Protecting the farmland

Published 10:03 am Thursday, June 12, 2014

WINTON – It’s not a case of the country going city, but it just might help in protecting the greatest resource of the Roanoke-Chowan area.

The Hertford County Board of Commissioners at their regular meeting on Monday evening listened to a couple of area farmers as well as a legal liaison with the North Carolina Farm Bureau as the trio discussed the possible establishment of voluntary agricultural districts in the county.

First proposed during the Jim Hunt administration in 1986 to provide a uniform state policy of conservation of prime agriculture and farm lands, the Voluntary Agriculture District ordinance has been adopted by 80 counties. This means that more than three-quarters of the counties in the state are actively protecting farm and forest land for future generations.

If a county decides to adopt the ordinance it must be passed by a majority vote of the county commissioners, hence the presentation before the board.

Steve Woodson, associate general counsel for the North Carolina Farm Bureau said the ordinances are just now being adopted in the coastal plains.

“He’s helped a lot of counties work through this process,” said Stuart Pierce of Pierce Farms in HertfordCounty. “He helps make sure what’s done is done correctly.”

“There hasn’t been as much development pressure in this area as there’s been in the Piedmont and the mountains,” Woodson told the board. “These ordinances address new development and what happens when people from other areas (urban) move closer to agricultural operations.”

Woodson touted the benefits of the program to area farmers.

“Mainly it’s to increase the visibility and influence of agriculture within the county, letting people know about the things going on that they might see, hear, and smell,” he said. “This is so there won’t be the friction between neighbors that might otherwise be.”

The prime benefits are records notice, which shows the existence of an agricultural district on a GIS map in the tax office. Secondly, there is representation on an appointed agricultural advisory board housed within a county department (Extension Service, Planning, Soil & Water) that advises the commissioners on matters within the county that affect agriculture. The third benefit would be a waiver of water and sewer assessments. Landowners within agricultural districts who are not connected to water or sewer systems operated by the county can have water & sewer assessments waived.

In order for one’s land to be enrolled as a voluntary land district you must be (1) engaged in agriculture, (2) follow a plan for highly erodible soils, (3) meet minimum acreage requirement, and (4) sign a conservation agreement to be in agriculture for a period of ten years.

“This policy is completely voluntary and completely revocable,” said Woodson. “It’s more a statement of intent than a contract.”

The Farm Bureau rep also pointed out that there is also the Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural District, adopted in 2005, which provides more benefits such as greater participation in the cost-shares program, and income-enhancement with items that may not have been produced on the farm, such as with a roadside stand.

“After we introduce the program we try to get as many farmers and ag agencies and ag groups to adopt the ordinances,” Woodson said. “They’ll then get together and tailor these ordinances for their county and bring their ordinances back to the commissioners to look at.”

Harrellsville farmer Jimmy Askew spoke in favor of adoption of the ordinance.

“Folks love me when they can pick up cucumbers from behind my harvester,” Askew said. “But not so much when I’m spreading chicken manure.  This program lets people know ahead of time if they’re interested in buying a piece of property whether that property is near an agricultural district; hopefully that keeps (the county manager’s office) from hearing complaints, and there’s next to no cost involved to the county.”

“Without you all’s blessing there’s no need to go forward,” said Pierce. “we’re asking you to let us pursue this a little bit and we’ll try to work to get the legwork done where it’s not costing the county but a very little bit.”

Pierce pointed to Hertford’s neighbor to the south where all of Bertie County is designated a voluntary agricultural district.

“It’s mostly a P-R thing,” he contended. “You see signs there saying ‘This is a voluntary ag district county’.”

Commissioner Ron Gatling inquired about other farmers speaking up for the ordinance.

“You’re talking about a conservation agreement,” Gatling stated. “There’s no need of telling someone who owns land in the land use program that they should be in the ag district if they don’t want to be there.”

“It’s more a neighborly thing,” Pierce said. “And we just want to be good neighbors.”

“The key is finding out when (the buyer) does their title search, not when they go get their permit to build,” noted county attorney, Charles Revelle, III.

During discussion Commissioners Curtis Freeman and Howard Hunter, III praised the idea.  Commission chair, Bill Mitchell, suggested the presentation and the farmer input that night to be the first step in the process of development.

“I can tell by the conversation that it’s generated that there’s a lot of interest around,” Mitchell said. “We understand the large portion agriculture plays in our county.”

“It’s roughly 25 percent of our county’s GDP (gross domestic product),” said Commissioner Johnny Ray Farmer.

“Don’t complain,” added Farmer. “When you see those tractors, that’s money.”

Mitchell suggested a meeting of farmers, that there is time to check land records, and also to establish a relationship.

Pierce said that in addition to Bertie there are already ordinances in Chowan and Northampton counties that surround Hertford. He suggested those ordinances be studied and that a farmers’ group report back to the commissioners in sixty to ninety days; which the board agreed upon as discussion on the topic ended.