Wake County

Wake farmers could pay rent for county land

Wake County may soon charge rent to farmers using county-owned land for their operations.

Two dozen farmers – who grow top exports such as tobacco, soy, and sweet potatoes – hold rent-free, year-long leases on 852 acres of county property.

Many of the farmers owned the land years ago, but sold their property rights to Wake in the 1990s and 2000s as the county acquired land for the proposed Little River Reservoir in northeastern Wake. The county allowed some residents to stay until the county and city of Raleigh proceeded with plans for the reservoir.

But those plans stalled, and during a Monday work session with county commissioners Wake staff recommended a long-term deal with the farmers.

The board of commissioners tentatively agreed with a staff suggestion to strike multi-year rental deals with the farmers. That could bring peace of mind to farmers worried about the county abruptly taking their land, they said, while charging rent would make the farming market more fair.

“It’s probably better if we’re not altering the market dynamic by not charging,” said Matthew Roylance, deputy director of the county’s parks, recreation and open space program.

Wake County farmers pay an annual rent of $25 to $50 per acre, he said. Wake staff proposed a rate of $40, which could generate about $34,000 each year. The money would go toward the county’s fund for preserving nature and open space.

Commissioner John Burns said he worried about the rate putting some farmers out of business. Wake farmers generate $1.32 million for the the local economy, according to Wake staff. “I want to make sure we’re not putting roadblocks in place for those who want to continue farming,” he said.

Commission Chairman James West agreed, saying that farming is “something that’s steeped in our history and our culture.” Commissioners instructed staff to investigate whether the farmers could afford the $40 per acre rate and to explore a reduced rate tied to safe and health-friendly operating practices.

The land could still become a reservoir, and it’s unclear how long-term agriculture use might affect the water, Roylance said.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht