Written By: Leah Chester-Davis
A new effort to pair landowners with beginning farmers has been launched by NC Choices, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in cooperation with N.C. Cooperative Extension.
The goal is to increase the number of beginning farmers in the state by taking a novel approach to land acquisition.
“Land access and long-term leases, along with land being close to ideal markets, continue to be among the big challenges for beginning producers,” says Sarah Blacklin, director of NC Choices. “As North Carolina continues to be ranked among the top places to live, we know that our population is continuing to grow in our urban centers and that’s great in a lot of ways but it puts a lot of pressure on the price of land.”
The team at NC Choices began exploring underutilized land and realized the opportunity to use silvopasture (integrating trees, forages and livestock), solar sites, and land under conservation easement might provide an innovative solution that could benefit both landowners and farmers.
“North Carolina ranks second nationally in solar production, and with more than 24 local land trusts, almost half a million families owning small woodlots, and a rising number of pasture-raised meat producers, we think this is the right time and place to pilot a project like this, says Sarah Blacklin, director of NC Choices.
The team secured a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to provide a wide range of support.
“We have a team of specialists who cover every species from pastured pork, beef, small ruminants (sheep and goats), and poultry,” explains Blacklin. “This comprehensive network of support includes a land tenure option so we have an attorney at N.C. State who helps draft those long-term lease agreements. We do a lot of training that includes workshops and training at the Carolina Meat Conference. We’re not just trying to support the pairing of the landowners and farmers; we want to support the whole business of these farms from production all the way through final sale.”
“Carolina Farm Credit loan officers work with farmers every day and understand the challenges, particularly the rising land prices and the barriers they can sometimes pose for beginning farmers,” says Carrie Barnhardt, loan officer in the Concord Branch. “We appreciate the novel approach NC Choices is taking in pairing beginning farmers with underutilized land.”
Lee Menius, coordinator of the project, is currently recruiting North Carolina beginning meat producers looking to lease land, and North Carolina land owners with woodland acreage, land under conservation easement, or solar panel installations interested in working with grazing animal production. (Beginning meat producers are those raising animals for 10 years or less.) He says the goal is to have five pairings by the end of the year and 15 by the end of the three-year project. If you think you might be a good fit, visit the Beginning Farmer page on the NC Choices website. There are brief interest forms for both farmers and land owners, or contact Lee at 704-202-9348 or firstname.lastname@example.org.