Agriculture is a significant part of our local economy.
More than 4,000 people in Lee County are employed in an agriculture field, and the business contributes over 282 million dollars to our local economy each year. However, as our economy and population continue to grow, agricultural land continues to be developed. In fact, from 2002 through 2012, the most recent agricultural census, Lee County lost over 7,000 acres of farmland to development; this number is steadily increasing.
In 2008, our Lee County commissioners saw a need to help preserve farmland, and adopted the Voluntary Agriculture District (VAD) ordinance. The VAD is designed to encourage the preservation and protection of family farms, and to increase the visibility of land in Lee County which is being utilized for agricultural, forestry, and horticultural production. This is the land that helps to feed us all three times a day, put clothes on our backs, and a roof over our heads.
The VAD is a voluntary program available to farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners who would like a voice in helping to preserve their land. Those who enroll will have their land identified on a map as an agricultural district. With the current economic boom, this can be very valuable information to local governments as they work with planning committees to help our community grow in a responsible and sustainable manner.
As our economy grows, so will our population. More people are moving into Lee County every day, some to work locally, and others looking for a relatively easy commute to the triangle. This means more and more so called “city folk” will be moving into predominantly agricultural areas. This brings me to a second benefit of having your acreage enrolled in the VAD. Many move to the country for the view and the fresh air. They often forget though that farming is a seven day a week job, and tractors start early on Saturday morning, and often run late into the night, especially when a storm is approaching and there is a crop that needs to be harvested. During a dry spell, things can get quite dusty, and trees are a crop that must be harvested once they are mature. These things are all part of living in the country. Believe it or not, farmers are sometimes handed nuisance lawsuits over these types of activities when someone unfamiliar with agriculture moves into the area and agricultural production disrupts their quiet, family cookout. If you buy a house near a VAD, you’ll be notified that you can expect these things to come with the territory. Oh, and did I mention the smells? Those home buyers will be reminded that there could be some stinky days.
The VAD ordinance also established an Agricultural Advisory Board. This board approves all applications and helps to implement the program. The board also serves to advise agricultural programs in the county. Most importantly, the board is a knowledgeable resource for local elected officials to call upon for advice on agricultural policy, or input with land use and development planning.
VAD members have other benefits as well. Signage helps to promote your business, and the agricultural industry, to motorists who are passing through. Also, as funding becomes available, VAD participants are sometimes eligible for, and given priority for, grants to assist with farmland preservation. They also make their operation known to the agriculture advisory board, who can help give them a stronger voice for protection if their land is under development pressure. While the board can’t prevent all urban sprawl, it does give farmers a fighting chance.
All landowners in the county who have land that qualifies for present use value tax program also have land that qualifies for the VAD program. I encourage those who qualify to consider enrollment. All filing fees and the cost of one sign to post on your property are covered in the $85 enrollment fee. Applications can be obtained from North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County. North Carolina Cooperative Extension is located in the McSwain Extension Education and Agriculture Center, 2420 Tramway Road in Sanford. Applications are also available online, just visit our website, lee.ces.ncsu.edu, and click on the farmland preservation tab on the left side of your screen. We have made the application process simple and our staff is ready to assist you with the paperwork. If you have questions about the program, contact Cooperative Extension at 919-775-5624 or stop by our office for a visit.
Mitch Williams is the agriculture agent (field crops and livestock) for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.