Local agriculture is a driving force in our economy and way of life. We enjoy diverse harvests ranging from fruits and vegetables to Christmas trees, poultry, cattle, and other livestock. It’s no secret; however, that many of our farmers are struggling, especially with the significant disruptions caused by the pandemic, extreme weather, and encroaching development.
Building a Regional Food System
Protecting Farmers Markets
Farmers markets are especially crucial in ensuring that our farmers can make a profit and in connecting residents with fresh produce. As such, we must protect farmers markets and work to expand the economic benefits they provide. While the pandemic did cause disruptions, farmers are finding that sales are increasing as people realize that the supply chain issues that were experienced at the grocery stores did not affect local farmers’ ability to provide high quality local food. Farmers markets, including the High Country Food Hub, have seen record sales in the last year. Building a regional food system is a great way to make sure there is an adequate food supply for our community and a sustainable income for our farmers.
Linking Local Meat Producers
We also need to explore new options connecting local meat producers directly to local butchers and customers. The demand is outpacing the ability of farmers to deliver without an expansion of local meat processing facilities. We also can bring enhanced economic opportunities directly to farmers by incentivizing agritourism. By connecting in-state and out-of-state residents to local farms, we can help agriculture thrive while highlighting the innovation, diversity, and passion of our local farmers.
More Affordable Local Food
It is interesting to note that grocery store prices are rising faster than our local food products. With the Double Up Food Bucks Programs, even low resource families can afford healthy local food. Increasing the Double Up Food Bucks Programs as well as expanding marketing of our local farmers markets could help to keep farmers on their land actively farming and promote access to healthy food for all residents.
Prioritizing Farmland Protections
Sustainable Land Use
Now, more than ever, we must work to encourage sustainable land use, and protect local farmlands. In recent years, many local farms have been displaced or forced to close as a result of developers buying up neighboring land which can cause land prices and property taxes to rise sharply. We must prioritize the protection of farmlands through reasonable land-use regulations, balancing sustainable agricultural protection and necessary development.
We also need to support and incentivize voluntary land conservation programs to ensure fruitful harvests for generations to come, while putting money in our farmers’ pockets. By setting aside money for local conservation easements we can allow thousands of acres to remain suitable and protected for farming. Providing financial incentives for their use would also prevent farmers from choosing between their livelihoods and environmental protection, allowing local farms to continue to profit while adopting sustainable land uses.
Recognizing Farmers as Essential Workers
Farming Mentoring & Internships
Currently, farming is portrayed in career development as a low wage job with no future. Small farmers have expressed concerns about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining farm workers.
The average age of a farmer in North Carolina is fifty-nine (59). We need to put more resources into programs that encourage our young folks to consider farming. (Programs such as 4-H and FFA.) We might consider structured mentoring opportunities and paid internships for young people interested in farming and perhaps expanded learning opportunities at Community Colleges and local extension agencies that target young adults interested in continuing the family farm or starting a new farming operation.
“It’s time we bring farmers back to the forefront of economic policy and recognize farmers as essential workers. A better future for local agriculture is a better future for our community.” — Ben Massey