On a dark winter morning in rural Orange County, David Heeks was out in the chill and drizzle checking his crops. "I've got a fresh crop of radishes over here," he said, drawing back a fabric cover to reveal a wide row of lush green leaves. Reaching down to the red soil, he drew up a stout red and white root."This," he said, "I'll be taking to market this Saturday. You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody else that's bringing a fresh radish, a new crop."A few days later and a few miles away in rural Durham County, Kathryn Spann and David Krabbe were breaking ground for the milking barn and cheesemaking room at their goat farm. "I have a very strong vision of a renaissance of farming," Spann said.
But in another part of the rural western Triangle, cattleman Gordon Neville had another word for the state of farming:
A growing population is both a curse and a blessing for agriculture in Durham, Orange and neighboring counties. On one hand, urban growth has cut the land supply and inflated land prices, pushing producers to sell out and raising a barrier for newcomers who want to get into the business.
"How are you going to milk cows on land that's worth $30,000 or $40,000 an acre - and/or pay the taxes?" Neville said. "One acre's worth more than the whole farm was 50 years ago."
On the other hand, local farmers' markets and restaurateurs' willingness to pay top dollar for local produce has created a bull market for locally grown and processed vegetables, meats, cheeses, and other farm products.
"There are a whole lot of needs around agriculture, a whole lot of challenges, and a whole lot of opportunities," said Gerry Cohn, an agricultural consultant who studied Durham County agriculture last year.
County governments are acting to keep farming in their future, even though the value of farm-generated revenue has declined.
According to the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture, Durham County crop sales totaled $6.6 million in 2007 and $12.6 million in Orange. In 1997, the inflation-adjusted totals were $8 million for Durham and $15 million for Orange.
From 1997 to 2007, the total farm acreage in historically rural Orange County fell from 72,515 acres to 60,057 -- but the number of farms rose from 485 to 604 and the number of full-time farmers from 243 to 263.
In historically urban Durham County, acreage rose slightly, 22,238 acres to 26,150 acres, while the number of full-time farmers rose from 74 to 118.
From a conservation point of view, land devoted to farming (including tree farming) protects watersheds, wetlands and wildlife; retards flooding; cleans the air - and pleases the senses, as Durham County commissioners' Chairman Michael Page found during a farm tour last year:
"This is beautiful," he said. "I feel like I've died and gone to heaven."How-tos
In late 2009, both Durham and Orange counties adopted plans for "Agricultural Development and Farmland Protection." In Chatham County the board of commissioners will hold a public hearing on a proposed farmland protection plan Tuesday.
"We're really talking about agricultural economic development and land use together," said Cohn, who wrote Durham County's plan. "Those are the two pieces of it that go hand in hand.
"If you don't have a stable land base, you're not going to have successful agriculture. If you don't have profitable opportunities, there's going to be no reason for people to hold onto that land, keep it in farm use."
With formal plans, counties get preferential treatment when seeking money for conservation easements, agricultural training programs and so forth from the state's Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.
The plans also suggest steps for cultivating farmers, such as high-school courses, expanded extension services and nontraditional practices such as "urban agriculture." An example of the latter is the SEEDS inner-city gardening program, which has been going on in East Durham since the mid-1990s.
Agricultural innovation was already under way in the area.
Orange and Durham, along with Alamance and Chatham, counties have collaborated on a Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center, where farmers can use space and equipment to wash and grade produce, cut and store meat, make sausage, turn crops into jams, soups, salsa, cakes and pies; package products for market; get advice on food safety and brokerage help to sell what they raise. The center is to open this year in Hillsborough and serve producers and markets in more than 20 central North Carolina counties.
Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro offers certificates and associates' degrees in Sustainable Agriculture, using a five-acre student farm.
Orange County Extension offers an annual "Farm Enterprise" course, graduates of which may lease land at the county's 260-acre Breeze Farm near Schley north of Hillsborough. More than 115 aspiring growers took the eight-week course in its first two years, said Extension Agent Carl Matyac, covering such concerns as planting, harvesting, insect control, business planning, record-keeping and taxes.Deep roots
"Everybody that's here has always valued the rural character of the county," said Matyac, who worked in Durham and Wake extension offices before moving to Orange in 2008. "They kind of had a history with this idea that we're going to keep agriculture alive."
David Heeks is a Farm Enterprise alumnus, a first-time, full-time grower of vegetables year-round on about one-third of an acre at Breeze Farm and in his backyard greenhouse in Durham.
"I sort of always had an interest in gardening and I kind of thought it was something I would do when I retired," he said. "And then ... I just had a 9-to-5 job in a cubicle, office environment, and I wasn't very happy and I started looking for a way out."
He found internship openings online at farms in Texas and New York and then, after he and his architect wife picked Durham as their place to settle down, he found Breeze Farm.
Kathryn Spann also forsook the 9 to 5 for the farm. A Durham native, a Duke and Vanderbilt graduate, she went north to practice law.
"I did my 80 hours a week for a decade in New York," she said. Then she and Krabbe bought an old tobacco farm near Rougemont and spent the past two years preparing it for the goats.
Spann no longer practices law, but she does chair Durham County's Farmland Protection Board.
"In moving down here, one of my goals was becoming a better-rounded person and a more active citizen," she said.
By contrast, Gordon Neville's rural roots run deep. His beef cattle range on land his family has farmed since 1778. He's seen his neighbors steadily leaving the land, and his grandchildren have no interest in farming.
"I was crazy about it," he said. "It's got to be in your blood."
High land values, low commodity prices, and rising costs for fuel and fertilizer make it tough to be a farmer, he said. But the region does offer a future for farmers who make the most of the land they have and cater to the market, Neville said. He knows a laid-off salesman now making a career in Shiitake mushrooms.
"You can do things if you find your niche and get in it," Neville said. "You've got the population to make it work. If you're smart ...if you want to work ... and you enjoy it."