Since its creation in the late 1980’s the Voluntary Agricultural District program has offered counties in North Carolina a way to protect, enhance and advocate for their agricultural land and landowners.
With 90 counties now part of the program in North Carolina, it’s clear that local governments across the state have recognized the value of protecting farmland. It is vital, however, that citizens in those districts remain active and engaged with their VAD for the program to be successful.
Rowan County joined the VAD program in 1990, making it one of the first in the state to do so. That early adoption made Rowan an example for other communities to follow, said Amy-Lynn Albertson, Rowan County agricultural extension director. She has been with Rowan County for around five years, and came there from Davidson County.
“I came to Rowan County at the end of 2015, and I had worked with our VAD in Davidson County from its inception in 2007. In Davidson County, we always looked to Rowan as the model to follow,” she said.
Being part of a VAD comes with significant benefits. Farmland can gain protection from development, have water and sewer assessments waived and avoid public hearings for proposed condemnation. For a county like Rowan already steeped in agricultural heritage, those incentives were attractive, Alberston said.
“Rowan County has a real history in agriculture. Jim Graham was from Rowan County, and he was commissioner of agriculture for a long time,” she said. “Then on top of that, there was also the worry about Charlotte continuing to move toward the North, the I-85 corridor continuing to grow and there maybe being a need to protect farmland.”
When Albertson got to Rowan County, however, she had plenty of work to do on the VAD. A crucial part of operating a VAD is the establishment of a county’s Agricultural Advisory Board, which meets to approve VAD applications and manage other aspects of the program. By the time she arrived at her position, the board had largely gone inactive.
“To my understanding, things had just kind of lost momentum. Not even in a bad way, because I think they had just figured they’d gotten most if not all of the farmers already,” Albertson said. “The board had been silent for about three years, so my first step was to figure out who was still on the board and just figure out what was going on there.”
Part of that process includes updating any out-of-date county ordinances to fit state regulations, which first required getting the board back in working order. Getting those ordinances up to date actually expanded the number of farmers who could join the VAD, because the newer language included some exceptions which eased the requirements to join the program.
Albertson has a long list of goals for Rowan County agriculture, from continuing to increase VAD enrollment to creating a central hub at a new agricultural center planned for construction at a former mall.
“What better use for that land than agriculture in a county with such deep rural heritage?” she said. “That to me is one of the most important things, that we continue to honor and respect that, and give agriculture the economic dues that it needs.
From one of the oldest VADs in the state to one of the newest, Gates County joined the program in 2018. Matt Lowe, with the Gates County Soil and Water Conservation District, said that the move was spurred by some of the same issues as Rowan, particularly in the VAD’s ability to provide legal protections for farmers.
“Gates County is pretty rural, so it hadn’t been a priority in the county. However, after what happened in Sampson County with the lawsuits against the hog industry, a lot of discussion started about that in regards to the poultry industry here,” he said. “We have 26 or 27 poultry operations here, and so the main reason we joined is to try and get a little bit more protection and awareness for them.”
Gates County also sits along US 158, a major highway which connects parts of central North Carolina to the coast. Lowe said that concerns over highway expansion also influenced the choice to have Gates County join the VAD program. While being in a VAD does not prevent highway widening from happening, it does make Department of Transportation planners aware that the land is under agricultural use, which may influence their plans.
Lowe said that the VAD board in Gates County has run into some of the same issues with membership that Albertson described in Rowan County. After the person who previously handled the program recently passed away, the focus has been on getting the board back in working order.
“We’ve actually got three members whose memberships have rolled off, so we’re working on getting applications out and getting the board back to meeting,” he said.
Lowe hopes to improve awareness of the VAD program as the county becomes more involved, and eventually draw in more farmers to take advantage of it. For more information on the Gates County VAD, visit www.gatescountync.gov.