Land conservation groups across the region found something to celebrate this month when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an $8 million allocation for farmland conservation in Western North Carolina — a gargantuan number that the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy calls “unprecedented.”
This type of funding, allocated through the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Plan under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, has been available in the past. But never before has the amount been so large or so specifically targeted to Western North Carolina.
Some years ago, confined to an office through work obligations but dreaming of farming, I spent more time than I should have surfing the Internet in search of agriculture and back-to-the-land related sites.
Amazingly, many of the same ones I visited regularly then are still up and running. Though these days, I find more pleasure in the actual doing than the reading, still sometimes I turn to old favorites for information or to recharge my batteries. Here’s some of the ones I’ve found most useful:
• urbanhomestead.org — The Dervaes family lives in a sustainable fashion on a tiny (1/5th of an acre) lot in southern California, where they grow a garden, raise livestock and undertake interesting homesteading projects. The father, his grown son and two daughters (the wife and husband divorced many years ago) have developed a slick Website chronicling their journey. In fact, the site has gotten a little too slick and commercial for my taste, but maybe I’m just jealous of this family’s exceptional marketing abilities and beautiful urban homestead. There is a lot of good information here if you are willing to dig around, and this is a particularly useful site if you don’t have much room to create a sustainable lifestyle, but still are looking for ways to do just that.
• www.homesteadingtoday.com — General homesteading forums that, subject wise, ranges far and wide. The forums are moderated, which helps keep people on-topic. Forums include general subjects such as “homesteading questions,” “countryside families” and so on, plus specialized areas on goats, bees, gardening, market gardening, sheep, rabbits, guard animals and more. Also includes a useful “preserving the harvest” forum and a recipes forum (need to know how to cook a possum? These are the folks who will likely know).
• www.gardenweb.com — Skip all the junk and go directly to the gardening forums. These are terrific, and you’ll soon find your own favorites if you poke around long enough. Some of mine include “vegetable,” “tomatoes” and “organic gardening.” The search engine for the site is also quite good, allowing you to search within individual forums, so give it a shot next time you have a gardening question.
• www.thecontraryfarmer.com — Writer Gene Logsdon’s site. This man writes and writes and writes, and yet still finds time to run an actual farm in Ohio. He has published more than 20 nonfiction titles, including his latest, “Holy Shit, Managing Manure to Save Mankind.” He also writes fiction, and these days, blogs on the Internet. Check him out, he’s funny and knowledgeable and agreeably opinionated (in that I agree with most of his opinions).
• www.backwoodshome.com — If you can handle the survivalist paranoia that crops up here, then this is a good general source of homesteading and information on self-sufficiency. I subscribed to the magazine of the same name for a year or so, but didn’t renew because I couldn’t handle the rightwing Republinuts agenda. That said, the basic information offered here is sound, if you skip articles on storing up ammunition and the need to buy gold coins. Unless, of course, those are the sort of topics that interest you.
• www.motherearthnews.com — So sad, so bad, but true: Mother Earth News is not what it once was. Still, ignore the yuppie, often shallow content and use the archives online, and you can tap right back into the original and best back-to-the-land magazine.
• www.ces.ncsu.edu — At your fingertips, here is all the specialized agriculture-related information on North Carolina you could want. This site serves as a direct line to decades of state-funded research and work. On that same track, check out www.growingsmallfarms.org, a site built and maintained by Debbie Roos, an organic specialist for the state in Chatham County. Here you’ll find very specific information for organic and small farms in North Carolina, from marketing information to specific state regulations and laws.
Small farmers fighting against being lumped with large agribusinesses in a federal food-safety act have received a measure of possible protection.
At the behest of small farmers, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan D-N.C., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., pushed through a provision to exempt small farms from new reporting requirements of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Last month, commissioners in Jackson and Haywood counties joined their counterparts in Macon County in requesting the protection. The distinction between big and small will be those farmers making less than $500,000 in gross income and who sell directly to consumers.
This includes sales made at farmers markets, community-supported agriculture drop-sites, roadside stands and other similar direct-market venues.
“Everyone agrees we must overhaul our food-safety system,” Hagan said, “as millions of people have become sick from foodborne illnesses. But unfortunately, this bill threatens the ability of small producers … to stay in business.”
Hagan noted more than 3,700 farmers in North Carolina sell directly to consumers, generating $29 million in economic activity through sales at 200 farmers markets and more than 100 community-supported agriculture organizations.
By Quintin Ellison and Colby Dunn
William Shelton knows one positive aspect about losing his bid for re-election to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners: as a farmer, he can now turn his full attention to keeping Shelton Family Farm healthy and afloat.
Shelton this week shepherded a request through the board urging Congress not to hurt small farms like his while they work to toughen regulations governing the nation’s food supply through the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” Shelton told his colleagues on the board and the 40 or so people who attended the meeting. “If you hold small farms to the same standards, it ends up punishing the small farmers and enterprises that do produce safe food.”
Resolutions containing identical language have been passed by other boards in Western North Carolina, including Haywood County this week and Macon County in September.
“No provision of this act shall be deemed to apply (a) to any home-business, homestead, home or community gardens, small farm, organic or natural agricultural activity, (b) to any family farm or ranch, or (c) to any natural food product, including dietary supplements regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994,” the key paragraph requests.
Small farmers across Western North Carolina have spoken out against the Food Safety Modernization Act. They fear added expenses and piles of government-required paperwork.
Bill Holbrook, a Haywood county farmer who has testified in Washington against the measure, spoke to Haywood county commissioners at their Monday meeting, asking them to voice their opposition to it.
“It’s going to be difficult for many men and women to pass this food safety as small farmers,” Holbrook said. “All the water’s got to be tested, no animals are allowed in your field,” he said, adding that these are just a few of the difficult conditions farmers must meet every year to stay certified.
“Some of these are good things,” Holbrook said, but some – like the requirement to account, in writing, for everyone who enters their fields, would be “impossible for us to maintain.”
The cost, Holbrook said, is burdensome, as well. A small farmer would, under the bill, pay the same fee as a mega-farm, which can run to more than $1,000 a year.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., is co-sponsoring an amendment to exempt facilities with gross incomes of less than $500,000. Additionally, small producers who mainly sell to restaurants and consumers would be exempted from some of the regulations.
Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., also has promised his support to small-farming operations faced with potentially onerous and expensive government regulations.
The purpose of the proposed federal legislation is to protect the nation from outbreaks of food-borne illness. Local farmers (joined by their counterparts across the U.S.) assert that the bulk of the unsafe food has been produced and distributed by large corporations. But the act itself threatens to shutdown the smallest operations, they say.
Mountain farmers are encouraged to tap into two different grants to expand and diversify what they grow, as well as create better in-roads into the marketplace.
Funding for both comes from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund, helping farmers in regions that were once tobacco dependent make forays into new areas of agriculture.
• WNC AgOptions gives small grants of $3,000 to $9,000 for farm diversification projects to help farmers offset the risk of trying new ventures. There will be around 40 grants given out.
Projects this year have included a propagation house for food and medicinal plants, hops production, a maple syrup finishing cooker, no-till production of specialty winter squash, and a screened greenhouse for commercial disease-free strawberry plants.
The program is also getting additional funding this grant cycle through the new Family Farm Innovation Fund.
Deadline Nov. 1. www.wncagoptions.org.
• Grants of up to $20,000 will be awarded for projects undertaken by groups of farmers to improve the local agricultural system, solving processing, marketing, packaging and other distribution issues.
Past grants include farmer’s market renovations, alternative crop research, agricultural marketing campaigns and developing markets for value-added food producers.
North Carolina’s farmland is rapidly disappearing. The state has lost more than a million acres of it since 2007, and only 17 percent of the land in cultivation in 1950 is still farmed. In the mountains, the pressure to develop flat land near water sources accentuates the problem.
“That’s the first place a developer will build,” said John Beckman, pointing at his melon field in bottomland. “I could have subdivided this into one-acre lots and sold them all as waterfront property.”
Beckman and a handful of other property owners along Tilley Creek in Cullowhee are working in conjunction with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee to save their land from development and keep it farmed by using conservation easements and elbow grease. Last Saturday, they opened up their properties to the public to showcase the effort.
Four separate landowners in the Tilley Creek watershed have put more than 200 acres of land into conservation easements and kept close to 20 of those acres bearing food.
“People look to county and state government to conserve land, but there’s another way it can happen,” said Paul Carlson, executive director of LTLT. “There’s starting to be a cumulative conservation story in Tilley Creek.”
Tough row to hoe
Beckman doesn’t have any illusions about why farming has all but disappeared in Western North Carolina.
“Nobody wants to farm. It’s hard work. There’s not hardly any money in it. I still haven’t found anything that makes money,” Beckman said.
A builder and a developer who was raised in upstate New York and has lived in Maine, Colorado, West Virginia and Wyoming, Beckman moved to Jackson County from Raleigh in the mid-1990s to run an organic farm on Betty’s Creek. After selling that property to developers, he intended to take a break from farming, but fate intervened.
The historic Pressley farmstead, a picturesque piece of land that was farmed by Bob Pressley between 1900 and 1960, was in danger of becoming a shooting range. In 2006, Beckman bought the 200-acre property, which is only three miles from the Western Carolina University campus, in a tax foreclosure auction with the intention of preserving it.
“Rather than being smart and taking a break, I got involved in another project right away,” Beckman said.
But Beckman couldn’t afford to pay taxes on the entire property, so he put 135 acres into a conservation easement with LTLT. He has divided the rest into 5 to 10-acre lots centered on a common area that can be farmed. So far he has only sold one of them, to Cindy Anthony, a Pressley descendant who has hopes of restoring the old farmhouse to its original splendor. But Beckman’s broad aim is to create a new model for land conservation and development.
On his own piece of the land, he’s spent the past three years creating an organic farm that produces a wide array of vegetables to sell at farmers markets. The effort to clear his garden plot, which had reverted to a mixed poplar forest, was tremendous.
“The saying is we’re blessed with rock and it’s true,” Beckman said. “You can’t stick a shovel in the ground without hitting rock.”
Beckman hauled out 20 truckloads of rock and used it to build his “Frank Lloyd Lite” house beside the burbling waters of Tilley Creek. But for Beckman, the job of figuring out how to minimize the workload of running a 5-acre farm is part of the challenge. To that end, he was thrilled to welcome interested conservationists for a tour.
“It doesn’t do any good to get other farmers out here,” Beckman said. “That’s the choir. Half of my job is education. Showing people this is possible. Showing people you don’t have to kill yourself.”
Russ Regnery came to the tour having never been to Tilley Creek. Beckman’s farm and the precedent it offers blew the Macon County native away.
“It’s just a fantastic example to set for people,” said Regnery. “You can have a way of life that pays for itself and preserves an agricultural tradition that almost doesn’t exist anymore.”
Beckman estimates that he spends 20 hours per week in his fields during the growing season, but he maintains that people should bite off whatever they feel they can chew.
“What I want to emphasize to people is that farms don’t have to be 100 acres,” Beckman said. “Everybody should have a 10 by 10 plot in their backyard.”
As for the broader picture of farmland conservation, Beckman believes there isn’t a single approach that will do the job. County and state government will have to spend money to preserve what they can, and private landowners will need to work with land conservation groups like LTLT to create a patchwork quilt of farmland in places like Tilley Creek.
“It’s going to take the contributions of a lot of people working a lot of different angles,” Beckman said.
Setting the example
Joan Byrd has lived on Tilley Creek for almost 40 years. She started her life there on a one-acre lot on the ridge above where she lives now. Twenty-six years ago she married her husband, George Rector. Both of them are ceramics instructors at WCU. They purchased land and began farming a pasture alongside Bryson Branch, a picturesque mountain stream off Bo Cove Road.
In order to preserve their peaceful life on the mountain, they continued buying land that was likely to be developed. Five years ago, they put 40 acres into a conservation easement with LTLT.
“We just didn’t want it to be developed,” Byrd said.
While Byrd still focuses her energy on her pottery studio in summer, Rector has embraced the backbreaking work of maintaining a stunning garden of raised beds, grapevines and kiwi pergolas. To look at the perfectly manicured beds is to understand that a garden can be artistic as well as functional, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require hard work.
“There’s a lot of stoop labor involved,” said Rector. “The Italians have a saying that the ground is very low. I remember that a lot at the end of the day.”
While Beckman fights the rocks on his land, Rector has settled into a 30-year war with voles, burrowing rodents that have a taste for vegetables. His potatoes sit in the ground in makeshift containers with hard bottoms and wire mesh sides, and as the season goes forward, he mounds the plants with soil.
The struggle is worth the effort for Rector, who sees producing food as a step towards self-sufficiency that may become critical in the future.
“Cheap food is a luxury right now, but it’s cheap because oil is cheap,” said Rector. “That may not always be the case.”
For Kate Parkerson, outreach coordinator for LTLT, Beckman and Rector are the unsung heroes of the farmland conservation movement because they have succeeded in showing how the land can be saved and used by the people who live on it.
“Some people think that if you put your land in conservation you can’t use it,” Parkerson said. “You can’t use it for development, but you can use it in a way that’s productive and energizing and free and still protects the resource.”
The landowners of Tilley Creek –– Vera and Don Guise own another historic farmstead higher up Tilley Creek with a 48-acre conservation easement, and Kathy Ivey, their neighbor, has 46 acres in conservation –– are preserving a watershed that could easily have been cut up into tiny pieces for second home lots.
“If the people who owned these properties didn’t see the risk and take the steps to get the conservation easements, that might have happened,” Parkerson said.
Through their efforts, they want to show that the value of land is in the way that you use it, not how much you can get for selling it.
LTLT helps to conserve the landscape of the upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee river valleys by protecting private lands from inappropriate development. LTLT does this by working with private landowners to place conservation easements on their property, by accepting gifts of land, and by purchasing at-risk properties. As of September 2009, LTLT had protected 3,564 acres through conservation easements, and another 1,278 acres through acquisition. LTLT also played an important role in the State of North Carolina’s acquisition of the Needmore Tract, a 4,500-acre tract on the banks of the Little Tennessee River. www.ltlt.org.
Hickory Nut Gap Farm, a historic and scenic farm in Buncombe County, has been permanently protected through a conservation agreement with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.
The family-owned farm raises livestock and grows produce found at several grocers, including Earth Fare in Asheville. In exchange for pledging conservation of the tract, the family received more than $1 million for protecting nearly 300 acres of the farm. The bulk of the money came from the N.C. Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, to the tune of $700,000. Matches came from the Buncombe County conservation fund and private donors.
The scenic farm is an important part of the landscape marked by the new state parks of Chimney Rock and Hickory Nut Gorge.
The farm straddles the designated Drovers Road Scenic Highway. Travelers of the road lodged at Sherrill’s Inn, the centerpiece of the farm.
The Clarke family faced a tough decision, as the property is in a prime spot for development, which could be lucrative for the family.
“But we looked at that and said, ‘no, we don’t want to do it,’” said Annie Clarke Ager, one of the landowners. Ager said the family is grateful to the citizens of the state for funding the conservation.
The farm is owned collectively by the six living children of the original property owners.
“The conservation easement is beneficial for family relationships because it settles important previously unanswered questions about how the family property will be managed and used in the future,” said Ager.
“This conservation easement was the only option our family had to keep our farm and forestland intact for future generations,” said Doug Clarke, part-owner of the property.
By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
Haywood County commissioners have agreed to pay for the creation of a farmland protection plan they hope will guide efforts to preserve the region’s farming tradition for generations to come.
A new initiative is now underway to encourage landowners to keep the Upper Pigeon River Valley in the Bethel community of Haywood County rural.
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.