Forever Farmland

April 4, 2021

Since our founding in 1983, TLC has protected more than 4,000 acres of farmland across the Triangle. Well-managed farms and associated woodlands enhance our communities by producing food and other crops, safeguarding water, and sustaining local economies.

North Carolina is one of the top agricultural states in the nation, with food, fiber, and forestry forming the largest sector of the state’s economy, and 8 million acres of land used for growth and production. But according to a recent study from American Farmland Trust (AFT), the state is losing farmland at a rate of 133 acres a day

Between 2001 and 2016 more than 731,600 acres of agricultural land were developed or compromised, making North Carolina farmland the second most threatened in the nation.[1] In addition, there are five times as many farmers over the age of 65 as under 35 on the 46,000 farms that remain in North Carolina.

In the past year, Triangle Land Conservancy protected almost 550 acres of farmland in our region. From pasture raised meat to local tomatoes and flowers for your table, these easements are supporting local food production and helping boost local food economies. Our farmland protection work builds on long-term farm community development, county farmland preservation planning, and strategies identified in the Triangle Farm to Food: Strategy + Action Plan.

In 2016, TLC collaborated with a number of regional partners to produce this comprehensive approach to protect agricultural land, and particularly farmland that can supply local food to people in the Triangle. Using GIS data, stakeholder engagement, and existing policy review, we identified six strategies to ensure permanent protection of farmland.

These strategies are: Leadership and Coordination, Land Use Policy and Protection, Valuing Farmers and Farmland, Farmer Education and Assistance, Local Food Economy, and Funding and Financing. Articulation of these strategies in the plan has helped guide Triangle Land Conservancy’s efforts since 2017. Permanent agricultural conservation easements are one way AFT and the Triangle Farm to Food Plan recommend for states to secure the future of farmland. A permanent conservation easement is a legal instrument that conveys certain rights from a willing landowner to a third party (such as TLC). The landowner retains ownership and other rights to their property.

At its core, a conservation easement restricts the right of the landowner to subdivide and develop the property while allowing them to continue to use the property for agricultural purposes. This is an especially useful tool for farmland as farmers often
have no interest in developing their property but require the ability to farm their land to make a living.

While thousands of acres around the state were converted from working lands to low density residential or urban uses in the last year, TLC worked with many farmers to protect their land this past year, three of whom are featured here.

Hoof Fin Hen Farm in Chatham County is part of the historic Silk Hope farming community prioritized in the Chatham County Working Lands initiative. The 34-acre farm, owned by Eddie and Joan Culberson, is a working cattle, goat, fish, and chicken farm. Eddie and Joan live on the farm and maintain the beautiful property that also models best practices in both livestock and pasture management.

TLC worked with the Culberson family to purchase a conservation easement which restricts the use of the property to prevent subdivision, development, and other uses that would harm the conservation values. The purchase was funded in part by the NC Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, which funds protection of family farms, as well as the USDA Agricultural Lands Easement Program, which protects agricultural uses and conservation values, and a donation of land value by the landowner.

At the end of the project Eddie Culberson said, “Our decision to protect the family farm was based on the common thread of other participants, which is the sentimental attachment to the land. Being the 6th generation family owner, it was a no-brainer doing what our ancestors would have done if this program were available at that time. Sometimes being good stewards of the land means going beyond the daily blood, sweat and tears of working the farm; it means taking a stand for what you believe in.”

Down 2 Earth Farm in Orange County is an organic certified farm and forestry operation in the Upper Neuse watershed. The water that gathers in the streams and ponds here eventually becomes drinking water for the cities of Durham and Raleigh.

Farm owner Cecilia Redding looked for a property for a long time before she found the one where she could grow her vision of “preserving land by growing food with a positive impact on the environment.”

Last year, Redding decided to donate a conservation easement on 142 acres of her farm “My goal was always to figure out how to preserve the land once I found it. I could only imagine keeping it in farming after spending so much time on it. I feel it is a magical place.” The cities of Durham and Raleigh’s watershed programs both contributed funds to pay for the transaction costs, including the survey, attorney services, and staff time. The farm is currently leased to Split Acre Farm who have farm and flower shares available and sell at both the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Farmers Markets.

Harland’s Creek Farm near Pittsboro is not just an 176 acre organic farm, but also has a farmstead listed on the National Historic Register and a rare forest recognized by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. Judy Lessler has lived on and cared for the property since the 1970s and wanted permanent conservation of the property to be part of her legacy.

She worked with Triangle Land Conservancy staff to write a conservation easement that would protect the unique features of the property, but allow continued farming and adoption of innovative strategies to combat climate change. Despite the remarkable conservation values on the property, funding sources are lacking in this part of the region so a private donor and the landowner enabled TLC’s purchase of a conservation easement on Harland’s Creek Farm. You can support Harland’s Creek Farm at the Durham Farmers Market and through their CSA.

Though every day, farms in North Carolina are being taken permanently out of production, Triangle Land Conservancy also works with farmers every year who are seeking ways to make sure their land remains in production. By 2025 TLC plans to permanently conserve 3,000 acres of farmland and explore new strategies to address troubling trends in farm transitions. In the last six months our easement landowners ensured that 550 more acres of working lands in the Triangle are still providing local food, wildlife habitat, and clean water.

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