Orange winning the fight for its farms

Staff WriterJuly 2, 2011 

— From atop Jeff Sykes' 65-foot silo, you can see why the farmer and his family are committed to keeping their land the way it is.

Yellow buttercups dot the rolling green, while herds of black and white Holstein heifers graze in the sun. A pond and clusters of pines and hardwoods break up the 300 acres, with a clapboard homestead and dairy barn overlooking it all.

The Sykes Dairy in Mebane has been running for more than 50 years; it's one of eight left in Orange County and the latest to be protected through the county's Lands Legacy Program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The county and the federal government approved an agricultural conservation easement for 160 acres of the Sykes' land this month that will keep it from ever being developed.

"It just feels good to know we can preserve it and leave it to our kids," said Sykes, a fourth-generation farmer. "It's going to be taken care of."

Orange County approved its first conservation easement in 2001 and has since put easements on 23 properties. Twelve of those are farms, with 1,563 acres of farmland preserved.

The county's program is the first and most comprehensive land acquisition and preservation program in the state, and in recent years has gotten nearly a quarter of all state money available for preserving farmland, said Rich Shaw, land conservation manager with the county Department of Environment, Agriculture, Parks and Recreation.

County officials have helped Wake, Guilford and Buncombe counties develop similar programs, he said.

"We recognize it's in the public benefit to conserve these areas and set them aside upfront rather than being converted to other uses down the road," Shaw said. Rather than preserve "islands of farmland," the county is trying to build upon land preserved by the Triangle Land Conservancy and other groups, he added.

The number of landowners applying for preservation easements has grown, and 40 are now on a waiting list for the program. To be approved, properties must be an active farm, have prime soil for farming, have an active conservation plan monitoring their runoff and land use in place through the county's Soil and Water Conservation program, and be close to a water source.

The Sykes' property is just upstream from the Cane Creek reservoir, which provides water for Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC-Chapel Hill.

County commissioners allocated $3 million in 2002 for the program, which has received $5.3 million in state and federal grants since then, Shaw said. The county buys the development rights to the property and makes payments to the landowner. The easement for the Sykes' land was $500,000; about half the cost will be covered by grants.

The extra money gives farm families some security in a volatile farming industry and helps them reinvest in their business.

"The money enables them to buy that extra piece of equipment or do that extra innovative practice that can push them forward into the future," Shaw said. "It's quite helpful to them. It's also rewarding them for that commitment that's there forever."

Sykes' farming life

Sykes will use some of the easement money to take care of his mother, who ran the dairy with his father in the 1950s. She is now in an assisted-care facility with Alzheimer's disease.

At 47, Sykes is one of the youngest farmers left in the county, he says. He has 250 cows, but only about 100 old enough to be milked. Cows shuffle into the barn at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day to relinquish their milk, which is collected by a milkman every other day and sold to a dairy co-op in Maryland and Virginia.

Sykes and two full-time employees run the dairy and farm the fields where they grow the cows' feed. Sykes is manager, veterinarian, mechanic, milker and farmer, which makes things unpredictable, he says.

"It's an emotional roller coaster to be in the dairy business," he said. "It's a different market to figure out. ... It's just perseverance and expecting it to be a roller coaster; you have to learn and expect that."

Milk prices fluctuate greatly throughout the year, making it difficult to budget and plan, said Marti Day, an N.C. State University Cooperative Extension agent.

Farms across the Piedmont struggle with high fuel prices, rising land values, a small profit margin, and federal dairy regulations and marketing policies that make it difficult to get ahead, she said.

"There's an awful lot of input that goes into a dairy that right at this point in time are extremely expensive," she said. "All across the Piedmont we see such a population increase, increase in land values, that makes it even more difficult for the farmers to pursue farming; they're farming such expensive land."

Still, Sykes says the accomplished feeling he gets at the end of a long day on the farm makes the work worth it.

"Farming is a way of life, it's not just a job," he said. "You feel good that you've done something that you can see the fruits of your labor."

katelyn.ferral@newsobserver.com or 919-932-8746

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