Effort is underway for preserving Wilkes farmland and timberland.

The Wilkes County commissioners on Tuesday night took the first step toward participating in a program that pays people to continue using their land for farming or growing timber.

The commissioners unanimously agreed to submit a letter supporting a Wilkes Soil and Water Conservation District (Wilkes SWCD) application for a $14,000 grant to fund preparation of a Farmland Protection Plan. County Manager John Yates will write the letter.

Wilkes SWCD Director Robert Baldwin told commissioners that money is available from the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund to pay landowners for limiting use of their land to farming or timber production through conservation easements.

These easement agreements, valid for perpetuity or a certain number of years, are held by a third party that can be the county SWCD board of supervisors, a nonprofit land trust or some other entity.

Baldwin said acreage must be in the present use deferred tax program to participate in the farm preservation program. This taxes property based on its value as farmland, timberland or horticultural land rather than its true market value.

He said payments to farmland or timberland owners with the conservation easements vary based on the present use value of their land, terms of their conservation easements, amount of money available and other factors.

He said in an interview that landowners can be paid as much as the full present use value of their property in one lump sum.

Some percentage of the amount of money awarded to the landowner must be paid to the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. This match, often 25 percent, can come from the landowner or some entity. It can also be an in-kind match.

An entity such as the Wilkes SWCD can submit applications on behalf of two landowners per year. Most county Farm Protection Plans have a system for ranking parcels to help determine which are submitted for funding through the trust fund.

Funding applications are approved at the state level on a competitive basis and proposals that effectively address priorities identified in a county’s Farm Protection Plan stand a better chance of being funded.

Baldwin said a landowner’s chances of approval are diminished if his land is in a county without a Farmland Protection Plan.

This year, $4.6 million was awarded from the trust fund, mostly to buy conservation easements on about 25 tracts totaling 2,590 acres in about 20 counties. The Farmland Preservation Division of the N.C. Department of Agriculture administers the trust fund.

Commissioner Eddie Settle attended the Wilkes SWCD Board of Supervisors meeting in which the farmland preservation program was raised by a local farmer and then discussed. Settle said it sounded like a great deal for landowners wanting to participate and he made the motion to have the letter written supporting the grant application. County Manager John Yates will write the letter.

The deadline for submitting the grant application for writing the Farmland Protection Plan is Dec. 14 and the state’s decision on the application should be known in October. Baldwin said the grant would be used to hire a technical writing intern from Appalachian State University.

He said the commissioners would be involved in the process of creating the plan, which could take two years, and the plan would be brought back to them for approval.

N.C. Statutes say the plan must describe existing agricultural activity, challenges to continued family farming, opportunities for enhancing family farms and how to maintain a viable agricultural community in the county the plan addresses. It also creates a schedule for implementing the plan and identifies possible funding sources for the plan’s long-term support.

Sixty counties have approved Farmland Protection Plans and plans are under development in two more counties—Ashe and Davie. All counties adjoining Wilkes have them except Ashe, Caldwell and Alexander.

Wilkes is among 89 N.C. counties with county ordinances allowing voluntary agricultural districts. These give owners the option of having their farmland and timberland publicly recognized as such, thereby providing some level of protection from nuisance lawsuits and certain other protections.

Claude Shew Jr., a member of the Wilkes SWCD Board and the county’s voluntary ag district board, said he supports requiring that properties be in the voluntary ag district program to be in the farmland protection program.

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