop Farm has been protected from development using NRCS and NCDA funds. Photo: Crystal Cockman