Connecting the dots on protecting farms: Research shows how residents and visitors value agriculture in Western North Carolina
Enter any address into Google Earth’s “Fly To” box and you’ll see a revolving earth. As you zoom closer to the ground, you’ll see buildings, houses, pools, highways and cars in aerial photos and satellite images. In Western North Carolina, participants in the Farmland Values Project—farmers and visitors—saw this bird’s-eye view of the region, which revealed the startling encroachment of civilization on forests and farmland.
“What’s going to keep farmland from disappearing when we get older and our children aren’t going to farm? Unless they’ve got a good job, they’re going to sell it, and who’s going to buy it? A developer, because there’s plenty of people waiting to buy.”
“It’s very disheartening to see development after development coming in,” said one participant in the Farmland Values study. “On the one hand it brings wonderful, new, interesting people, but on the other hand you want to slam the door.” In another focus group, a farmer asked, “What’s going to keep farmland from disappearing when we get older and our children aren’t going to farm? Unless they’ve got a good job, they’re going to sell it, and who’s going to buy it? A developer, because there’s plenty of people waiting to buy.”
Another summed it up: “We’re changing the world around, ain’t we? Knocking mountains down…The landscape’s completely changed.”
Directed by Economics professor Leah Greden Mathews, the four-year, $390,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Farmland Values Project used the Google Earth mapping exercises, focus groups, and new and existing data to provide a quantitative assessment tool that identifies the types of benefits farmland provides in Western North Carolina—open space, scenic beauty, flood control or food source, employment and others. Mathews hopes resulting data and information will assist communities and policy makers in directing farmland preservation and rural development efforts that are socially desirable and economically efficient.
Computer mapping using Google Earth, residents pinpointed the following regions in four WNC counties as significant farmland areas that deserve protection:
• Sandy Mush and Fairview in Buncombe County
• Mills River and Etowah in Henderson County
• Bethel and Jonathan Creek in Haywood County
• Big Pine and Spring Creek in Madison County
Take a photo tour of Western North Carolina by checking out our photos. Select results from the computer mapping activity are embedded in Google Earth at:
The researchers conducted 17 focus groups between 2006 and 2008 in four counties (Buncombe, Madison, Henderson and Haywood) and compiled data from surveys completed by more than 1,200 people, including 937 residents and 307 visitors. Project participants also marked 237 places in the four counties that they valued for cultural heritage and scenic beauty. They recorded details about those areas and why they believe the areas deserve attention and protection.
Getting Down to Basics
If you cut away the analytical tools, academic dogma and dry statistics, this study gets right to the core of what is truly important about farmland: locally produced food, scenic beauty, jobs for farmers and others working in agri-positions, a link to our agricultural heritage and open space.
“One of the goals is to get people to recognize the benefits that farmland has in their community,” Mathews says. “There is an important link between buying local food and protecting the landscape. Making the connection between farmland and food, scenic quality, our region’s heritage and economy is something that is not yet commonplace in our region. We hope this project will help crystallize those connections in people’s minds.”
There’s no doubt that farmland and open spaces are diminishing in North Carolina and other places in the country, as developers take the former farmland and transform it into luxury gated communities, and pave over once-fertile soil for parking lots at new banks, shopping centers and condominium projects.
Would You Be Willing to Pay to Protect Farmland?
A majority of participants in the Farmland Values Project said they would be willing to open their pocketbooks to protect area farmland; most preferred that the funds be administered by a locally run nonprofit group.
In a recent article, the Asheville Citizen-Times noted that North Carolina leads the nation in the loss of farmland. U.S. Census of Agriculture figures reveal the state lost more than 600,000 acres of farmland between 2002 and 2007.
One focus group participant expressed a common concern among residents. “I’ve lived in North Carolina all my life and I visit Western North Carolina often. When I think of the mountains, I think of the farmlands, rolling hills, cattle, bales of hay and the beautiful scenery.
Average yearly donations:
Resident respondents said they’d pay $185.
Visitors offered to donate $195.
I consider it to be part of the heritage of that part of the state—one that should not be lost. I think it would be a crying shame to allow developers to ruin the pristine lands of Western North Carolina. It isn’t something we can reestablish; we should preserve it for future generations.”
Putting a Price on Protection
“Ten years down the road, I hope every county has a farm protection plan and active preservation plan.”
Overwhelmingly, participants in the Farmland Values Project felt strongly enough about farmland protection that they are ready to back their support with their hard-earned dollars. On average, resident respondents said they’d be willing to make an annual donation of $185 if the funds were earmarked for farmland protection in their county. Visitors who responded said they’d be willing to donate $195 a year.
There’s a key element to the financial support. Eighty percent of respondents said they’d be most willing to donate if the funds were managed by a locally run non-profit organization. “This could be an existing non-profit like one of the land trusts,” Mathews says. “The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy both have farm protection programs. I think the key would be identifying a specific fund for people to donate to, perhaps with one of these land trusts that would specifically be earmarked for farm protection in one’s own community.”
In addition, nearly two-thirds of those taking part in the survey said they’d pay more for their food if they had assurance that their extra bucks would be used to protect farmland. In the spring Mathews led community meetings in the four counties to present the findings and reinforce the need to preserve farmland. Two other meetings also were held, one for farmers and the other for policy makers.
“My hope is that people will learn about the information and actually use it in their own decision-making processes. Ten years down the road, I hope every county has a farm protection plan and active preservation plan,” she says. She also hopes consumers will be more conscious about their daily shopping habits and the fact that the choice for buying local helps their neighbors.
Opening Students’ Eyes to Possible Solutions
While Mathews, colleagues with N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, visitors, residents and other stakeholders expect the survey will have positive effects on WNC, it has already influenced UNC Asheville student researchers who helped conduct the study. Christie Gonzales ’09 of Hendersonville says it opened her eyes to an expanded view of her career goals. In May, Gonzales received a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics with a concentration in Statistics and a minor in Economics. She’s taking a year off before heading to graduate school and is considering working on a farm to learn as much as she can about organic gardening and growing her own food. Originally from Texas, Gonzales grew up watching her grandfather raise goats, pigs and chickens. “I feel strongly about preserving farmland,” she says.
“If I had not worked on this project, I wouldn’t have known about agricultural economics,” she says. “By working with Dr. Mathews, I could see how I could help influence land policy.”
Gonzales found out about the Farmland Values Project while taking one of Mathews’ Economics classes. Mathews told the class she was looking for research assistants, especially someone with statistics experience. Gonzales jumped at the chance. Career-wise, Gonzales thought she would be involved with environmental work, but now her focus is on doing research to help in preserving farmland and sustainable agriculture.
“If I had not worked on this project, I wouldn’t have known about agricultural economics,” she says. “By working with Dr. Mathews, I could see how I could help influence land policy, knowing the research I’d be doing could help people preserve land or use land in their area. She gave me a focus on what I can do with my statistics.”