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'Land is needed' | North Carolina leaders work to preserve farmland

According to a report by the American Farmland Trust, North Carolina ranks second in the nation among states predicted to lose the most farmland by 2040.

CHINA GROVE, N.C. — Many local farmers say they are concerned about the impact growth and development in North Carolina could have on agricultural land.

According to a report by the American Farmland Trust, North Carolina ranks second among all states in the nation that are predicted to lose the most farmland by 2040.

Advocates say preserving farmland is important because it allows the  United States to produce its own food and safeguard the environment.

"First of all, simply put, land is needed for agriculture. And agriculture is North Carolina's number one industry. This is a $93 billion industry in North Carolina," said Evan Davis, Farmland Preservation Director for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.

Passed down from one generation to the next since 1919, Patterson Farm Inc. remains in the family business in China Grove, a 42-mile drive from Charlotte in Rowan County.

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“My mom’s dad and my dad’s dad both farmed. That was the way of life in the 1900s,” said Doug Patterson, the Vice President of Patterson Farms. “It’s really important to us that we have farmland to produce crops to feed the country.”

But farmland across the country is shrinking, and it's evident in the Tar Heel state; the American Farmland Trust report shows North Carolina could lose 1.1 million acres of agricultural land to developments in the next 20 years.

Davis said that means the state is losing farmland at a rapid pace.

“If you have these managed lands - open land and they're managed for erosion - that's a very easy target for developers,” he said. “And unfortunately, with rising real estate prices and the demand for more housing, it's very tough for farmers to turn down those types of offers.”

Patterson said as farmers are aging out of the business, he is seeing more fields disappear.

“There are a lot of reasons people move away from farming,” said Patterson. “They really don’t have an interest in farming or the land and they really just don’t want the responsibility, they just want to sell it.”

The Farmland Preservation Program works to protect those lands. Davis said they received the most easement applications in the last application cycle since the land trust was established in 2005.

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“The agricultural conservation easements remove the development rights from the property so that it will remain in agricultural or forestry uses. It's important to know that these properties remain in private ownership,” he said. “So they can be sold. They can be transferred, they can be inherited, but these easements move with the property.”

Davis admits it is a complex real estate transaction but said they are working to streamline the process and get more funding to protect more farmland.

That kind of effort is something Patterson is pushing for.

“I’m working with our county commissioners,” said Patterson. “I’m trying to get them to simplify the process because right now it’s taking four to five years to put farms into the preservation plan.”

For farmers like himself, every acre matters.

“It’s just a good family, faithful and enjoyable way of life,” said Patterson “I get to be outside. I get to see the fruits of our labor.”

Landowners interested in preserving their farms can contact the Farmland Preservation Division at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. They can also go to their local soil and water conservation district office or contact their local land trust. Grant applications are accepted in the fall of each year starting in mid-October, and that application period runs through mid-December.

Contact Jesse Pierre at jpierrepet@wcnc.com or follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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