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Keeping History Alive: Mitchem family preserves farmland through two conservation easements

Mitchem Farm Conservatoin easement. Landscapes and pasture.

For Wayne Mitchem, farming is a way of life and an important aspect of his family’s history. He is part of the fifth generation to maintain several hundred acres of farmland in Lincoln County near Vale, a legacy that stretches back 150 years to the days of his great-great-grandfather.

“I would like for this land to continue to be agricultural land,” he said. “I think it’s important we have this type of land available to those who want to farm in the future. There will be more pressure to develop land as time goes along, and we’re going to protect ours from that happening to it.”

To that end, Wayne and his brother, Carrol, decided to preserve 103 acres of their farm through a conservation easement with Catawba Lands Conservancy in 2019. They are currently working with the Conservancy to protect an additional 138 acres of land about a mile and a half away from the first portion. These agricultural conservation easements are being funded by the U.S. and N.C. Departments of Agriculture.

The initial tract was a part of old family farmland that is mostly pasture and used as grazing space for beef cattle. The second parcel consists primarily of open cropland for growing soybeans and grain. The family also grows blackberries, blueberries and grapes on their property. The blackberries are sold wholesale through Naturipe Farms across the country and in Canada via large retailers such as Publix, Aldi, Food Lion, Costco and Sam’s Club. If they are overripe, they are sold to wineries. Meanwhile, the blueberries and grapes are sold wholesale at a farmer’s market in Asheville.

Wayne received a bachelor’s in agronomy and master’s degree in crop science from N.C. State University. He currently serves as the Extension Associate and Southern Region Small Fruit Consortium Coordinator for the university and specializes in weed management in tree fruit and vine crops in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Carrol opened an American-style restaurant in the mid-1990s called Mitchem’s Kitchen a few miles from the farm. The fruit from the family farm often makes an appearance in tasty desserts. Wayne’s two daughters are interested in expanding the beef cattle herd to include market bulls and heifers that are registered Hereford cattle. Considering Wayne would like to keep the farm operational for years to come and eventually pass it on to his daughters, conservation seemed like the right choice.

“I knew Catawba Lands Conservancy had done that kind of work, and I was familiar that there was money available through federal and state agencies for conservation,” he said. “But we didn’t have a good way to facilitate the
paperwork process or understand the hoops you’d have to jump through”.

“It is important to our organization to preserve working farms and the historical agricultural character of our region as well as the opportunities for relatively low development green space that these farm properties represent,” said Amanda Byrum, Land Conservation Director for the Conservancy.

“The Mitchem Farm property is an example of a farm operation with prime soils, including soils of statewide importance, enhanced by a current conservation plan for farm operations and adjacent to a park and near other conserved property.”

Thanks to their partnership with the Conservancy, the Mitchem family can rest assured that its peaceful pastures will remain as they have looked and functioned for well over a century.

Photo by Nancy Pierce.

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