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Wednesday, 03 May 2006 00:00

Tailgate markets a reminder of something too valuable to lose

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Every year when the local tailgate farmers markets begin opening, it’s a good time to ponder just what it means to be able to hop down to some designated spot and buy produce, flowers and other goods fresh from a local farm. More to the point, perhaps, we would do well to imagine what it would be like if we couldn’t.

The tailgate markets are informal places where growers of all types — traditional farmers, back-to-the-earth former city dwellers, gardeners who simply can’t eat all they grow, small-time commercial producers, and others — take their homegrown goods and sell them. At their robust height in mid-summer, buyers can find just about any kind of vegetable they could imagine, along with a whole lot of surprises. Everything from puppies to corncob pipes might be purchased along with the heirloom tomatoes and bell peppers.

Most take these markets for granted, but they represent a kind of barter that has all but disappeared in this country — food products moving straight from producer to consumer. And in this case, the products come from the land, that idealistic place that to this day retains a nostalgic appeal to almost all Americans. People in this country believe mightily in the good of the land and hold those who are able to make a living from it in high regard.

But things are changing. For one, this country has not had the political will to take steps to ensure that small farms will survive. Sure, North Carolinians have enacted measures like the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund, but we’ve under-funded them. We offer farmers tax breaks on their property, but those breaks do little to help farm families afford medical insurance, save for college or buy necessary equipment. If we really want to save farms, radical steps are needed, like a revised tax system for income derived from family farm products.

We can also blame our love affair for outfits like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club for hurting our small farmers. Too many Americans believe the cost of everything is measured in dollars and cents. If it’s cheaper to buy at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, then that’s where we’ll buy it, never mind the impact on local jobs and the local economy.

The evidence of the struggles farmers and others are having trying to keep their land from development is obvious when one looks at the numbers. One study reported nearly 2 million acres of forest and farmland in the state was lost to development in the 1980s and 1990s. Another compilation of land uses revealed that the mountain region was among the hardest hit, losing 52 percent — the highest percentage in the state — of its farmlands during the two-decade period from 1982 to 2002.

There’s no magic formula for reversing these trends, but it’s important that we do. Right now in this region and in many urban areas, the highest value for land lies in development. We certainly have to have land for housing and commercial growth, but we need to also find ways — through state, federal and even local legislation — to encourage other uses. Somewhere between the pure speculative nature of the capitalist market system and the rigid controls of pure wilderness conservation, we have to develop models where private landowners can make use of their land in ways that are for the public good. Those uses — like small produce and specialty crop farms, limited forestry, and small-scale ranching — can currently be set aside in special use categories, but we need to offer these landowners even more incentives.

There are groups working to make this happen. One of the most successful is the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, which is based in Franklin. It works from a philosophy that multiple land uses that form a kind of mosaic are a fitting way to keep land from being lost to development. You can read about some of their successes on page 32 of this week’s issue.

So when it comes to the local tailgate markets, go often, buy a lot and tell your lawmakers to find ways to help them survive. They represent something this country doesn’t need to lose.

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