Cost of Growth: Local farmers' impact on environment

Kirby Johnson learned to farm from his father and grandfather. (Photo credit: Kirby Johnson)

As we investigate how local growth is impacting our waterways, one concern keeps surfacing: What's agriculture's role in the problem?

Local farmers say they're doing everything they can to protect the environment, but some say the opposite.

PRESERVING THE FAMILY FARM

"If you treat the river right and do right, this is built up a whole ledge, you can see it right there," farmer Kirby Johnson said.

If you stop by Kirby Johnson's family farm, you'll quickly see just how much he cares about the land and the river that runs beside it.

"It's very important to keep it clean, keep the trout for the trout fishing. For us, that's the main thing. We wouldn't be here farming in Western North Carolina without what's running behind me," Johnson said.

Johnson is the seventh generation to grow tomatoes, peppers, corn and dozens of other vegetables on the property in Henderson County.

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He hopes to pass it all down to his children and grandchildren someday.

His farm includes more than 400 acres that he both plants and protects.

"The key is I want to grow a crop with tomatoes on it, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, 40 years from now, and to do that we've got to have buffers. We've got to do cover crops. We've got to do the right thing with the soil," Johnson said.

Which is why Johnson says he goes above and beyond the stormwater regulations in place. He says he increases the buffer around Mills River and does everything he can to safely conserve topsoil.

But, he says keeping pollutants out of nearby water is becoming more difficult with more rain falling each year and more construction closing in.

"That whole beautiful woodline right there, 100 something acres, 5 years from now, will be 60-70 houses. I don't know exactly, and all that runoff will come here to this farm," Johnson said.

SPREADING STORMWATER?

But while Johnson worries about the affect on his farm, others worry how farms themselves effect our environment.

Ann Marie Traylor with Environmental Quality Institute says it's a real concern that's difficult to handle.

"Local agriculture is really important for us here. So, while it sometimes can be a source of pollution to the river, I also hate to see it disappear for impervious surfaces," Traylor said.

French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson says local livestock and farm fertilizers can contribute to dirtying our waters.

"Agriculture is a huge problem and that's really something we haven't got our hands on yet," Carson said.

He believes more policies, like what's required for developers, should be in place for farmers, as well.

"Agriculture is really something that has gotten a free pass, really, since the clean water act they're exempt from a lot of rules," said Carson.

Johnson strongly disagrees.

He says the state's Agriculture Cost Share Program helped protect local waters in recent years. It allows landowners to add things like exclusion fencing and off-stream watering devices to keep cattle out of nearby creeks, with the state paying most of the bill.

Johnson believes the local farming community is doing everything they can to keep these scenes safe for years to come.

"It upsets me because it always falls on us. People don't understand, please spend a week with me in the dead of summer, and you'll see what we do and what we do for the environment," said Johnson.

News 13 asked the North Carolina Division of Water Resources how many complaints with this issue they investigate.

A spokesperson tells us while they don't look into stormwater regulations, specifically, they have documented 11 violations of stream standards from agricultural operations over the last five years.

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