An Investment in Our Future

04/01/04 by John Wear

tractor in a field

Count Rowan among the forward-looking counties in this region. And count Rowan officials among the financially astute.

For the price of one soda per person per year, Rowan county commissioners have established a Farmland Preservation Program to ensure that Rowan’s farmland does not follow the state trend.

North Carolina, you see, is losing farmland at an alarming rate. The American Farmland Trust reported that we lost 168,300 prime acres from 1992 to 1997, placing our state fourth in the nation for losing the most prime farmland.

This is clearly cause for concern. Agribusiness contributes enormously to our state and local economies. In fact, the combination of timber and agriculture is the No. 1 economic engine for the state -- an economic generator that requires very little in return because privately owned and managed agricultural land generates more in local
tax revenues than it costs in services.

What happens if development overtakes our farmland? For one thing, businesses associated with farming suffer.

Gerry Cohn of the American Farmland Trust notes that it is important to maintain a critical mass of agricultural production and land to support input services. Every time a farm closes, the local farm supply dealership loses a portion of its business. If development usurps multiple farms, that dealership may have to move elsewhere to survive.

The economy is not the only facet of our life that is affected. Farmland provides habitat for wildlife, helps control flooding, recharges groundwater and can protect wetlands and watersheds.

It is also part of our heritage. So much of our cultural identity is tied to the rural landscape. We value our scenic views and our open space because it is part of our community’s character.

The Rowan County Commissioners have set a budgetary goal of $200,000 for the Farmland Preservation Program for the next fiscal year. That is a wise financial investment, especially considering the fact that those local monies will be able to leverage twice as much in federal funds, potentially bringing $4 million into the county for this program over the next decade.

Another county – Iredell – has also expressed an interest in establishing a farmland preservation program. Others would do well to consider the possibility themselves.

We still have a significant amount of farmland in this region that deserves our preservation efforts. Preserving that land would give us the opportunity to incorporate true sustainable development in our land-use planning by clustering growth around natural resources. It would help us deal with sprawl, which increases the number of vehicle miles traveled – and air pollution.

Unplanned growth, on the other hand, is costly. Just ask the officials in Atlanta. That city doubled in size from the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s. The resulting sprawl necessitated a 22 percent increase in property taxes, and the number of vehicle miles traveled increased by 17 percent. I don’t have to tell you what that did to Atlanta’s air quality.

Compare Atlanta’s situation to the city of Portland, Ore., which grew at about the same rate but increased in size by only 2 percent because of its strong commitment to planned growth. Unlike Atlanta, Portland reported a 29 percent decrease in property taxes.

Fortunately, we still have the opportunity to be more like Portland and less like Atlanta. And we have county commissioners in the area who realize that funding a farmland preservation program is a wise financial investment, especially considering the funds it can leverage.

The price of a soda is nothing but pocket change, but if every county made that kind of commitment to farmland preservation, North Carolina would no longer occupy the fourth position in the nation for farmland loss. Surely a sustainable future is worth that.

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