The Future of Farmland

            Last week I had the opportunity to gather with many of the regionís leading agricultural experts to discuss the current state of farmland in the Piedmont.  Topics of discussion included: current trends in agriculture, threats being faced, opportunities for development, and others.  After making it through the brainstorming session one thing became abundantly clear.  The Piedmont of North Carolina is rapidly losing the small farm character that is engrained in our past. 

            Bill Medlin, Executive Director for the Yadkin-Pee Dee Lakes Project, shared some very interesting facts with the group.  Currently, regional land use can be broken down into four categories.  Forestland is currently the leading use of land in the Piedmont, followed by farmland, small towns, and urban/suburban.  Donít look now but that fourth category is growing more quickly than most can imagine.  Every day, suburban sprawl consumes a little bit more farm and forestland.  Advocates for farm and forestland have often stated that the greatest single threat to these resources is the expansion of suburban development. 

            Another interesting statistic is that 80% of current farm owners are over the age of 55.  These numbers indicate that much of the land that is currently in farm usage may undergo a change of ownership within the next 20 years.  Amazingly, only 27% of current farm owners have a succession strategy in place that will ensure the farm is passed on pursuant to the ownerís wishes. 

            Other factors threatening our farming heritage are economic.  Land values continue to rise, and with that comes a rise in property taxes.  At the same time small farms are growing less and less profitable when compared to larger, corporate farms.  Also, as families pass land along through generations it is routinely broken down into smaller parcels and displaced between different owners.  Thus, the acreage needed to make a living at farming is less and less available.

            All of these factors have combined to spell out a troubling forecast for the future of small farms.  However, as nearly everyone agrees, the public at large takes pride in its small town/farming roots.  Thus, the question arises of how we reverse the current trends in land use and protect our agricultural heritage?  Obviously, there are no simple answers for this question.  What there is, though, is an opportunity.  Over the next decade public policy will dictate whether small farming remains viable or is lost forever.  So if youíre interested in seeing farmland continue being farmed give this issue some thought.  Sooner, rather than later, communities are going to face difficult decisions that will determine which of these paths we take.