Mecklenburg County has more than 230 farms, about half the number of 40 years ago. Residential and commercial development, rising land costs and urbanization are to blame. But renewed interest in local food and the growth of farmers markets offer hope for reversing the trend. Farm advocates say Voluntary Agricultural Districts could protect remaining farms, and maybe encourage more.
Jets from nearby Charlotte Douglas International Airport interrupt the sounds of animals and insects at Sheldon Scruggs' farm, on about 20 acres not far from the U.S. National Whitewater Center in western Mecklenburg County.
"These are boer goats, and those over there are billies, so I had to separate them because they're old enough to get pregnant," Scruggs said, as he showed a visitor around this week.
Besides goats, Scruggs also raises chickens, cows and quail, as well as fruits and vegetables. He's even got a couple of banana trees. Farming is not his full-time job, but he hopes it will be in a year or so, after he retires from the Freightliner truck plant in Mount Holly. But development all around him is a threat, Scruggs said.
"Just right up the road, they're getting ready to put in 100 houses," He said. "Friend of mine had to take his pasture down. They were allowing him to use that big field for cows, sheep and goats. And now it's sold."
That's why he supports a proposal by farm advocates for what's called a Voluntary Agricultural District ordinance, or VAD for short.
Barbara Bleiweis is a member of the Mecklenburg Soil & Water Conservation board.
"A VAD is an agricultural designation that's set forth in the state statute, and it allows counties to grant to qualifying farms certain protections," she said. "It works in conjunction with other farmland protections."
Farmers who agree to preserve their farms for a set period — say 10 years — could get breaks on county water and sewer fees, which are based on land area. They'd be eligible for farmland preservation funds, and they'd get better protection from nuisance lawsuits by neighbors who don't like the noise or smells of their farms.
Scruggs sees it as a tool against development pressure.
"So it's coming. You can't stop it, but you can try to protect what you got the best you can," Scruggs said. "And I think that's what this VAD thing is leading up to, is to give some kind protection and recognition. A voice in politics — to get on the map."
That voice would come, in part, through another requirement of the state law — creation of a county Agricultural Advisory Board.
Farmers also like the requirement that farms would have to be specifically identified in county land records. That puts developers and future residents on notice, Bleiweis said.
"This allows the farm to protect themselves from potential nuisance lawsuits," he said. "It allows them to force a public hearing if their property is to be condemned."
In Cabarrus and Davidson counties in recent years, agricultural districts have helped farmers force changes to road and rail projects that threatened their farms.
Eighty-eight of North Carolina's 100 counties have adopted agricultural districts since the legislature created the program in 1985. Mecklenburg County has talked about Voluntary Agricultural Districts before, most recently in 2010. But the proposal never gained traction — until now, Bleiweis said. A survey of 43 local farmers this spring found that 70 percent support the idea.
The proposed ordinance is also seen as way for farmers around the state to gain visibility and political strength, said Eddie Stroup, who runs the Mecklenburg County Farm Bureau.
"I think there are some folks that think that if all 100 counties had voluntary agricultural districts it would give them more leverage with the legislature," Stroup said.
MORE VISIBILITY — INCLUDING CITY FARMS
Farmers also like the idea that Voluntary Agricultural Districts — and signs along local roadways — will make farming more visible, including urban farms in Charlotte.
One of those urban farmers is Bernard Singleton. He runs Bennu Gardens, with plots around west Charlotte. One of his sites is a collection of raised beds in a parking lot behind an abandoned mill, where his crop includes peppers, squash, tomatoes, and grapes. Developers are letting Singleton use the site while they figure out how to redevelop the property.
Singleton sees another potential benefit to a voluntary agricultural district ordinance.
"[It] would encourage more people to grow. And having an urban setting, most people don't have access to go out to the farms in the country," he said. "In this area, there's very little farms. And small stakeholder farms are disappearing."
But even as development presses in, farmer Danny Phillips of Huntersville isn't ready to jump at the idea.
He owns Hubbard Farm and Old Store Produce, where Beatties Ford Road meets Highway 73. The sound of traffic these days drowns out the cicadas and occasional mooing cows. Phillips said he stopped driving his farm vehicles on the road after he was hit by a car a couple of years ago, and he's quit farming some fields because of the traffic.
Phillips likes the idea of an ordinance to protect farmers, especially from nuisance lawsuits. But he has questions.
"Well, I kinda lean toward it, but I'm always skeptical," he said. "I've seen things come that's supposedly going to help the farmers and help the agriculture community, and it actually turns around and bites us."
Phillips also serves on the Huntersville town board, where he's known as a conservative. He and his wife Madeline have already sold off some land to developers. He worries a new bureaucracy might affect future sales.
"You know one of the things that people have to understand is that this is mine and Madeline's retirement," Phillips said. "I don't have a 401(k). My land is my 401(k)."
But by state law, agricultural districts are voluntary and farmers have an out, Bleiweis said.
"Again, it's not a silver bullet," he said. "The other thing is that anyone that becomes a member of this VAD can opt out within a 30 days' notice, so there's different flexibilities by design."
Supporters of the idea have briefed some county commissioners. Commissioners Jim Puckett and Pat Cotham both say they're open to the idea, but want more information.
Bleiweis said she hopes to make a formal presentation to county commissioners sometime after the November election, and to present a draft ordinance for a vote next year.