Written By: Leah Chester-Davis
NC Choices Beginning Farmer project is working across the state to increase the number of beginning farmers by providing them with novel land acquisition strategies, specifically looking to land under conservation easement, woodland acreage, or solar panel installations. The three-year project is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
NC Choices is teaming up with the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) and hopes it will be the first of many, and a model for, partnerships with conservancies across the state that will help beginning farmers. There are about 18 land trusts across the state.
The Sarah and Bailey Williamson Preserve at Walnut Hill Preserve in eastern Wake County is a 405-acre farm that has been continuously farmed for more than 150 years, says George Jones, senior conservation manager for TLC. Their agricultural plan devotes 90 of those acres to agricultural operations on the site, including acreage for new and beginning farmers.
“We want to support the next generation of agriculture in our region. The average age of a farmer in North Carolina is 59 years old. If we do not provide opportunities to train the next generation, we will continue to lose farms,” says Jones.
Sarah Blacklin, director of NC Choices, says that one of the important aspects in providing affordable land for beginning farmers is its proximity to buyers. Often the land closest to urban markets is the most expensive. “What we’re trying to do with this grant is secure long-term leases, partnerships that could be long-lasting so that farmers can get through those tough early years and not have to move around on short-term leases. That could be make or break for a lot of small farmers,” she explains.
TLC is looking to work with up to five farmers in the first year through the NC Choices project and other efforts. TLC views agricultural training as a crucial element and, in addition to working with NC Choices, will work with the school system and community organizations.
“One of the best ways to protect farms is to help ensure there is both demand for local farm products as well as trained farmers who are willing to work to supply the products,” says Jones.
Currently, TLC is installing the infrastructure for these producers. Lee Menius, NC Choices technical program coordinator, says the formal pairings of beginning farmers with the conservancy is imminent. Menius will work throughout the project to provide technical advice and to work with TLC to offer training opportunities for the farmers.
With Triangle Land Conservancy helping protect more than 18,500 acres since 1983, Jones says opportunities exist across the Triangle to develop additional partnerships. Currently, TLC is focusing its efforts at Walnut Hill along with Irvin Preserve in Chapel Hill and Catawba Trail Farm in Durham.
“Carolina Farm Credit supports farmers and we look forward to hearing how NC Choices may pair beginning farmers in our region with local land conservancies, solar farms, or woodlot owners,” says Spencer Blevins loan officer in the Burnsville Branch. “With thousands of acres under conservation easement this has the potential to provide beginning farmers with access to affordable land close to important markets.”
To learn more, visit the Beginning Farmer page on the NC Choices website. There are brief interest forms for both farmers and land owners, or contact Lee Menius, NC Choices technical program coordinator, at 704-202-9348 or firstname.lastname@example.org.