Polk County board applauds progress in agricultural initiatives

Published 3:49 pm Monday, August 24, 2009

County commissioner Ray Gasperson told Sprague, &dquo;I want to thank you for being a catalyst for so many positive things happening in Polk County.&dquo;

Sprague gave commissioners an annual update on current and planned projects to help existing and new farmers in the county.

The list is long. Sprague highlighted work on initiatives ranging from new farm festivals, community gardens and tailgate markets to Friends of Agriculture breakfasts and agriculture workshops.

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The county has seen a resurgence in farming, he says, partly due to economic conditions.

&dquo;There are a lot of people in transition, some who have never farmed before and bought farms or people returning to farming,&dquo; said Sprague. &dquo;You&squo;ve got young and new farmers, some green behind the ears and they learned this year what farming is all about.

&dquo;Some will stop. Some are buckling down. Farming can be a good second income, but farming has to be a fit for the person.&dquo;

As a result of the renewed interest in farming, Sprague says the county has six new or reopened greenhouses, 14 active community garden sites, more than 20 acres of additional vegetable production, more certified organic producers, and many more vendors at tailgate markets.

Sprague said tailgate markets were added in Green Creek and Saluda this year. The Saluda market has been very popular, drawing 300 to 400 people, he said, while the Columbus market on Saturdays has grown to include more than 40 vendors.

A total of 117 different people are selling products in the county, matching some farmers&squo; markets seen in larger cities, said Sprague.

He added that Polk County farmers are supplying much of what goes from this region to chefs in Charlotte through the growing Foothills Connect program.&bsp; The program started by Tim Will at the Rutherford County based Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center links area farmers via the Internet to restaurants in Charlotte.

The following is a list of some of the other highlights from the past year that Sprague shared with commissioners.

&ull; The county&squo;s Present Use Value tax incentive, voluntary agriculture district and enhanced voluntary agriculture district continue to serve as valuable programs for preserving farmland.

&ull; The county has received grants and continues to seek new grants from multiple sources, including the Polk County Community Foundation, the N.C. Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, Farmers Market grants and Cooperative Extension Service Grower grants.

&ull; The county&squo;s agricultural economic development office is working on entreprenurial development in conjunction with Mountain BizWorks and the development of agricultural tourism opportunities. Sprague said he was working to get bus tours here that could travel to the Green Creek Winery, horse country, FENCE and Saluda, among other locations in the county.

&ull; Polk County High School student J.P. Ruth initiated a Cream of the Crop program that put students to work on agriculture related projects, earning $3,000 in six weeks.

Sprague also took time to outline goals ahead in the second year of operation for Polk County&squo;s agricultural economic development office.

&ull; Work harder to develop additional farmland protection strategies.

&ull; Encourage the development of value added agricultural businesses.

&ull; Continue to work with Isothermal Community College for the creation of a 2-year agricultural degree program. Sprague said he believes equine studies and viticulture are programs that belong at ICC Polk Campus and a sustainable agriculture program should be available in Polk and Rutherford counties. He said ICC has been very supportive and he believes an agricultural degree program could be available in the next couple years.

&ull; Work toward establishing a regional market, representing the Polk County and Landrum area, that would be open six to seven days a week and draw shoppers from around the region, including some on tours and buses.

&ull; Provide workshops on property owners who are maintaining forest lands.

&ull; Continue to engage many organizations in the community to gain their support for agricultural business development initiatives.

&bsp; Ways to preserve working farms

Editor&squo;s Note: The following is information available at www.polkcountyfarms.org.

There are actually several ways to preserve working farms.

1. If a farming operation meets minimum qualifications the parcel can qualify for a Reduced Tax Assessment. This assessment is called; Present Use Value Assessment and land owners who meet the minimum requirements can apply for this status in January of each year.

2. Polk County has initiated two voluntary programs that notify neighbors that live near a farm offering some protection from nuisance lawsuits. The Polk County Voluntary Agricultural District now has 5,187 acres enrolled and the Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural District, which offers Cost Share Incentives, has 1,392 acres enrolled.

3. A landowner may want to place a Voluntary Permanent Easement on their land for a State Tax Credit and a Federal Deduction for the gift of development rights. This method is often used to reposition the value of land for inter-family transfers.

4. There are also programs available to actually purchase Development Rights on farmland. When grant funds are available, a participation request is sent out and all applications go through an evaluation by the board.

5. The fifth factor is very important. If we can maintain a high value for farmland and farm products, the land will stay in agriculture. Agricultural Economic Development is an important part of a comprehensive farmland preservation program.

The &dquo;Purchase of Development Rights&dquo; (PDR) program was created to pay willing farmers to put permanent agricultural conservation easements on their farms, meaning that the farmland could not later be sold for development. The PDR model is a proven, effective way to preserve farms and it has been used successfully in other areas of the country for decades.

source: www.polkcountyfarms.org