Catawba County will hold a series of community meetings in July to explore how to protect agriculture and promote local foods.
The study now under way comes as farm acreage in Catawba County has dropped 8 percent in the last decade.
Farmers are getting older and smaller, and the land is more costly.
If we want to continue to eat and be sure there is enough food, we need to do something, said Jeff Carpenter, cooperative extension director.
A 22-member committee will listen to ideas at the public meetings and draft a plan, which county commissioners will receive for review and approval next spring.
The biggest threat to agriculture is not urbanization, although that could change if the economy improves and people start building houses again. Instead, it is profitability, Carpenter said.
Equipment is expensive, and that, plus the cost of land, makes it almost impossible to start a farm unless you inherit one, he said.
Less than 2 percent of Catawba residents make their living in agriculture, which accounted for $56 million in cash receipts in 2010, the most current data available. That puts the county No. 48 of the states 100 counties in terms of agriculture receipts, up from 61st place in 2002.
The difference is a surge in poultry production, Carpenter said. Catawba is now producing 9 million broilers (young chickens) a year, 123 percent more than a decade ago. That change means the county has gone from an agricultural scene dominated by crop production to one now in which livestock, especially poultry, is king.
County commissioners like Barbara Beatty, who grew up on a farm, want to protect and promote agriculture. She sees the upcoming meetings as a way to talk about whats happening now in agriculture, look at what other communities are doing and forge a plan to protect and promote farming as well as the trend of eating locally grown foods.
So many good things are going on (in other places) that we can learn from, Beatty said.
Catawba will discuss tools it already has to protect farming, including land zoning and where water and sewer lines are laid, said Mary George, assistant county planning director. Staffers have information about other areas that have used food co-ops, farmers markets and distribution centers that help get food from local farms to local tables more efficiently.
They also will study whether the county should build or encourage others to build a facility that would add value to farm products. For instance, some communities have grain mills, storage or processing plants that bring more jobs and use locally grown products.
The county already offers farmers a chance to belong to a voluntary agriculture district program that records farms on the countys website so potential homebuyers can research land uses near them. That way they know in advance that they are about to move into an area with farm noises and smells, Carpenter said.