Preservation is good for the economy; time for all to get on board

Haywood County commissioners have taken a first step forward — albeit a small one — to protect farmland in the mountains, but they and leaders in other counties need to do more. If they don’t, the region’s agriculture traditions is going to just fade away before our eyes.

Haywood County agreed two weeks ago to approve the development of a farmland protection plan, spending $1,500 of its own money and using $1,500 from a Pigeon River Fund grant. The $3,000 will be used to do a census of farming in the county, providing precise information on how much land is farmed, how much is used for livestock, who is growing greenhouse or nursery plants, how many people are growing tomatoes or other vegetables, who’s doing organic operations, and other information about farms and agriculture in Haywood County.

In other words, the farmland preservation plan will provide the county — and other conservation entities and grant-funding agencies — with information detailing what farmers are raising and selling, what challenges they are facing, and what is the potential for keeping land in agricultural use. Buncombe County is already out of the gate and developing its own farmland protection plan.

Some have argued that this information is already available, but the truth is that it is not — at least not in one place with one person in charge who is very familiar with it. In a sense, it’s the kind of study counties have traditionally done to lure manufacturing and other large industries, where they would catalog available tracts of land, which property owners were willing to sell, how close that land is to interstates or rail lines, does it have water, sewer and other infrastructure, etc.

Even today, counties develop brochures touting all this information regarding manufacturing sites and services, and economic development offices in every county are set up primarily to sell the county to the large job providers who need that information.

But some rural counties, smartly, have seen a different future. As the migration to the Sunbelt continues into a third decade, community leaders in farming and rural communities are finding that their “rural-ness” is, perhaps, their best asset. A large percentage of retirees, along with the new generation of mobile workers, want to live where there are farms, where they can get out and take drives in the country, where they can leave their homes and 10 minutes later be hiking in isolated areas. They don’t want commutes in maddening traffic jams, don’t want to worry about locking their doors every minute of every day, and don’t want every view in every direction marred by buildings.

And so leaders in Haywood, Buncombe and other areas are finding that protecting farmland and forests is economic development. It also leads to a better quality of life. It is just, very simply, a great idea.

This movement needs to catch fire fast. Every county in Western North Carolina should develop a farmland protection plan. We in this region are lucky to have the national forests and national park lands that are already protected. If we can do the same with farmland, citizens who call this region home will have something increasingly rare — protected land, and lots of it.

Rural Western North Carolina. It has a nice ring to it, but it will fade into nostalgia in a few decades if local governments don’t step up. Haywood and Buncombe counties have taken the first steps; they should do more, and the rest of the region should jump on the train now.

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