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Rowan Farmland Protection Plan could preserve agricultural space for decades to come

SALISBURY — With development from Charlotte steadily creeping up Interstate 85, Rowan County could see increased development in the coming decades. 

And while that development may bring new jobs, new people and new money to the county, it could also lead to a decrease of agricultural land and green spaces. A grant recently awarded to the Rowan County Agricultural Advisory Board from the state will allow it to put together a Farmland Protection Plan that could help preserve Rowan County’s agricultural land and parks for decades to come.

The $10,000 grant for the Farmland Protection Plan came from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and the Agriculture Development Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. The county match for the grant is $3,000. Commissioners approved the match at their latest meeting on Monday.

“More than anything, the plan will help the county look strategically at all the land in the county,” said Amy-Lynn Albertson, the county extension director who will spearhead efforts to create the plan. “It’s supposed to give us more of a land development plan as far as identifying those areas in the county that are highly profitable farming areas that we want to protect.”

Funds for the plan will be used to hire a consultant and to help gather data, create a baseline documentation report and pay for environmental assessments. Along with taking inventory of farmland and surveying farmers, the plan will include analysis of areas where there are food deserts and spaces that could host community gardens.

“When you look at the protection plan, you kind of look at the big picture and then zoom in,” Albertson said. “And then also trying to look 20 years down the road at growth and how many more people will live here and how will we feed them all and how we can protect as much green space as we can? It’s not only about food, but it’s also about green space and quality of life and those kinds of things as well.”

Given the sheer magnitude of the plan, putting it together will be a collaborative effort. 

“The agricultural advisory board, cooperative extension, soil and water district and the farm service agencies and the forest service will all be involved as well,” Albertson said. “Those organizations will be working together, as well as the farm bureau and some of our other local groups.”

Albertson and her collaborators will have three years to research and compose the plan, which will then be presented to the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.

Restrictions due to COVID-19 could prove challenging for Albertson’s efforts to survey farmers and community members.

“We’ll be asking for information from people and be trying to get people to attend Zoom meetings most likely instead of a public meeting,” Albertson said.

But joining a Zoom meeting or attending a virtual town hall could prove difficult to some farmers in the county who don’t have reliable access to an internet connection. Albertson is expecting there to be other challenges as well, but her experience helping Davidson County establish a similar plan about a decade ago will prove valuable.

To Rowan County Commissioner Jim Greene, the Farmland Protection Plan could shape the county’s character for years to come.

“We’re trying to see if there is an interest in farmland preservation,” Greene said. “We have seen in counties around us, especially Cabarrus County, that Charlotte is coming this way and we have to ask ourselves do we want every inch of our county turned into developments and apartment complexes or do we like the flavor of our county and do we want to keep some of the farmland that we have that adds to the beauty of our county?”

Greene has a background in farming in Rowan County, having raised beef cattle in the area.

Despite boasting a rich farming history, Rowan County is one of the last counties in the region to establish a Farmland Protection Plan. 

“Rowan was the first county to adopt a voluntary agricultural district but for some reason we weren’t able to adopt a farmland protection plan,” Albertson said. “When we would go to the training for the ADFP (Agriculture Development Farmland Preservation), they would show these maps and there would be Rowan County sitting by itself with all the other counties in purple.”

Albertson is poised to hit the ground running.

“We’d really like to start having everything in place and moving by the first of the year,” Albertson said. “We would like to be done well before our three years are up.”

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