Future of farming in Polk County

Published 3:28 pm Monday, November 3, 2008

Chauncey Barber says his family&squo;s farmland is not in danger of being developed in his lifetime.

Barber, an agriculture graduate of Clemson University with a master&39;s degree in agronomy, teaches agriculture, environmental science and horticulture at Polk County High School. He grew up on the 54-acre Tribranch Farm on Fox Mountain Road.

After college and a stint working for John Deere, he came home and eventually borrowed some money and bought 47 acres to farm himself, land once farmed by his wife&squo;s family in Sunny View. He now raises beef cattle there.

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His brother, Robert, and he will keep farming, Barber says.

But while riding through Mill Spring, Columbus and Sunny View recently, Barber pointed out farms he says are &dquo;at risk.&dquo;

&dquo;Those people want to retire,&dquo; he says, pointing to a nearby hillside pasture. &dquo;Their land is their 401k. If they could just sell the development rights, I think they would.&dquo;

Barber is in favor of the land transfer tax referendum, as he says it would provide funds right here in Polk County to preserve farms that otherwise might go to development and be lost forever.

&dquo;We&squo;ve seen an energy crisis, a financial crisis. The next thing is a food crisis. That&squo;s when it will really be scary,&dquo; Barber says. &dquo;We can&squo;t depend on D.C. or Raleigh. Our milk now is coming into N.C. from California.&dquo;

There used to be a couple dozen dairies in Polk County.

Even if the land transfer tax referendum passes in Polk County next Tuesday, there is no guarantee enough money will be available.

First, farmers will have to apply, presenting their own proposed easement plans. Only the best applications will be accepted in any given year, as judged by a farmland preservation board. That board will use a list of criteria, such as the applicant farm&squo;s soil characteristics, compatibility of surrounding land uses, availability of water, even historic value and environmental considerations.

Even if approved, the best applications will have to stand in line until there is enough money. Back in 2006 and 2007, when real estate sales were booming, estimates are a .4 percent land transfer tax would have raised around $1 million a year for farmland preservation in Polk County, bringing in $400 for every $100,000 of property sold.

Just off the top of his head, Barber estimates Sunny View farmland like his might bring $5,000 an acre from a developer, and $3,000 an acre as restricted farmland. At that rate ‐ $2,000 per acre for &dquo;development rights&dquo; ‐ $1 million could permanently preserve 500 farm acres. Of course, lean real estate years would produce much less tax revenue and so buy rights on fewer acres. But in those slow years, farmland preservation proponents say, there also will be less development pressure.

A farmer who sells his development rights can still sell his land at whatever is the going rate, but only as undivided farmland, since it could never be developed according to the limits of the permanent easement which would be placed on the land. Many farmers are choosing the Polk County Soil & Water District as the entity to hold and monitor their easements.

The sale of development rights would allow some farmers to retire, without selling their land, Barber says, or to get some cash from their land to expand their farming operations. By lowering the land&squo;s value, the sale of development rights would even allow some youngsters just wanting to get into farming to be able to afford the land, Barber says.

&dquo;The number of students going into agriculture is growing,&dquo; Barber says. &dquo;More and more college graduates are wanting to go back to farming, but they can&squo;t afford the land. America is losing manufacturing. If we lose our production of raw materials, we will be in trouble.&dquo;


Frank Smith has already put his 400 acres of pasture and woodland on Smith Dairy Road under a permanent easement.

&dquo;I will not get any money from the land transfer tax,&dquo; he says. His land was appraised at $1.7 million, but he says he wouldn&squo;t know what to do with that money if he had it. It was more important to him to know that his family&squo;s farm would remain undisturbed farmland forever.

&dquo;It is a thing with me, to go down the road and see cows in the pasture,&dquo; he says. &dquo;Next week, you go down the same road and see a sign up, &squo;For Sale.&squo; It&squo;s every person&squo;s business what they do with their land, but it bugs me. They aren&squo;t making any more land.&dquo;

The Smith family came to Polk County in 1940 from Haywood County, where his father worked for Champion Paper and his grandfather logged in the Great Smoky Mountains.

They bought their original farm tract from Tom Rice. It was part of an old John D. Carpenter subdivision which goes back to slave days. Smith&squo;s dad started a dairy and then went into beef cattle.

In his 80s, Smith says he is not working as hard these days, and his two sons can do what they want with the land after he passes. But whoever owns the land cannot develop it. The easement allows an owner to build a new house on the land only if the person residing there is working on the farm.

&dquo;I am one hundred percent in favor of the land transfer tax,&dquo; Smith says. &dquo;We need something there that will perpetually buy up easements.&dquo;

It might help young farmers, he says, who are finding it difficult to start in to farming with the price of land and everything else so high.


Charlene and Jeff Searcy farm a 45-acre leased field off Rock Springs Road.

Right now, they are growing specialty greens ‐ lettuces, cooking greens, red turnips, broccoli Raab, white turnips. Altogether, they grew some 150 different items this year, including traditional crops like tomatoes, peppers, bell and hot, eggplant, cucumbers and squash.

But Jeff says he has also been &dquo;experimenting&dquo; this year with some 85 items. &dquo;I always like to grow some specialty items. Then at the end of the season, I look at the books. I can now see some items I didn&squo;t grow enough of and some I will not be able to sell.&dquo;

The Searcys grow for restaurants, mostly. One buyer resells for home delivery.

Jeff&squo;s father, Donald Searcy, farmed until his death in 2003. Jeff has been farming 30 years, and his son Zach is already making his name on Polk County High&squo;s championship land judging team.

&dquo;We want to see the Land Transfer Tax so Polk County can stay rural,&dquo; Jeff Searcy says. He says from his childhood to today, the traffic on Rock Springs Road is unrecognizable.

&dquo;I&squo;d like to see farmland preserved, so down the road my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will have it. We lose a lot of farmland every year. We&squo;re not going to get it back,&dquo; Searcy says. &dquo;It would be smart to start protecting farmland for future generations, to set aside some land to keep our county rural. That&squo;s the reason Progressive Farmer Magazine rated us one of the top rural places to live. We better start taking care of some of this.&dquo;

Charlene Searcy agrees. &dquo;If people take a good hard look at this, they will see it is good for our county. I would love for everyone to understand the referendum fully and then vote.&dquo;