Bees in the soup

Published 5:30 pm Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Nov. 30, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) is partnering with agricultural organizations across Western North Carolina to host the first WNC Farmland Access & Preservation Forum at the AB Tech Enka Campus outside of Asheville. You may not realize what a big deal it is to capture a bunch of different ag interest groups in one room and then ask them to come up with mutual deliverables. Unprecedented. Kind of like placing different families of busy bees in one hive and asking them to produce honey. But, hey, arent bees all about working together?

The forum was the brainchild of Blue Ridge Forever, PACs Western North Carolina collective conservation group. Blue Ridge Forever has experience in the perennial herding cats business. It took 10 wildly independent land trusts, including PAC, and formed a successful five-year, 50,000-acre collaboration that currently is in the running for the national $150,000 Lodestar Collaboration award. Wow. That would be a lot of money to spread among our land trust group.

What makes a collaboration like Blue Ridge Forever work? However grudgingly, agendas and egos must be checked at the door. Then, participants must generously offer up experiences and ideas for making a better whole. Warning: This can start out as a sloppy soup; but when the cream is skimmed, you may really have something unique and tasty.

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Its amazing how many groups in North Carolina are working on agricultural issues. Land trusts like PAC, of course. Soil and water districts, Farm Bureau, sustainable food groups, cooperative extension services, the USDA, many specialty groups, local, state and federal politicians, and on and on. A lot of them are able to focus on helping farmers get assistance to put food on our tables. Others, like PAC, are working to protect the land that grows the food.

Our own Polk County has become recognized as a farm-friendly poster child for North Carolina. Thanks to early advocates such as Dave Slater and the ensuing passionate work of Save Our Slopes, farm and rural land became a cause clebre in our area, ultimately reflected in Polks Visioning Survey and Comprehensive Plan. Lynn Sprague, Polks Agricultural Economic Development director, arrived to help give the ag sector visibility and vitality. He held a workshop. Promoted the Columbus Farmers Market. Invited farmers to breakfast. Applied for grants. Sprague will be one of the presenters at tomorrows forum. He knows how to speak farm.

As PACs executive director, I am on the forums steering committee. One of the issues Im bringing to the table is horse farm protection. Up til now, North Carolina horse farms have not been acknowledged as working farms unless they produce a traditional crop like hay for market. Strange, because they look like farms. Act like farms. Support the local economy like farms. They house herd animals, buy grain and supplies from local feed stores, purchase tractors and farm equipment, provide jobs, and some do grow hay. They even add a bonus to our local economy with a big tourism boost when horse shows come to FENCE, Harmon Field, and now the Green Creek Equestrian Center. What PAC considers to be the most important thing about horse farms, however, is their huge potential impact to link greenspace to provide wildlife corridors and forested buffers and to protect the precious water resources in the lower levels of our watershed.

PACs particular interest in agriculture can be summed up in one word: Land. From the land trust perspective, all the programs in the world wont matter if we dont set aside the actual farmland now for permanent protection. Conserved land can be farmed today or saved for tomorrow, but it will always be available. Sometimes I hear an echo when I voice this concern, but Im optimistic about tomorrows bee soup. (Sorry about the mixed metaphors. Couldnt help it.)