by Karen Chávez, Citizen-Times, Published Jan. 10, 2017
ASHEVILLE - It's funny how the best farmland in Western North Carolina always seems to be right in the path of a housing or business development.
Well, maybe it's not so curious. Like the saying goes - location, location, location. And locations for the best farmland are the rich, fertile bottomlands along river valleys. Because of its rare, flat terrain in the mountains, and usually adjacent to roads, bottomlands also make the best location for building construction.
So the decades-old conflict continues, with a loss of nearly 700 farms in WNC between 2007 and 2012, totaling some 15,000 acres, threatening the region's food security and water quality.
But an unprecedented award of $8 million of federal funding for farmland conservation to Blue Ridge Forever, an Asheville-based coalition of 10 local land trusts, is expected to make large strides to stop the hemorrhaging of farmland from the mountains.
The award for Blue Ridge Forever's "Forever Farms: Easements at the Eminence" project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service is allocated through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which the conservation service began three years ago as part of the 2014 Farm Bill.
"It's a record amount of funding for Blue Ridge Forever and a record for land protection in Western North Carolina," said Jess Laggis, Blue Ridge Forever director.
Land trust protects valuable farmland, vistas, heritage
It's quite the coup since the Regional Conservation Partnership Program is so new, Laggis said, and rare to find a source that is granting such large funds. She said it took the land conservation groups a year to create the proposal, based on the power of partnership. It took years of relationship building among the land trusts, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and bipartisan support from members of the General Assembly and Congress, she said.
Farmland in WNC is getting a double whammy of help from the conservation program in the form of stream restoration and water quality improvements with another record $8 million award to Resource Institute Inc.
Resource Institute is a nonprofit based in Winston-Salem that works to enhance water quality and stream restoration nationally and specifically in 33 WNC counties, said Squeak Smith, chairman of the board.
The organization was awarded $7 million from the conservation partnership program's national pool for "The Western North Carolina Stream and Water Quality Initiative" project and another $1 million from the program's state fund.
"We're very excited about it. The farmers love it. Their projects typically receive $150,000-$300,000 of money for their restoration projects," Smith said. "Water quality is being improved, habitat in stream and on land is being improved, it creates wildlife corridors along the streams, trout water is being improved, and the protected riparian areas are also good for insects, for bees and butterflies."
Box Creek Wilderness permanently protected
Resource Institute provides project oversight and grant administration, working with county Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Natural Resources Conservation Service field staff and local farmers on projects to stabilize streams and prevent bank erosion by planting native grasses and shrubs, and reducing runoff from cattle waste and sediment into streams.
Resource Institute was also awarded $1 million in 2014 and 2015 from conservation partnership grants, Smith said, so there are many projects already accomplished and underway on mountain farms.
"One of the victories of this funding is that it obligates $8 million to be used exclusively for purchase of agricultural conservation easements in WNC," said William Hamilton, farmland program director for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, an Asheville land trust and member of Blue Ridge Forever. "Securing $8 million for Western North Carolina changes things in a dramatic way for us.".
“We are beside ourselves at the funding to keep mountain farms farming, and so gratified the region is receiving national recognition for its importance as a freshwater source for the Southeast,” Laggis said. Blue Ridge Forever plans to use the $8 million for “Forever Farms” to protect mountain farms from a change in land use through voluntary agricultural conservation easements.
Through these easements, farmers give up the development rights of their property to ensure the land remains forever as farmland. In turn, they receive funding to help with their farming operations, Laggis said. The Southern Blue Ridge Mountains also contain the headwater sources of drinking water for millions of people throughout the Southeast, in nine river basins. “By ensuring that clean water flows off of farms at the headwaters, drinking water downstream remains cleaner,” she said.
The WNC land conservation partners will be targeting prime soils with the Forever Farms program. Prime soils are an “extremely limited resource in the Appalachian mountains,” Laggis said, since they comprise only 3.6 percent of the landmass of WNC. Prime soils is a national level designation of the quality of soil that refers to its potential productivity. They are typically found near rivers and are very old, formed through millennia of decomposition of leaves and biomass.
In the mountains, the only lands with prime soils are in bottomlands, not on ridges or mountaintops. But not all bottomlands have prime soils, Laggis said. “It’s safe to say that all of WNC’s unprotected prime soils are threatened,” she said. “The closer a parcel lies in proximity to a population center, the greater the threat becomes. The larger the parcel, the more likely it will be subdivided at some point.”
Protecting prime soils protects the apple and tomato crops, the cattle and even trout. It protects food security, cultural heritage and the scenic views of farms. Since 2006, Blue Ridge Forever has protected more than 20,000 acres of farmland. Examples include recent work by the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to protect the 320-acre Reeves Homeplace Farm in Madison County and the 90-acre Watalula Farm in the Sandy Mush area.
North Carolina was leading the country in farm loss in 2007, according to the 2012 agricultural census. But the process slowed in 2012 as the building boom slowed. As of 2012, there were about 12,200 farms in the 25 counties of WNC, encompassing 1,059,000 acres.
Laggis said she wouldn’t be surprised to see more farmland lost when the next agricultural, taken every five years, is released this year.