University City

Local agriculture in the balance: A tale of two counties

Working on a study of local food for UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute, journalist and graduate researcher Josh McCann has plowed up some troubling facts about our region's ability to feed itself.

Wes Gray of the N.C. Department of Agriculture recently told McCann that the state easily ranked No. 1 in the nation in loss of farms between 1970 and 2010, based on data from the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

"The loss of 97,600 farms (a 65 percent decrease) dwarfs the second state on the list," Gray reported. Iowa, in second place, lost 52,600 farms over the same period.

During the same 40-year time span, North Carolina ranked third in the nation in terms of farm acreage lost: more than 6.6 million acres, or 43 percent of farmland.

Mecklenburg County data fit that pattern. According to the 2002 USDA Farm Census, the county had 300 farms and 25,442 acres of farmland. By 2007, the county had lost 64 of those farms (21 percent) and 6,307 acres of farmland (25 percent), Gray said.

Meanwhile, across the line in Cabarrus County, citizens and public officials are taking active steps to preserve farmland, protect farms and to encourage and train new farmers.

According to Deborah Bost, the county's Cooperative Extension director, the county is taking steps to ensure a sustainable future.

Those steps include a voluntary agriculture district program, which now protects 12,000 acres owned by 135 different landowners; and an active food systems policy initiative, sparked by recommendations from a study of the county's food systems by N.C. State University's Center for Environmental Farming Systems.

Among projects under way in Cabarrus County are construction of a harvesting facility for local beef and livestock farmers and an organically certified farm incubator program to support new and transitioning farmers interested in vegetable production.

In addition, Cabarrus County now has an Agricultural Advisory Board, so farmers have a seat at the table in setting and implementing county policies.

The Extension Service has played a leading role in those efforts, and Bost feels passionately about their importance.

"You can't sustain yourself if you can't feed yourself." Bost said. "If we have to rely completely on others for food, it can potentially raise costs, decrease food safety and, if food ever runs short, even lead to chaos. Local food gives the entire American nation greater strength."

Owen Furuseth, associate provost and professor of geography at UNCC, is a noted authority on rural land preservation. He cautions that the statistics from the state Department of Agriculture may be a little misleading.

On paper, because of horticultural firms that produce for the suburban landscaping market, Mecklenburg County is sometimes rated far higher in agricultural sales than surrounding, more rural counties are.

He's quick to question such ratings, however: "Now, do acres of glass buildings mean we have an agricultural economy? Not really...."

Bost, who grew up on a livestock farm, is more blunt: "You can't eat shrubs."

According to Mary Newsom, the Urban Institute's associate director for urban and regional affairs, a full version of McCann's report on local food will be available from the institute in coming months.