New plans give recommendations to protect agriculture in Rowan County

Published 12:05 am Thursday, January 19, 2023

SALISBURY — Agriculture is big business in Rowan County.

To protect that business and the farmers involved, the Rowan County Agriculture Advisory Board has worked for the past two years on an agriculture land plan that reflects “the importance of agriculture and assess the opportunities, challenges and issues that are currently facing the industry,” especially in the county. The advisory board has been working with consultants from the Mount Olive University Lois G. Britt Agribusiness Center, who have assisted in the development of the plan.

Advisory board members Kim Starnes, Ben Knox and the director of the Rowan County Extension Amy-Lynn Albertson gave a presentation going over the highlights and the recommendations for the county in the 60-page report during the Rowan County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday. Members of the agriculture community packed the meeting to hear the presentation.

But first, let’s talk about just how important and impactful the agriculture sector is in the county. According to the land plan, in 2019 the agriculture and agribusiness contributed $81,781,000 in total income to the county. The sector also accounts for 13.8% of the county’s employment. Other notable statistics are:

  • Rowan County ranked 24th in the state in corn production
  • 34th in soybean production
  • 19th in wheat production
  • 8th in cattle
  • 4th in dairy cows
  • 4th in sheep and goats
  • 2nd in tomato production
  • 4th in strawberry production
  • In total cash receipts from agriculture the county ranked 46th

One major concern the plan highlights is the population growth the county is experiencing, with an almost 10% increase from 2010 to 2021. A bigger population means more homes. That results in competition for land. Fifty-seven percent of county famers surveyed said they lacked sufficient land to expand or diversify operations, while also facing other issues like cost and availability of labor, rising production costs and pressures for more development.

“If the present rate of encroachment by development continues, Rowan County is estimated to lose 28,000 acres of prime farmland by 2024,” Knox said during the presentation.

Albertson said, as of the 2017 agriculture census, there are 925 farms in the county, which saw a loss of a little over 100 farms since the last census was conducted in 2012. The current census is still being conducted, but Albertson suspects “with the rate of development that is happening, my assumption is we will lose farms again on this census.”

Another concern is the average age of farmers in the county, which is 59 years old. Sixty-three percent of those farmers don’t have farm transition plans meaning they don’t know what will happen with their farms once they pass. The land plan looks at this as an opportunity to “enhance agriculture through education and support of citizens and local government.

The advisory board is in the process of creating a Farmland Protection Plan to help preserve farmland and parks for decades. This plan has been underway since 2020 and will be used “to help gather data, create a baseline documentation report and pay for environmental assessments,” according to previous Post reporting. The plan also takes inventory of farmland, surveys farmers and includes analysis of areas where there are food deserts and spaces that could host community gardens. Right now, 64 counties in North Carolina have a Farmland Protection Plan in place.

Educating landowners on the benefits of the conservation easement program is also a way to protect the county’s farms. The program is a written agreement where the landowner agrees to keep the land available for agriculture and to restrict development from subdivisions, non-farm developments and other uses that aren’t compatible with commercial agriculture use. They apply for a finite period of time which has to be agreed by the landowner and the conservation partner.

Starnes explained the easement programs “ensure that working agriculture land remain working agriculture lands permanently by removing development rights from the property and conserving the land for agriculture.”

Starnes also brought up “Voluntary Agricultural Districts.” The agricultural districts “allows landowners to publicly recognize their farms, establish an agricultural advisory board in the county, protect farms from negative impacts such as waivers of water and sewer assessments and public hearings for proposed condemnation,” according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

Rowan County also has “Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural Districts.” The difference between the two is that voluntary districts only intend to keep it as a voluntary district for 10 years with the option to revoke it. Enhanced districts don’t have the option to revoke.

“Currently we have 332 farms with approximately 15,000 acres enrolled in voluntary ag and 41 farms with approximately 1,800 acres enrolled in enhanced voluntary ag,” Starnes said.

Two hundred and thirty-three non-farm citizens were surveyed about what the county should do to protect the county’s farmland, and 99% responded that “local government should take action to preserve farmland as a valuable resource.” Ninety-five percent said government funds should be used to help farm and forest development. One hundred precent of “non-farm respondents support farm and forest preservation in the county.”

Six recommendations were presented to the commissioners, which are meant “to provide a guide to protect and enhance agriculture in Rowan County.” The recommendations are:

  1. Support measures to protect and promote working forest and farmland in Rowan County.
  2. Educate landowners on the benefits of enrolling Conservation Easement Program to keep land available for agriculture use.
  3. Expand Voluntary Agricultural district and Enhanced Voluntary Agriculture District programs.
  4. Develop and conduct programs to assist Rowan County farm and forest landowners with farm transition planning.
  5. Promote appreciation and awareness of the benefits of agriculture to Rowan elected officials and citizens.
  6. Expand and support youth agricultural programs.

“The success of this plans depends on the collaboration between local government, the agriculture sector and local citizens,” Knox said. “We plan on evaluating it every year and giving recommendations every year as needed.”

A final draft of the Rowan county Working Agricultural Land Plan was given to the commissioners, which they will go over and choose whether or not to adopt it at a future meeting.