by Burwell Stark
RALEIGH — Four years after work on it began, the Wake County Commissioners unanimously approved the Wake County Agricultural Economic Development Plan (AEDP) Monday.
The plan was then presented to and certified by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences (NCDA&CS) on Tuesday.
Having a county commission-approved AEDP qualifies the county for a lower match when applying for grants under the NC Agricultural Development & Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, as well as for “additional resources” from the fund.
Dale Threatt-Taylor, district director of Wake Soil and Water Conservation, presented the updated and revised plan to the board, after which Board Vice-Chairman Phil Matthews asked, rhetorically, “What took you so long?”
A case of need
North Carolina may be a center of research and development, but it hasn’t strayed far from its agricultural roots.
According to the NCDA&CS webpage, 17 percent of the state’s workforce participates in an agricultural or agribusiness-related job. Additionally, 17 percent of the state’s income is derived from agriculture, and at $77 billion, agriculture is the number one industry.
The magnitude of agricultural’s continued influence is more clearly seen compared to the state’s film industry. There have been several blockbuster movie and television shows filmed in N.C., including The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3 and Homeland. But according to the N.C. Department of Commerce webpage, the television and film industry “directly spends over $300 million in local economies…”
Tony Stark may be a superhero, but it is the NC agricultural and agribusiness employee who is saving the NC economy.
However, since 1990, North Carolina has lost over 1 million acres of forestland, mostly to urban development.
Additionally, the state has lost over 4,600 farms with existing farmlands decreasing over 600,000 acres.
Thus, in 2005, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill that established the Agricultural Development & Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.
In part, the fund was created to “promote agricultural development associated with the family farm.”
Wake County remains agricultural
Residents in and around Raleigh may be ignorant to Wake County’s participation in the agricultural industry. However, NCSU economist Mike Walden estimated that agriculture and agribusiness contributed “$2.7 billion, or 6 percent, of the county’s total economy” and made up over “10 percent of [Wake’s] total employment.”
In terms of land, the county is roughly 857 square miles. Of that, 283 square miles are used or zoned for residential purposes and 386 square miles are non-agricultural and non-residential in use. Agriculture (including forestry) comprises 188 square miles, or 22 percent, of the county.
While Wake County has a rich agricultural heritage and is currently in the top 50 percent of the state’s counties in terms of sales of crops and livestock products, there are significant challenges facing the local farmer and agribusiness owner, which is the impetus behind the trust fund.
The average age of a Wake County farmer is 59 years old. Forty-nine percent of county farmers are over 60 years old, and 20 percent are over 70. Only 2 percent of county farmers are under 35.
Of all the farms in the county, 91 percent are family farms with 81 percent of the farmers living on the farms. As the current farming population ages, however, few of the succeeding generation are following in their forerunner’s footsteps.
Many farmers list the difficulty of maintaining profitability as one of the greatest hindrances to farming in the county, which was what the county’s Agricultural Economic Development Plan was written to address.
Eye to the future
According to the AEDP itself, the plan, “has several initiatives that will enhance the economic growth of agribusiness in Wake County but the action will rely on collaboration, cooperation and voluntary actions between public and private groups.”
Some of the initiatives outlined in the plan are the integration of farmland protection with economic development, the expansion of county voluntary land preservation programs through conservation programs and the promotion of understanding and appreciation of agriculture to the non-farm public.
There are 11 specific action steps outlined in the AEDP to study and implement the listed initiatives with target completion dates stretching out to fourth quarter of the 2015 fiscal year.
According to the AEDP, the result “will be agricultural economic viability while protecting [the county’s] natural resources and enhancing farmland preservation.”
With the unanimous approval of the AEDP by the Wake County Commissioners and certification by the NCDA&CS, Wake County can better utilize the grant opportunities contained within the Trust Fund and do so with a decreased match from 30 to 15 percent.
Thus more of the community’s money can go to assisting county farmers as they continue to contribute significantly to the county’s, and the state’s, overall economy.
No wonder Vice-chairman Matthews asked, “What took you so long?”