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Mecklenburg is losing farmland. There are plans to save it.

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Mecklenburg County's farmland is now only about 20% of what it was compared to a decade ago.

With the explosive growth of Charlotte and surrounding towns, you might not think of Mecklenburg County as being home to farms. Well, it is, though they are becoming harder and harder to find.

The amount of Mecklenburg’s farmland has shrunk to about 13,000 acres, which is a drop of about 20% from just over a decade ago. But the county is working to try and preserve the farmland that remains.

Lindsey Banks wrote about that for the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter, and she joins me now to talk more about it.

Marshall Terry: So, just how many farms are there in Mecklenburg and what do they produce?

Lindsey Banks: So, the most recent data out there regarding the number of farms in the county is from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of overall farms was 216, and currently, there are 16 farms in Mecklenburg County that have been around for over 100 years.

As you said, in the last decade, farmland acreage in Mecklenburg has shrunk about 20% and that decrease isn't just whole farms that are no longer in operation, but it also includes farmers who have had to sell portions of their property. And it's not just happening in Mecklenburg — North Carolina is actually on pace right now to lose nearly 1.2 million acres of farmland by 2040.

As far as the kinds of crops that are being produced in Mecklenburg, we've got everything from grain to vegetables to poultry and beef, the flowers and trees — so we've got quite a bit here.

Terry: You don't have to go back very far in time to see a very different Mecklenburg County. SouthPark for instance was fields and pastures just a bit more than 50 years ago, Ballantyne just 25 years. But it's shrinking fast, as we mentioned. So why are farms disappearing?

Banks: So basically, what's happening [is] when some of these, I guess we'll call them more seasoned farmers or the older farmers that have been around for a while when they're looking to retire and no one in their family wants to take over, they kind of have to sell. Another reason why they sell is because maintaining a farm, like everything else, has become increasingly more expensive. As a result, many farmers had to sell off either their entire farm or certain sections, and developers came in with the right offer.

Terry: One of the farmers you spoke to, Connor Newman of Hodges Family Farm, said one challenge farmers face in Mecklenburg is that the land is often labeled as being “undeveloped land.” And that makes it a target for developers, right?

Banks: Right. Undeveloped land is getting harder and harder to come by, as we all know, in Charlotte. And developers often see farmland as undeveloped land. For some farms, if you even go to Google Maps, it'll have it listed as undeveloped land. But, it's not like a developer can come in and look at a piece of property and say ‘I want that’ and poof it's theirs. But if they see a farm property that fits the project, they can make an offer and sometimes when farmers are weighing their options about the future of their farm, it's the best option that they have.

Terry: What is the county doing to try and preserve the farmland that remains?

Banks: So, there is a plan that's currently in the works coming from the Mecklenburg Soil and Water Conservation District, which is the government entity charged with conserving the county's natural resources. The plan hasn't been approved yet, but the goal is to have it finished by the end of the county's fiscal year, which is June 30. And part of the plan is creating something called voluntary agriculture districts, which are areas that farmers agree to keep in agriculture production for at least 10 years, and in exchange they'd be publicly recognized as a farm, which would be represented on Google Maps, and then also through road signage.

That designation as a voluntary agriculture district brings a lot of pride to farmers, and it shows their recognized establishment in the community, and it gives them a platform when it comes to agriculture and environmental policy. There are currently nine counties in North Carolina that do not have these voluntary agriculture districts in the county. Mecklenburg is one of those nine.

The county is also looking to partner with a national nonprofit called The Conservation Fund, which would purchase land from Mecklenburg County farmers who were trying to get out of farming and sell it to new and minority farmers in the county. And there's a similar program right now through The Conservation Fund in Atlanta, which is being used as a model for Charlotte. And then there's also an interesting new initiative going on called the Carolina Farm Fund, and it's trying to raise $17 million to preserve about 5,000 acres of farmland across 15 counties in the Charlotte region. It’s being launched in coordination with the former Belk CEO Tim Belk.

So, there are a lot of things that are in the works right now, so it'll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Terry: Well, why is it important for the county to hang on to some of its farmland, especially as developers and advocates point out our housing shortage?

Banks: That's a great question, and local farms have proven to play an important role in food security and they also create vibrant, healthy communities. They’re the ones that are bringing fresh, local produce to our farmers markets. There are also some great initiatives out there that are bringing produce to underserved communities that don't have regular access to fresh produce. And the county wants to take care of and support the farms that have been supporting the community and these new farmers who are eager to add to that.

Hodges Family Farms is one of 16 farms in Mecklenburg County that I mentioned earlier, that is over 100 years old. And Connor Newman, the farming operations manager for Hodges Family Farm, told me something that his grandfather would say that kind of stuck with me and it's “land is the only thing we're not making more of and once it's covered in concrete, it will never be farmland again.” So we've got to preserve what's here.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.