DOBSON — On Monday the Surry County Board of Commissioners reviewed an ambitious endeavor to preserve local farmland and spark new interest in agriculture.
County District Conservation Director Tony Davis presented the Farmland Protection Plan, following almost two years of research and development. As Davis explained, the plan was first raised in June 2010, when he requested the board’s permission to create it. Following the board’s approval, Davis, Extension Director Brian Cave and the Piedmont Land Conservative (PLC) began an extensive study of what the plan needed to entail. For funding, they received a grant from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
Davis introduced Palmer McIntyre of the PLC, who offered a PowerPoint presentation to elaborate on the significance of the Farmland Protection Plan.
“Basically, it’s a set of tools for the county to use,” said McIntyre, “to help it maintain agriculture as a viable industry in the future.”
She emphasized that everything in the plan is 100 percent voluntary, with no direct cost.
The State Department of Agriculture is encouraging counties to adopt similar farmland plans. Thus far, 40 percent of counties in North Carolina have approved the plan.
One of the main benefits of Surry’s adopting the plan, McIntyre explained, is that it would give the county priority consideration for funding from the NC Agriculture Development & Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. The trust fund offers money for agricultural development projects and land conservation projects — although it has not been funded in recent years.
“But we do expect that fund to be funded in the future,” said McIntyre.
She presented numerous reasons regarding why farmland should be protected. “It’s an important part of Surry County’s character and heritage,” explained McIntyre.
It is also a big contributor to the county’s economy. According to her stats, agriculture generated $220 million for Surry in 2010.
Agriculture likewise has a positive effect on the tax base. “Studies nationwide and across the state of North Carolina show that farmers, even those participating in the Present-Use Value Program, contribute more in taxes than they receive in services,” said McIntyre, “which is a net gain for a tax base.”
Meanwhile, more individuals are turning to locally-grown food, especially in neighboring urban areas.
With the pros of agriculture defined, McIntyre offered figures for its status in Surry. At this time, about one-third of the county’s land area is in agricultural use, mostly for livestock and typical row crops with some specialty crops. Surry had 1,258 farms in 2010, when they were last counted. The county ranks first for burley tobacco and grapes, second for barley, sixth for hay, 10th for chicken production, 12th for cattle and 22nd for flue-cured tobacco.
When the PLC interviewed farmers and public officials, said McIntyre, it found considerable strengths in Surry’s farmland. These items included high quality land, a favorable political environment, a local livestock market, county support for farmland preservation and collaboration among agencies. However, McIntyre added that the interviewees noted some major challenges as well. For instance, many noted the high cost of farming, specifically the start-up and input costs with little chance of profitability. Because of this downside, fewer people enter the farming industry. According to McIntyre, the average age of a farmer in Surry is 55.6 years and rising.
To meet these challenges, the Farmland Protection Plan identifies three agriculture priority areas. The first and largest one includes Salem Fork, White Plains and Beulah, also known has the Interstates District. The second priority area is Mountain Park. The third is Shoals in the southeast corner of the county, due to its being an area of future population growth.
“The purpose is to focus attention on these areas,” said McIntyre, “and look for ways for future development to be compatible with farming opportunities.”
For example, the plan calls for Surry to promote agriculture as a viable part of its economy and support the establishment of additional markets for local products. In addition, Surry must increase agricultural awareness and appreciation among its residents, while also educating farmers on how to improve operations and discover means of financing.
McIntyre ended her presentation with a plea for the commissioners to approve the Farmland Protection Plan.
“Surry County is fortunate to have this opportunity. We work with other counties — Guilford and Forsyth — and it’s really hard to find farmland to protect in those counties. It’s too late for them.
“We know changes are coming,” she concluded. “But this gives us an opportunity to see how we can look into the future.”
“Do you have an idea how much state money was allotted last year for farmland protection?” asked Vice Chairman Garry Scearce.
“About $1.6 million last year,” answered Kevin Redding of the PLC. “It got up to $8 million at the very peak. Then last year, of course, it dropped back down. We hope to get it back in the $2 million to $3 million range.”
“Is there any federal money coming into that?” asked Scearce.
The federal government will match whatever amount of money the state provides, said Redding. “So for every dollar the state will put in, we can double that through these federal programs.”
Davis then introduced Molly Johnson, an active farmer with her husband, Mark. She requested the commissioners carefully consider the Farmland Protection Plan.
“Are you aware what a large agricultural district Huntersville used to be?” said Johnson, “Look at it now.
“Without help, that will happen to Surry County. That would be a shame. We have some of the most productive soils and the best farming in North Carolina.”
Commissioner Paul Johnson immediately expressed approval for the plan. He particularly liked that it was voluntary, without any government mandate.
“Yeah, that was a question a lot of farmers had in a lot of meetings,” said Cave. “We received a lot of calls from those guys.”
“I think the plan is attractive in the aspect that it can keep young people in the agriculture industry,” said Commissioner Eddie Harris. “I also think it goes very well with Surry County’s efforts in Pilot Mountain Pride, a local food initiative.”
Furthermore, Harris appreciated that the Farmland Protection Plan expanded on private property rights, allowing families to control land as they wish.
“I’ve talked with farmers in other counties who have used this program to their advantage,” he said. “Some of them would have had to sell their farms just to pay the taxes on them. But the plan allowed them to put the property in perpetual agriculture and receive the tax credits. They were able to keep the property in agriculture, which was the family’s wish.”
Johnson made a motion to approve the Farmland Protection Plan, seconded by Harris. The plan met with unanimous approval.
Reach Josh Armstrong at 719-1921 or email@example.com.