Thomas Saile of Raleigh hopes to own a farm one day.
Saile has spent time in an incubator farm program and worked on organic farms. He has become active in community gardens and has a garden on a friend’s plot of land.
But in looking for his own property, Saile, 33, has run into one of the biggest hurdles facing new farmers: the cost and availability of farmland. In the fast-growing Triangle, farmland is often lost to development and the price of the arable land that remains has skyrocketed, putting it out of reach of young farmers.
So Saile decided to lease a half-acre on Good Hope Farm, a cultivator farm off Morrisville Carpenter Road in Cary, where he will grow heirloom tomatoes, peppers, salad mixes, potatoes and squash starting this season. Cultivator farms give young farmers affordable access to the land and tools they need to get started.
“I could find affordable land, but it would be in the mountains on the side of a hill somewhere,” Saile said laughing.
To ease the challenges faced by would-be farmers like Saile, local conservation and agricultural groups are joining forces to preserve farmland in the Triangle and boost the region’s agricultural industry.
Conservation Trust for North Carolina, Community Food Lab, Triangle Land Conservancy and other groups recently created a strategy for conserving important farmland in Wake, Durham, Orange, Johnston and Chatham counties. They want to encourage more people to become farmers by helping both new and existing farmers succeed.
The goal is not only to preserve working farms, but also to feed the growing demand for local food. Less than 0.1 percent of food spending in the region is direct farm-to-consumer, meaning there is much more potential, said Edgar Miller, government relations director for the Conservation Trust.
Wake, Durham, Orange, Johnston and Chatham counties have lost about 15 percent of their farmland – more than 81,000 acres – since 1997. Now about a quarter of the Triangle is made up of agricultural land.
The conservation strategy, released earlier this year, identifies more than 50,000 acres of farmland in rural and urban areas that the groups deem “high priority,” where joint conservation efforts would have the greatest benefit.
Much of the highest priority farm land laid out in the report fell within southeastern Johnston, western Chatham and northern Durham and Orange counties, where larger, more traditional farms remain. But the plan also targets smaller properties on the fringes of Wake County.
The groups seek to preserve at least 225,000 acres of land in the Triangle, or 50 percent of the remaining farmland, for agricultural production.
But conserving land is sometimes difficult because it must be donated or sold by willing landowners. State and federal funding to pay for conservation easements to preserve working farms also is dwindling.
The interest in encouraging new people to go into agriculture comes at a time when the number of farmers is shrinking nationally; there were 2.1 million farmers in 2012, down 4.2 percent from five years earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And farmers are getting older; the average age in North Carolina is 58.
As farmers retire, groups such as Triangle Land Conservancy are working to ensure that their land stays a farm.
“In the next 10 years, we are going to continue to see a huge transition of farmers,” said Leigh Ann Hammerbacher, associate director of conservation and stewardship with Triangle Land Conservancy. “So we’re looking at how do we work to help transition lands to new and beginning farmers and set up programs to help make that land affordable for folks just starting out. Otherwise we are going to have a real gap in farmers in our area.”
Miller of the Conservation Trust said a $600,000 federal grant through USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program would be a “big boost” in creating programs that would help make land more affordable. Several nonprofits in the Triangle applied jointly for the grant, which has yet to be awarded.
Incubator and cultivator farm programs are one way to help farmers get started. Incubator farm programs, like one at WC Breeze Family Farm in Orange County, provide more hands-on assistance and advice, while cultivator farms are more independent and provide farmers with affordable access to land and tools.
“Land prices within the Triangle are very high,” said Zeke Overbaugh, Good Hope Farm’s manager. “If you go a couple counties in either direction, you can find unimproved farmland for very cheap to lease.”
But improving that property, like outfitting it with an irrigation system, or buying the tools needed to get started can be expensive.
For Good Hope Farm near Carpenter Village, Cary has leased 29 acres to Piedmont Conservation Council, a nonprofit that promotes conservation and sustainable communities, which then subleases 1/2- to 2-acre plots to fledgling farmers. About five farmers, including Saile, have signed on to lease land on the site in its first season.
“I think it makes the farmers more independent,” said Saile, wearing a large-brimmed straw hat while laying down pipe for the site’s new irrigation system. “It gives them the opportunity to see the real world and what they’re up against.”
Produce is expected to be available at Good Hope Farm late this summer. The farmers, including Saile, will be able to sell their products on site.
“Being able to move product is an issue,” Overbaugh said. “I mean you can follow email threads right now of farmers talking about, ‘How do I sell my product?’ Having the ability to handle produce post-harvest and then be able to sell it right here on the property eliminates a lot of the headache.”
Local nonprofits would then work to match these farmers with larger plots of land in the Triangle to allow them to scale up their operations. Triangle Land Conservancy is working on 405 acres, known as Walnut Hill Nature Preserve, in eastern Wake County that could help with this transition.
The group’s vision is to have part of the nature preserve serve as a training space for farmers as well as allow new farmers to connect with experienced farmers who may be interested in selling their land to the next generation. Some nonprofits also look to make land more affordable by purchasing conservation easements, which lower the value of the land and protect it from being developed or subdivided.
Triangle Land Conservancy is working with the owner of Bluebird Hill Farm, a 12.88-acre organic farm in Chatham County, to place a conservation easement on the property.
Norma Burns, an architect-turned-farmer, has run Bluebird for 18 years, producing herbs, specialty vegetables, cut flowers, native plants, farm crafts and food products. But now she is looking to give away the property via an essay contest to a couple who will keep it as a farm.
“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘I’d give anything to have a farm like this, but I’ll never be able to afford one,’ ” she said. “This method seemed to be a way that I could have a chance to give that kind of person a chance.”
Burns needs to have enough essays submitted with a $300 fee to be able to pay off the mortgage. Right now, she said, she doesn’t have enough, and the contest is scheduled to close June 1.
“I’ve been planting the garden as I would normally do so that, when the new owner comes in, it won’t just be bare,” she said. “It will be at its peak with everything growing, and they’ll have a picture of what it could be like for them.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon