Perspectives Online

Sustaining western North Carolina farmers and farmland

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researchers are using a nearly $500,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to learn more about what sustains farmers and farmland in western North Carolina.

Dr. Jeanine Davis, associate professor of horticultural science and Extension specialist stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher, is leading the project. Davis also coordinates the North Carolina Specialty Crops Program.

"We're looking at whether farmland preservation techniques combined with high-value crops can increase the profitability of agriculture in this region," Davis said.

The effort, which is called the Farm Prosperity Project, is a collaboration of seven regional, state and national organizations, including N.C. State University. Davis said USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service is providing $499,395 over three years through its National Research Initiative, Agricultural Prosperity for Small- and Medium-Sized Farms to fund the project.

Other partners are Land of Sky Regional Council, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, American Farmland Trust, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and Warren Wilson College.

Davis said farmers in five western North Carolina counties - Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania - are being recruited to participate in the project. Three types of farmers are being sought: those who have started new crops or enterprises in the last three years, those who are exploring long-term preservation of their land and those who intend to keep producing traditional crops or livestock.

Researchers will study the operations of farmers who take part in the project in an effort to develop what Davis called "decision-making models" that may be used to help farmers determine what combination of high-value crops and preservation efforts will allow them to farm profitably and preserve their land. Farmers will be asked to participate in interviews and surveys designed to determine the impact of their farm on their families, their finances and the economic climate in surrounding communities.

Davis said two economists at Warren Wilson College, Dr. Susan Kask and Dr. Laura Lengnick, will play a key role in developing the models.

Davis added that the project may also demonstrate the importance of agriculture to the western North Carolina economy and encourage local leaders to view agriculture as an industry, which could lead local governments to provide farmers some of the same economic incentives that other industries now get.

At the same time, a companion project at UNC-Asheville will focus on determining what Davis called the "non-market value of agricultural land."

- Dave Caldwell