“No nation has ever had so few people actually farming. This is a social change that has isolated most people from rural life and from an appreciation of the compactness and uncertainties of food production.”
–J. Paul Lilly, professor at N.C. State University, written in 1990
Most people intuitively get the value of conserving undeveloped land and water to protect wildlife, preserve water quality, and provide beautiful lands for everyone to enjoy. It can be harder to understand why working farms are in need of preservation. Here are four reasons you might not have considered, and one you probably did.
Unexpected Reason #1: Soil and National Security.
Once farmland is developed the thousands of years that have built up the soil’s prime growing characteristics are forever lost. There’s a finite amount of land well-suited for agriculture, and we want to have enough farmland to supply our population now and in the future. Today we import about twenty percent of the food we eat in the U.S. This isn’t all bad—without imports we’d surely miss bananas and chocolate–but there is a danger of undue dependence on global trade.
While North Carolina still has a strong agricultural sector, it is much diminished from what it once was: from 1970 to 2010 6.6 million acres of farmland and 97,000 farms were lost statewide. Conservation is one way we can make sure productive farmlands are available to keep on producing for generations to come.
Unexpected Reason #2: Farmers are Environmentalists.
Many of us have heard a great deal about the environmental damage caused by unsustainable farming practices (looking at you, CAFOs, monocultures, and over-fertilization). But well-managed farms provide all of us with environmental benefits like clean water and air.
A great example of this can be found at Buffalo Creek Preserve in Cabarrus County. Previously destined to be a subdivision, a portion of the property is home to Barrier Farms, producing grass-fed beef, pastured chickens, vegetables, and non-GMO feed. The best management practices they use benefit both farming and wildlife.
Unexpected Reason #3: Farms Fuel the Economy.
A Michigan State University study found that the employment multiplier for the agricultural industry was 1.668, meaning that for every 1,000 full-time jobs in farming there are an additional 668 jobs created in industries that supply or assist farms.
Local farms do even more, by keeping jobs and dollars in the local economy. On top of that, farms contribute tax revenue without using up a lot of public services: agricultural lands on average receive only $0.37 in public services for every dollar they contribute; housing developments, on the other hand, receive $1.16 in services for every dollar they contribute.
Unexpected Reason #4: Llamas, baby goats, and wine.
Many farms have reinvented themselves as agritourism destinations, providing fun and education for people who don’t get to work on farms. And visitors who come out to enjoy an agritourism destination might also spend money visiting restaurants, hotels, and other attractions.
If you’re making plans for what to do after stay-at-home ends, here are some places to add to your list to visit:
And the Obvious Reason: Farms Feed Us.
If your role in the farm-to-table cycle is mostly (or entirely) as an eater, it pays to know a little about where your food comes from, how it is produced, and how it gets to your plate. In recent days we’ve seen how a breakdown in this cycle has caused large food producers who mainly supply restaurants and grocery chains to have to plow under crops and dump milk, even as millions of hungry and scared people line up at food banks nationwide. At the same time, local producers who sell mainly direct to consumers are having a hard time keeping up with demand. Hopefully many of us will continue to be interested in eating with the seasons and supporting local food producers long after this pandemic has passed.
And of course, it bears mentioning that many people don’t have access to fresh food even under normal circumstances because they live in a “food desert” — low-income communities where most residents don’t have access to a full-service grocery store or supermarket carrying nutritious food. Thirteen percent of North Carolinians struggle with this every day.
Even more reason to keep conserving farms.
Photo by Nancy Pierce.