Since its inception in 2005, the NCDA&CS Farmland Preservation Division has had a somewhat self-explanatory mission: keep farms as farms.
This simple goal has proven to be a great deal more complicated, still Farmland Preservation recently hit a significant milestone in that mission: 30,000 acres of land protected.
Hitting that mark may seem like a reason to pause and celebrate, but a recent report from the American Farmland Trust titled Farms Under Threat 2040 points out just how critical every acre is and how the mission is far from being reached. In the report, it forecasts that North Carolina will convert 11.6 % of its agricultural land or nearly 1.2 million acres by 2040 – second in the country behind only Texas. It also specifically notes that five North Carolina counties will experience the conversion of more than 35 % of their agricultural land.
The main tool that the division uses to conserve farmland is the conservation easement, a grant which gives money to farmers in return for an agreement that the land can never be used for development. Farmers seek easements for a variety of reasons, but one tends to come up more than most: they want the land they’ve worked hard to keep green and growing to stay that way.
That was among the chief motivations for Javan and Ann Calton, owners of Calton Farm in Rutherford County. The farm’s new 385-acre easement, which closed on July 13, has the distinction of being the one to put Farmland Preservation over the 30,000-acre mark. While the farm now primarily raises beef cattle, for many years it was a dairy farm which provided products to the Biltmore and Carnation companies. The farm has been in the Calton family for generations; Javan took over the land around 1965 when he and Ann married. Before that, Javan’s father began milking cows on the farm in 1947, having taken up stewardship of the land from his own father who had worked the farm since before 1900.
Javan, 80, has worked the farm his entire life. That kind of history creates a deep bond with the land, and as they got older the Caltons decided that what they wanted most was for the farm they had poured so much of their lives into to remain as it was – open working land, free of development.
“We’ve owned this land for longer than I really know,” Javan said. “My father, my grandfather, and all through the line. We’ve been able to add some extra acres to the farm, and we’ve all worked the farm in different ways. We want to keep the farm as a farm, and as a Calton farm. We’d like for it to stay in the Calton name.”
Ann said that freedom from the possibility of losing the land to development gave the couple some peace of mind.
“The conservation easement ensures that the land can never be developed, that it won’t eventually become a housing development instead of a beautiful farm.” she said. “The main thing is just to make sure that the farm stays a farm.”
The easement is being overseen by the Foothills Conservancy, based in Morganton. Tom Kenney, Land Protection Director, has worked with the Caltons for several years to help them complete the easement application process.
“Foothills Conservancy is very grateful to the Caltons and their entire family for caring about their family farm and its legacy so much and desiring to place 385 acres under permanent agricultural conservation easement,” Kenney said. “It has been a great pleasure for me to work with them and get to know them over the past few years since Javan first contacted me about farmland preservation. Foothills Conservancy thanks Javan, Ann and their family for taking this meaningful, lasting step to preserve their farm in partnership with Foothills.”
The Calton Farm easement is just the latest in a long line of accomplishments and milestones that have led to reaching 30,000 acres preserved. Another was the promotion of Evan Davis to Farmland Preservation Director, following the retirement of Dewitt Hardee at the end of 2021. Formerly the division’s assistant director, Davis has been with Farmland Preservation since the start and had a significant role in the accomplishments it has seen in recent years.
One of those accomplishments was the first-ever cooperative agreement between Farmland Preservation, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps on a common-template easement. While the first easement of that kind was completed the year before and involved USDA and the U.S. Air Force, this easement expanded on that program and included the Alligator River easement, the largest single easement ever recorded by Farmland Preservation.
Cooperation on these kinds of large-scale projects is a big part of what has driven Farmland Preservation toward the 30,000-acre mark, and it is something Davis hopes to foster more of. Working with the military to preserve land is a natural fit with Farmland Preservation – something the division refers to as “compatible use.” That’s because while the division’s mission is to preserve farms and open spaces, military installations also see great benefits from having airspace free of development and land open to train and move around on.
Searching for opportunities to collaborate is a strong strategy for moving the division forward, but occasionally a bit of introspection is just as valuable. Farmland Preservation is also working hard to update and evolve its own processes, Davis said. From new software allowing better record keeping and an increased focus on marketing and public outreach, to new types of programs like an option for landowners to donate easements, there are several exciting avenues that Farmland Preservation is exploring in order to keep pace with consumer needs and continue the work of conserving North Carolina’s open spaces.
Farmland Preservation is even in the process of adding a new job – Monitoring and Stewardship Coordinator. This new position will be responsible for overseeing actions taken after easements have been put in place, making sure that the terms of the agreements are being followed and the state’s investment is being upheld.
As North Carolina continues to attract new residents from around the country and the world, the mission of Farmland Preservation will only become more important. Hitting 30,000 acres only goes to show that there is much work still to be done, Davis said.
“I think folks in North Carolina are seeing the change in population growth. I think day-to-day, they are seeing increases in traffic, new housing developments and things like that. Those are things that everyone can see,” he said. “It is important for us to continue this work because we help maintain the livelihoods of farmers and foresters, and we are able to maintain these types of green spaces.”
The work of Farmland Preservation goes beyond just the interests of those personally working the land, however. The benefits of keeping open land open can extend to everyone.
“We’re also able to link this piece, Farmland Preservation, into other conservation programs,” Davis said. “I think everyone has come to understand the impacts of flooding in North Carolina. Our contention is that maintaining these permeable surfaces, especially ones that have been well-maintained by farmers and their conservation efforts, these are things that can help mitigate some of these negative flooding impacts.”
It has taken the combined efforts of hundreds of experts, farmers and other stakeholders across the state for Farmland Preservation to reach where it is today. The division continues to hold itself to a high standard, and there is much more yet to come. To learn more about Farmland Preservation, visit https://www.ncadfp.org/.