USDA allocates $8M to protect farmland, watersheds in WNC

As land across Western North Carolina continues to climb in value, it becomes increasingly more difficult for farmers to keep their property from relatives and developers.

Now, thanks to the work of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and the Blue Ridge Forever coalition, farmers will have a shot at financial incentives to help keep their land farmland.

The U.S. Department of Agricultural National Resource Conservation Service recently announced 2017 funding allocations from the 2014 Farm Bill, with an unprecedented $8 million going to WNC farmland preservation.

"The partners at Blue Ridge Forever have been in partnership for over a decade, and they have been laying this foundation for a long time," Jess Laggis, director of Blue Ridge Forever, said. "We put together a really compelling argument because Western North Carolina is full of important natural resources that are not isolated to Western North Carolina but impact the entire Southeast."

The $8 million will be allocated through agricultural conservation easements, which serve to distinguish development rights on a farm so it can never be developed or subdivided.

"What that means is then the farmers receive the funding, the purchase price of their conservation easement, and that may help them pay taxes on the land. It may help them reinvest in farm ventures. Or it may just help buyout brothers and sisters who would otherwise need to subdivide the land," Laggis said.

Prime soils are the most productive agricultural land available, but only make up 3.6 percent of the land mass in WNC, which makes them a limited resource. These funds will help protect prime soils, ensuring food security continues for the WNC area.

The funds will also be focused on keeping drinking water quality clean.

"So were targeting farms that have a great impact on water quality. And our water in Western North Carolina is contained in nine river basins that flow out across the Southeast," Laggis said. "So this will affect the drinking water for millions of people."

The SAHC has used federal funds in the past to protect several farms across WNC, but this allocation will open up a new scale of projects. The funds will be earmarked by NRCS for allocation during the next five years.

Farmers who seek the funds will need to speak with their local land trust or soil district to develop a competitive project.

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