A farmland protection plan being developed for Wilkes County would make it possible for landowners here to be paid for keeping acreage in agriculture, said Wilkes District Soil Conservationist Robert Baldwin at the Nov. 19 county commissioners meeting.

The N.C. Department of Agriculture awarded the Wilkes Voluntary Agricultural District Board a $14,000 two-year grant for developing the farmland protection plan. Baldwin said the board hired Mallory Vannoy, a Virginia Tech graduate student from Ashe County, with the funds to help develop the plan.

The plan will include parameters for landowner applications for putting agricultural acreage in conservation easements held by third parties such as county soil and water conservation district boards, nonprofit land trusts or other entities.

Baldwin said landowners stand a better chance of winning grants from the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund if their acreage in a conservation easement is in a county with a farm preservation plan. He added that the size of the grant increases with the length of the conservation easement: 15-years, 30-years or perpetual.

The acreage must be in the present use deferred tax program, which taxes property based on its value as farmland, timberland or horticultural land rather than true market value. Payment amounts from the trust fund also vary based on present use value of the land, conservation easements terms, amount of money available and other factors.

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

An entity such as the Wilkes Soil and Water Conservation District could apply for up to two Wilkes landowners per year to participate, typically using a system for ranking parcels to help determine which are submitted.

For example, the Blue Ridge Conservancy was the applicant for $313,300 awarded for a conservation easement on the Gentry farm in Alleghany County and the Foothills Conservancy was the applicant for $297,850 awarded for a conservation easement on the Patterson School property in Caldwell County this year. These funds were awarded in the same round as the $14,000 received by the Wilkes Voluntary Ag District Board.

Being in a voluntary agricultural district or an enhanced voluntary ag district also improves eligibility for trust fund payments. The voluntary ag district option is available in Wilkes, and Baldwin said Vannoy is assisting with revising the county’s voluntary ag district ordinance to include the enhanced option.

He said County Attorney Tony Triplett received the two rough drafts of revised ordinances from Vannoy. “Hopefully, we’ll have something for you in the spring” to consider approving, he added.

Landowners with acreage in enhanced voluntary ag districts are also eligible for a higher percentage of cost share funds for conservation work—as high as 90%.

Having an enhanced voluntary ag program increases a county’s priority for grants. The commissioners made the Wilkes Voluntary Ag District Board eligible for the $14,000 grant by approving its request to put the county in the enhanced voluntary ag district program and also wrote a letter endorsing the grant application.

The Wilkes Voluntary Ag District Board reviews applications for inclusion in agricultural districts and would do the same for the enhanced program.

Inclusion in an ag district provides limited protection from nuisance lawsuits and acreage in enhanced voluntary ag districts has additional protection. There are certain acreage requirements and property must be in the present use program to be in an ag district.

Also at the Nov. 19 meeting, the commissioners reappointed Don Parker, James Motsinger and Dennis McGrady to the Wilkes Voluntary Ag District Board. They also appointed Brenda Blake to fill the unexpired term of her father-in-law on the board. The terms are for three years.

Claude Shew Jr., a member of the Wilkes Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisor, chairs the Wilkes Voluntary Ag District Board and appeared before the commissioners with Baldwin.

Shew said there are now 7,850 acres, 180 parcels and 56 farms in voluntary agricultural districts in Wilkes. This includes agricultural land, forestland and horticultural land.

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