At last month’s Alamance County Commissioners meeting, County Manager Bryan Hagood and County Soil and Water Program officials Frank Bell and Brad Moore came before the elected officials to discuss the Alamance County Voluntary Agricultural District Program, which aims to preserve farmland throughout the county.
In 2001, the Alamance County Commissioners adopted an ordinance for the Voluntary Agricultural District (VAD) program, and an Advisory Board was formed. The goal was to encourage those interested in protecting their farmland to enroll into the new program. Five years later, in 2006, a Farmland Preservation Ordinance was approved for permanent purchase of development rights.
There are currently 18,092 acres enrolled in the VAD, according to County Manager Hagood, including 580.8 acres that is permanently protected under the 2006 ordinance.
“There’s a huge interest in continuing to preserve farmland in Alamance County. It (the VAD) is very successful. We have an ordinance from 2001, and there’s currently over 18,000 acres enrolled. This is a program where farmers opt to put their land into this program, so it’s recognized as agricultural property. It’s a voluntary program,” Hagood explained. “Currently we have over 580 acres that have been permanently protected. We allocated funding on a regular basis to support this program. We have a successful, vibrant, voluntary Ag District program in place right now. I think what we’ve talked about as a group is how do you take that to the next level? How do you prepare for the future, and take the voluntary ag program to the next level?”
Hagood, Bell, and Moore, along with other VAD officials, have discussed the possibility of taking donations of land and property from willing owners.
“In the Voluntary Ag program, the key is voluntary. Farmers have to be willing to put their property in the Voluntary Ag program, or willing to sell their purchase or development rights,” Hagood said. “We feel like there are farmers out there with property that at various times, they might be willing do donate either land, equipment, or even cash donations. We’ve talked a lot about people out there in the community who believe that preserving farmland is important. They might be willing, particularly at the end of the year make some kind of cash donation to the county that would go into the find to be used to preserve farmland in Alamance County.”
“We’ve also talked about how do you help people think about that? If they’re planning for their estates of their own property, or money they have in retirement, and the federal government starts requiring that you start spending certain portions of it at year’s end. We’ve also talked about how we would use donated land. If a farmer wanted to donate land to the county, it’s possible to use it particularly for timber. Planting trees, harvesting those trees, and taking the dollars from those sales and turning it back into the Voluntary Ag program.”
“The whole point of this is preserve the farming future of Alamance County,” Hagood added.
The next phase of the Voluntary Agricultural District program is termed “Preserve Alamance.”
“It would be the next phase of the program. It includes the County Commissioners, the Alamance County Soil and Water Conservation District, the VAD District Board, as well as the Piedmont Land Conservancy, which work together to navigate the legal aspects of purchasing property rights for farmland preservation,” Hagood explained. “Preserve Alamance’s Mission Statement is “To Preserve the Farmland and Preserve the Farming Tradition of Alamance County.”
The Preserve Alamance Program goals include five tenets.
—-To preserve Alamance County farmland by purchasing or accepting donations of land, development rights, and conservation easements.
—-To sustain the farming tradition of Alamance County by implementing a farm incubator program where appropriate County-owned farmland or equipment is leased for use by new and established farmers.
—-To sustain the farming tradition of Alamance County by assisting farmers with property and equipment costs via loans, grants, or recurring costs funded by revenues of the Preserve Alamance program.
—-To actively and effectively market the Preserve Alamance program as a means by which citizens who support preserving Alamance County farmland and farming traditions can participate through their donations of cash and/or property to convert to cash including land and equipment.
—-To make the highest and best use of preserved farmland owned by Alamance County to generate short term or long term program revenues via lease income from local farmer use or timber grown for long-term investment.
“Every year we budget funds from County Government to help go towards the acquisition of either farmland development rights, or it could go for the acquisition of property,” Hagood mentioned. “All this that we’ve come up with is to try to help guide this future effort into how do we continue to make good strides in preserving farmland and acquiring farmland? As well as some future goals - how do you help young farmers? Or people that are interested in getting into the farming industry. How can the county take proceeds from this program and help make that happen, either through assisting with the acquisition of equipment or making various kinds of payments through Alamance County revenues. So it’s really about preserving farmland, and also trying to preserve the tradition of farming in Alamance County. How would we do that? These goals help lay that out.
Alamance County allocated $75,000 in fiscal year 2020-21 budget for the Preserve Alamance program. That program received $150,000 in years past, but COVID-19 necessitated the significant cut. In addition to the budgeted funds, $288,834.10 is currently available in Preserve Alamance’s existing funds to match state grant funds for farmland preservation.
Moore indicated that the county took applications from interested farm/property donors in the month of September, and the VAD board has selected its top two applicants to send to the state (N.C. Department of Agriculture) in December.
“Some of the funding, we have to allocate to those projects. But it will be roughly a year before we find out if they’re in the program,” Moore said.
“We’ve had great success (with the state),” Hagood added. “They’ve worked well with farmers who have been interested in doing this, and have been successful in leveraging state funds.”
The new strategy proposed by Alamance County officials to the Commissioners includes determining specific parameters for what will be considered an acceptable donation, with no risk of hazards, identifying the resources needed to provide expertise to response to concerns or questions about donor tax consequences or donated property right implications, considering an on-call partnership with Piedmont Land Conservancy to provide expertise with various donation methods and to facilitate liquidation of non-cash donations, developing a brochure and informational materials to communicate the Preserve Alamance’s program’s mission to supporters and potential donors, and to obtain approval from the Board of Commissioners to solicit and accept donations for the Preserve Alamance program.
“We want to start allowing a way for farmers out in the county to be able to come to County Government and donate cash, if that’s what they want to do,” Hagood said. “If they have an interest in doing that. Whether that’s cash that they have, part of their investments, or part of their end-of-year estate planning. As well as farmland - if we have farmers out in the county who may not have heirs, that don’t necessarily have people lined up to take over the farm. But they want the property to remain in farm use.”
“We’d like to be able to offer them the opportunity to come to the County Government and talk about how they might donate that property to the county, to be left in farmland. And leveraged for revenues, or for use by people who might be interested in getting into the farming business.
Also for people who might have equipment - for people getting out of the farming business or have no heirs, and to have equipment that might be useful, either for County Government to use to try to raise revenues with this property that has been donated, or to possibly sell for cash that could be put back into the program. We’d like to be able to accept those kinds of donations.”
“We’ve talked about cash and farmland, but even if somebody just has property - a home - and there’s no heirs,” Hagood continued. “(We’d) auction the property. Everything the property brings in goes to add to those coffers, to add those dollars up. We wouldn’t just take any property. There would be a specific list of things to check off, that the property is acceptable. And the VAD agrees it’s good farmland that should be taken. We also want to identify some estate planners and tax attorneys. Would somebody in that capacity be willing to work as a liaison? We’d need to find someone that could help an individual with that kind of guidance.
Commissioner Steve Carter asked if the County could sell donated land to somebody that wanted to go into farming, and then put that money into the program
“The land would have a conservation easement, meaning it would have to be a farm forever, no matter who owned it,” explained Moore.
Hagood added that any such land acquisition would still require a vote from the County Commissioners.
“If we have a piece of property that someone wants to donate to the property, we will be coming back with that information. You would have to vote to accept that kind of transaction,” he said.
Hagood indicated that if this proposed program had been in place several years ago, the county may have been able to acquire the Buster Sykes Farm in Mebane, which is currently being operated by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and North Carolina State University.
“The Buster Sykes property, That owner came to Alamance County, and wanted to try to figure out a way to donate that property to the county for farm use and farm education use. And it did not work out. I think personally, if we’d had a program like this in place at the time when Buster Sykes came, it would have been able to have been donated to the county, and been owned by the county and managed that way. It was not,” Hagood explained. “It’s worked out well. It went through N.C. State, so the owner’s wishes were met. But we feel like that’s a great example of the owner had some specific things. They wanted it to be used as a teaching farm.”
“It’s being used now by (N.C.) Cooperative Extension as a teaching farm. But it’s also being farmed for timber. That money is going back to N.C. State, whereas if we have this program in place, we might use a portion of a new piece of property for a teaching farm,” Hagood added. “But anything that is planted into timber, all the proceeds would be going back into the Voluntary Ag program, to be used somewhere else. Either to buy more conserved farmland, buy equipment, or whatever else was determined to be in need. If we’re able to receive donations of cash from folks, or put it out there for end-of-year planning, based on federal tax law, or if they’ve got a piece of property that they don’t want - making a donation, even if it’s five or six thousand dollars, that’s a huge help for this program.”
The County Commissioners unanimously approved the proposal.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Commissioner Bill Lashley. “Farmland is important. They’re not making any more.”
“It’s a great idea,” added fellow Commissioner Eddie Boswell.