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Wednesday, 14 June 2006 00:00

Farmers increasingly feel forced off their own land

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Butch Deals’ day doesn’t fit the image of the simple farming life.

Perched in the air-conditioned cab of a John Deere towing a baler across raked winnows of straw, Deals’ cell phone traffic rivaled that of a busy banker or real estate broker. A truck load of migrant workers finished unloading straw bales at the barn and needed their next assignment. A produce buyer wanted to negotiate a contract for Deals’ tomato field, offering a lump sum and a little labor in exchange for the finished crop come fall. A farm insurance agent settling a crop disaster claim for an unfortunate late spring freeze that ruined Deals’ apple crop last year had gotten lost on the way to the farm and needed directions.

As Deals looped the field in the Ellijay area of Macon County, he kept one eye on the baler sucking up piles of straw behind him while dodging the large rectangular bales spit out by the baler on previous passes. When the phone wasn’t ringing, Deals thought about what else he needed to do that week.

The sorghum in the greenhouse was ready to go in the ground. He needed to find buyers for these straw bales. He needed to map out his corn maze, which brings in a little extra money. He’s got to round up oat seed to plant in this field once the straw is baled. Heat wilted the last of the strawberries, so that’s ready to be tilled under. He needs to drain the water in his greenhouse float beds. And the barn is plumb covered in poison ivy.

Deals reckons he has about 40 different crops, or projects as he calls them, scattered across Macon County. Deals farms 200 acres, but only owns a portion of that himself. The land Deals works today was once farmed by about 10 families. As they quit farming, Deals, 54, took over their fields out of a love for the farming life.

The arrangement works well for now. But when the older landowners pass away, their children will probably sell their farms. Deals won’t be able to compete with the developers’ checkbook and the farmland will probably be lost.

A couple of years ago, Deals thought of a way to buy a little of the farmland he leases. He’d heard of conservation easements, where farmers keep their land but agree to protect it from development. The property can be passed to heirs and bought and sold, but the conservation easement is forever tied to the deed, ensuring it remains farmland, or at least undeveloped.

Deals had heard that farmers could get paid for permanently protecting their farmland. He hoped putting a conservation easement on land he owns would raise enough to buy a tract of the farmland he leases.

Non-profit land trusts work on the frontline with farmers to make conservation easements happen. Just a little bit of money would have protected Deals’ farmland and helped him buy more, saving it from development also. But land trusts rely on private donations and there simply isn’t enough money to go around.

This scenario is played out repeatedly across the region. The two primary land trusts in this part of Western North Carolina — Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy — are in a race against time to save farmland, but are weak competition for the wealthy gated communities marching across the mountains.

The pricier land gets, the greater the temptation for farmers to sell out. Land trusts have to offer bigger incentives to make conservation an attractive alternative. It takes more money to save fewer acres with each passing year.

A proposal in the N.C. General Assembly would go a long way in solving this dilemma. The initiative, called Land for Tomorrow, would set aside enough money to fund conservation easements on 50,000 acres of farmland statewide. (See related article.)

 

Land rich, cash poor

For Terry Rogers, money set aside by Land for Tomorrow could be just the incentive he needs to put his farm in the Crabtree area of Haywood County in a conservation easement. Rogers gets cards, letters and phone calls from developers and Realtors at least once a month wanting him to sell his land. Rogers would rather put his farm in a conservation easement to protect it, but worries he and his wife might need the money one day as they get older.

“When you get to retirement age you get to thinking I could get a million dollars,” Rogers said. “If I keep it, I would be struggling to survive.”

Rogers said there’s a misconception that large landowners are wealthy. While the land might be worth a lot, “if it’s not liquid, it is a different story,” Rogers said.

“If you are struggling to live, you think ‘Maybe I should sell off a little to get a little cash flow.’ If we could prevent that from happening, we would go a long way to preserving farmland,” Rogers said.

Rogers doesn’t have children to leave his farm to. But he and his wife could have a lot of years left. He doesn’t need the million dollars developers are offering, but he needs a little something for security in his old age.

“Most people in America have some kind of retirement plan and 401k plan. To a farmer, that is his land,” explained Bill Yarborough, an agronomist in the region with the N.C. Department of Agriculture. “It is their savings, and it is usually their bank.”

They need some compensation — perhaps not what developers are offering — but something that would make it worth their while.

“Most farmers dread the day they have to sell their land,” said Yarborough. “Most never do. They leave it to their children and they sell it.”

A little seed money today could stop that trend and save the land for tomorrow, Yarborough said. Under the Land for Tomorrow initiative, farmers would get about $2,000 an acre for doing a conservation easement. It’s less than what they’d get from a developer, but they get to keep their land, pass it on to their children and still have some retirement security.

In some cases, the dollar figure standing in the way of a conservation easement is even less.

“Even if a farmer wants to donate the easement, you still have to pay for a survey, at least one appraisal, sometimes two for tax purposes, title work, and other legal fess,” said George Ivey, a coordinator for the Bethel Rural Preservation Organization. “If the land owner is already giving up development rights, you don’t want to ask them to shell out $10,000 of their own money to make it happen. Just finding that little bit of money is very difficult.”

For Carl Evans, a farmer in Madison County and a regular at the Waynesville tailgate market, the fees are all that’s keeping him and his wife from putting their 130-acre farm in a conservation easement. They want it to remain farmland when they’re dead and gone, but on a farming income, they can’t afford the survey and legal fees associated with recording a conservation easement.

“We are trying our best to get those dollars,” said Yarborough. “I’m hoping it will turn around.”

Judy Coker, a Haywood County resident who formed a local Land for Tomorrow lobbying chapter, sees the loss of farmland as the loss of a culture. Culture is tied to the land. If the land goes, so does the unique Southern Appalachian culture, she said.

“The community spirit and feeling is disappearing as our land is disappearing. It is going out of local people’s hands and into foreigners,” Coker said. For mountaineers, a foreigner isn’t someone from overseas, but anyone from the outside.

“True our people are selling the land, but that’s because the money is too good to turn down. You can’t blame them, especially the farmers,” Coker said. “You don’t get rich farming, you get poor farming. They do it because they love the land. But when they see big bucks in front of them and they are barely scraping by ...”

 

A challenging career

If it weren’t for a relatively small handful of full-time farmers holding out for their principles, Western North Carolina would look a lot different. Drive down the road and point to any farm and its owner could probably sell tomorrow and get rich if they wanted.

“It is a lot of hard work,” Rogers said. “You have to love it to do it.”

Today’s business climate in farming doesn’t make it any easier. Farmers hit financial roadblocks everywhere they turn.

One of the biggest is the price of labor. Construction companies are driving up wages for the Latino workforce and farmers can’t compete. Some workers are demanding $10 an hour, but $8 is all most farmers can afford and still make a living farming, Deals said.

As the price of land rises, so do property taxes. Gas prices can cost farmers $5 to $10 extra a day to run their machinery and get back and forth between fields. Seeds, equipment, fertilizer and insurance have all gone up, but prices fetched at the market haven’t risen accordingly.

A farmer’s hours are long and hard. Deals works 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. or later in the fields, followed by a couple hours of paperwork at night, from filling out employment tax forms to balancing his farm accounts. A few nights last week, Deals started putting a pencil to paper while watching the weather before bed to figure out next year’s crop line up.

Deals sells some produce commercially, but mostly relies on a family produce stand on U.S. 64 about five miles east of Franklin heading toward Highlands to move his farm goods. He stays afloat by growing a diversity of crops to hedge his bets on a crop failure. He has three varieties of sorghum for making molasses. He grows cherry, grape, roma, regular and heirloom tomatoes. He grows flowers for cut flower arrangements.

He’ll peddle his straw bales to feed stores, graders who use them to catch run-off on a bare slope and families at the corn maze who buy them as fall decorations, along with Deals’ pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn. He harvests apples from a leased orchard, and this year hopes to make apple cider. A cooperative kitchen in Asheville called Blue Ridge Food Ventures has commercial equipment, including a pasteurizer, for farmers to make shelf-ready products.

Deals had a lucky break following Sept. 11, 2001, when air traffic was grounded for three days.

“Atlanta ran out of basil,” Deals said. So he cut every scrap he had and drove it to Atlanta.

Such a lucky break is rare, though. Deals takes out a loan most years to fund the overhead of his operation until the crop comes, and has to calculate how much he will make on each crop after overhead and labor.

“A lot of people think farming is like Old McDonald or ‘Green Acres,’” said Yarborough. “When you start talking about $100,000 tractors, you better have equity to borrow against. They don’t realize you have $5,000 in an acre of tomatoes before you ever start picking them.”

“Overhead has gone up a lot more than what you make,“ said Herman Garrison, who farms alongside his father-in-law, Bill Holbrook, in the Bethel area of Haywood County.

Garrison, 35, is in line to take over the operation one day. When asked to envision what it will be like farming 30 years from now though, Garrison drew a blank.

“You just have to roll with the punches,” Garrison shrugged.

Holbrook is one of the few farmers who didn’t inherit his farmland, but slowly acquired it over two decades. The high cost of land and the small returns of farming didn’t make it a particularly good business proposition, but Holbrook loved the land and farming paid just enough to keep the land going.

Holbrook has watched development devour his family’s farm in the Arden area of Buncombe County. A 22-acre hay field owned by Holbrook and his siblings is the last rural holdout in an area otherwise dominated by commercial sprawl, including a Home Depot next door. It’s no fun to farm there now.

Holbrook blames the expansion of water and sewer lines for the sprawl. He said it was like someone flipped a light switch for development when water and sewer lines were run into Arden. That’s why Holbrook has fought the expansion of water and sewer lines to Bethel — twice. Both times the community beat back plans by county commissioners to run the lines to the rural community. Holbrook fears it is only a matter of time until they try again.

In the meantime, the community has formed the Bethel Rural Preservation Committee, an arm of the Bethel Rural Community Organization. One of committee’s goals is to fund farmland conservation easements in Bethel, removing any incentive for the county to run water and sewer lines there in the future.

“A rural community is the key to farming,” Holbrook said. “The future is very positive if the community keeps it rural.”

The preliminary results of a telephone survey conducted in Bethel over the past two months by a research group show an “overwhelming support” for doing just that, according to George Ivey, a Bethel resident who works as a coordinator for the Bethel Rural Preservation Committee.

“Everyone thinks that keeping Bethel rural is important but we are struggling to find the money to make that happen,” Ivey said.

You have willing farmers and a philosophically supportive community, Ivey said. Land for Tomorrow would provide the missing piece of the puzzle: a little seed money.

Consequences could go beyond the loss of the landscape and the Appalachian culture tied to farming.

“You think the cost of oil is high? Wait until we have to buy our food from overseas,” Deals said.

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