We often hear about the lack of affordable housing in and around Asheville. But there’s a flipside to the coin that is often overlooked—overdevelopment is having a devastating effect on agriculture.
Today's guest is Gina Smith, the features editor with Edible Asheville. She has reported and written a two-part series of stories titled "Losing Ground." where she examines the loss of farmland in Western North Carolina, its broad impacts and efforts to address the trend. Only the first story was published at the time of posting this episode.
We dig through her reporting, including one of the more interesting developments—young farmers forced to lease land from more established farmers, and the arrangements don’t always go as hoped.
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Gina Smith: I've definitely done a lot of restaurant writing and continue to do so, but. I've always been interested in agriculture. Both of my parents grew up on farms and I have a lot of farming relatives. And so I've always just been interested in digging into that aspect.
And that's a really interesting part of the food scene here in Asheville too. Like it's almost inextricable from the restaurant scene, the farming sector.
Matt Peiken: Explain that a little more.
Gina Smith: Yeah well, Asheville has this great reputation for farm to table, and the restaurants here have really close relationships with farmers and that's just led to a really vibrant system in general.
Matt Peiken: How did you get turned on to the facts of Western North Carolina losing farmland. When did that cross your radar, and how?
Gina Smith: That's actually been something for probably a decade. Whenever I would interview farmers, that's something that would always come up. Yeah, I'll talk to you about this story, but what you really need to look into is land access.
That's the big story. So when I had this opportunity with Edible Asheville to do a series on it, I was excited.
Matt Peiken: Did you find? Anything in your reporting, even though you'd been talking with farmers for a decade now about this, you've been hearing this, what in particular in your reporting for the Losing Ground series surprised you?
Gina Smith: Just the size of the problem. It's something that Buncombe County specifically has been really trying to tackle too. Buncombe County is a leader in dealing with farmland access and has been for several years. I don't know if it was surprising, but I found it really interesting and exciting to find out all the things that our county is doing and Western North Carolina in general.
Matt Peiken: And yet in your story, at least part one of your series, you talked about how Buncombe County could lose a quarter of its farmland acreage by 2040. So you said the county is doing some leading edge things and yet We're still losing. So tell me what the county is doing and why Buncombe County still faces this kind of loss of farmland.
Gina Smith: Western North Carolina has a unique situation when it comes to farmland because it's very mountainous, right? So there isn't a lot of flatland available. Plus we have all these development pressures right now, very unique to the Asheville area, I think. Maybe not unique, I guess a lot of other urban areas are dealing with that.
But combined with the lack of flatland, it's become a critical situation. But Buncombe County was actually the first in North Carolina out of a hundred counties to start a farmland preservation program, so it was leading in that area, and then in 2007, it created a farmland protection program plan with recommendations for like policy change around that to preserve farmland. And that was revamped in 2020 and there's been significant funding that's been put behind some of the initiatives that are part of that program.
Matt Peiken: So you talked about farmland preservation and the farmland protection plan. How can the county protect farmland? What specific things are they doing?
Gina Smith: Yeah, that's a great question. So there are a few things that they have in like their toolbox for this. One is conservation easements. So they work with land trust like the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and others to work with land owners to Basically take their farmland and make sure that it will never be developed like, in perpetuity.
Matt Peiken: So to make sure that they can't sell it to somebody who will then turn it into a residential area.
Gina Smith: Yeah. So the landowners will still own their land. They can still leave it to their heirs. They can sell it if they want, but the land itself can never be developed.
Matt Peiken: What is the incentive for these landowners to enter a land trust like this where it might cost them financially?
Gina Smith: Usually it doesn't end up costing them financially. There is actually a financial advantage to doing that in that there are tax breaks associated with it. And also just knowing that their land will always be farmland and not turn into a bunch of tiny houses or whatever.
Matt Peiken: Yeah. I'm not saying they, I'm not suggesting they want to see that happen, but we know about the financial considerations that happen.
Totally. You mentioned the mountainous terrain plays a role in how much farmland we do have so talk about that a little more, Does that preclude it from being farmland?
Gina Smith: No, so I think Western North Carolina farmers have learned to adapt to the terrain And so there's a lot more concentrated like market farm type things there are people farming and selling at farmers markets and having CSAs, like community supported agriculture programs with just like two acres, so people have gotten really creative about using the terrain that we have, but we don't have situations like in the eastern part of the state where it's very flat, where there are just Lots of huge farms and consolidation of farms.
Matt Peiken: When you say creative, are there technological things or advancements in farming that make it profitable and productive to farm on mountainous terrain that maybe decades ago it wasn't?
Gina Smith: That's a really good question actually. I'm just wondering what the creative, how are they creative in ways to make it work? Just learning to do like high density growing, like growing crops in smaller areas, growing vertically, growing hydroponically and like different kinds of crops. Mushrooms, there's a lot of mushroom growers in this area that can grow in very small spaces.
Matt Peiken: So you mentioned, you talked about things about farmland preservation, farmland protection plan that the county institutes, and yet we're still facing a loss. Why? What's happening?
Gina Smith: The short answer is development is encroaching. Also, so another tool that I didn't mention earlier when we were talking about things that the county is doing is supporting farmers with succession planning. Our farmer population nationally is aging.
So I think the average age of farmers now is almost 58 years old.
Matt Peiken: I think you saw in the story, it said that about 57 and a half. Yeah.
Gina Smith: And so it's becoming really important to make sure that those older farmers as they're aging out, instead of leaving it to their kids who may not be interested in farming and may be wanting to sell it for the highest bidder for development, that they're maybe connecting with young farmers who are seeking land. The land can stay as farmland.
Matt Peiken: Is that actually happening? Is the county facilitating meetings between generations? Older farmers and younger want to be farmers. Yes How is that happening?
Gina Smith: Yeah, so buncombe county actually they now actually have I think Three people who are dedicated to working on succession planning.
They've done trainings around how to facilitate that Also, there is a terrific organization that's it's a program of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, called NC FarmLink. And it's almost like a dating website for farmers, for landowners, and aspiring farmers, and it matches them up.
So people who have farmland can go on the website and say what they have. Farmers can go on there and look for a good match. And they have staff who work with them to make that happen.
Matt Peiken: I'd love to see what those profiles look like. You know, "I'm proud of my turnips in particular," so you talked about a moment ago, you mentioned.
Development being the number one threat. Your story talks about natural trends in agriculture as opposed to development, both of them playing roles that there that we were losing even before development was the heightened impact that it is. You said there were natural trends in agriculture that were leading to the loss of farmland.
Before we get into the development, what sort of natural trends were playing into that?
Gina Smith: I think you may be referring to like Tobacco industry. So that was a big one. There were a lot of tobacco farmers many years ago, and a lot of them had also had cow calf operations on the side. So they, while also growing tobacco on whatever acreage, they would have cows and calves and they would sell the calves and that's like another income stream for them.
So when the tobacco went away, a lot of the cow calf operations went away too.
Matt Peiken: Turning to development when I read that in your story that development was playing the major role in the loss of farmland, I was thinking isn't this zoned agriculture? How can development encroach on agriculturally zoned land unless those buyers get the land zoning changed?
Is that happening? Or is zoning out in rural areas, is that not even, is there zoning?
Gina Smith: I can't really speak to the zoning. I'm not really sure how that works. I do know that there is the opportunity, at least in Buncombe County, and probably in other counties that have farmland preservation programs, where they can do voluntary agricultural districts.
And if you're part of that, It's like an easement situation, but for ten years, your land would be protected from development. Yeah, I think if it's your land in a rural situation and you want to sell it to do whatever it's up to you
Matt Peiken: You mentioned how particularly in rural areas that we're seeing some of that talk about what's happened in the last 10 years or so In terms of development that's really eaten into agricultural land. What are you seeing?
Gina Smith: So Typically, land that's good for agriculture is also the same land that's really good for building houses. And, yeah, I mean, that's it. Developers come in and they see nice, flat land with a beautiful view, and obviously that's a great place to build. And so, if there's a farmer who's aging out, wants to get out of it, or passes away, and their heirs have inherited it and don't want to be involved in farming. It's easy pickings for developers.
Matt Peiken: Are there certain areas that you're seeing on the map, certain regions that are more prone to this or seeing more loss of farmland than other areas in particular?
Gina Smith: I think just generally all over Buncombe County, Madison County is seeing a lot of development, interestingly, because it feels like such a rural county.
And of course, Buncombe County. We have gorgeous areas like Fairview and Sandy Mush and Leicester that are very rural, but they're very quickly being developed.
Matt Peiken: It's pick your poison in a way. We have so many people moving to this area and They have to live somewhere, and we have, within the core of Asheville itself, developable land isn't that plentiful, I imagine it's which problem do we take care of? Our food sources, which everyone needs, are, agricultural rich land versus Housing, which we definitely need more of at all levels, we need a lot more affordable housing Talk about the impact of the rising cost of land. What is that having on agriculture here?
Gina Smith: Oh gosh Yeah, land is just so inaccessible for young farmers who don't have a lot of resources, And that's it's particularly challenging for BIPOC farmers of color. Statistically speaking they have a much, much harder time of accessing land.
Yeah, the land prices it's almost an insurmountable obstacle. A lot of farmers I talked to, young ones who just got into it, some of them did have land, some of them were looking for land, but all of them agreed that it is almost an insurmountable obstacle facing, like looking at those prices.
Matt Peiken: There are two aspects of this that you've touched on. I want to talk about the BIPOC one first. You mentioned in your story, I think you said, Only 2 percent of the agricultural land in this area is owned by black farmers and other people of color.
Gina Smith: Yeah, I think that's a national 2%, but
Matt Peiken: Yeah, I thought that was particularly here. You're saying that's nationally.
Gina Smith: I think so. Yeah. I think that was I don't know where that data came from. I have to look back. Sure. Yeah. It might, might've been from the national young farmers coalition report that came out last year. Yeah, 98 percent of farmland owners are white, 2 percent are people of color, and that, it didn't used to be that way.
There used to be a much larger percentage of farmers who were people of color, but because of discriminatory lending practices with the USDA, that's all well documented, going back decades.
Matt Peiken: When you say used to be, how far back are we talking where there was such a greater percentage?
Gina Smith: Oh, Even like 50 years ago, there was a large percentage.
Matt Peiken: And you're saying that a lot of discriminatory practices, some of the things that we've seen in real estate in general, is happening with agricultural land. That speaks to a greater problem there.
Gina Smith: Oh yeah. It's a huge problem, and I think it's a problem. It's a lot of people are trying to work to address now like there's an awareness But there's another piece to it, too I don't know if you heard of heirs property So heirs property is when land there's no will that there's land maybe farmland that's been in a family for many generations, but The landowner dies, and there's no will, and so it's distributed equally among the family members.
But, legally, it makes it really hard for them to hold on to that land, because anybody can come in to any one family member and make an offer and try to buy that property. And so a lot of, Land that's been owned by people of color over the years has disappeared, it's been gobbled up by developers because of that, because they're like easy prey.
Matt Peiken: You're saying that farmland that was owned by somebody in the family, he dies, he doesn't leave a will, that maybe he might have three, four, five heirs who are sharing this, but because there's nothing on paper determining this, if one person can be talked into selling. The land, then that incursion leads to all the others being lost.
Gina Smith: Yeah, I don't have a good way of explaining, I can't really explain exactly how that legally works, but I know when there's no clear ownership No clear transfer of the land ownership. It makes it very easy for that land to be purchased.
Matt Peiken: You also touched on The affordability of it and your story talks about Farmers who lease land and with mixed results I thought that was really interesting that there were farmers who would love to own if they could they can't afford to They're leasing farmland.
This is land that is used for farming and yet the results are mixed. Can you talk through some of your reporting, what you found, some of the circumstances?
Gina Smith: Sure. Yeah, that's a great question because leasing, while it can be a really great opportunity for new farmers because there's like minimal financial input compared to purchasing there's a lot of uncertainty about it. So even if you feel like you've got a really good relationship with the person you're leasing from, circumstances can change, their family situation can change, and you might find yourself with like one of the people I interviewed for the first installment of the story, you might find yourself with a bunch of livestock on some land that you're leasing and suddenly that land is gone and you have to find a place to put your 50 head of sheep or whatever you have.
It can be really challenging. Plus There's the issue of infrastructure like fencing, barns that kind of thing. That's an enormous investment of money and to make that investment on land that's not yours. That's you're just leasing. It's a gamble.
Matt Peiken: You also focused in on one family, one couple.
That was leasing land and it was farmland that they were using, but the families. Wanted to operate their farms differently in a way there was a different culture around farming I thought that was interesting too. So and that led to them not being able to stay on that land
Gina Smith: yeah, that's a really big thing, too.
So Say then a new farmer, a young farmer wants to do, use regenerative farming practices. So that's a really specific way of managing the land and managing your animals. So if you come in and you want to do regenerative farming, but you are leasing land from another farmer who does not use those practices, that's going to be problematic because maybe they don't want you rotating your pastures.
Maybe they want you to keep your animals on one piece of land, for example, or Yeah, whatever. There, there can be a lot of challenges around that.
Matt Peiken: You talked about one couple, I think maybe it was the same couple, that they woke up one day or they came out there one day and saw that the entire acreage had been mowed.
Gina Smith: Yeah. So they actually, it was a Dana Choquette. From Old North Acres, and she laughed about it when she was telling me the story, but the farmer they were leasing the land from had no ill intentions. He was just used to mowing his field. And so he just went out and mowed his field. But they use regenerative farming practices, which means they let the grass grow and let the cattle eat the grass. And that's like their forage, their hay.
Matt Peiken: How devastating.
Gina Smith: It was devastating. They, yeah, because they then had to find a way to purchase hay to feed those animals for the next few months instead of being able to just graze them on the existing hay. So yeah, she was laughing about it, but at the same time I felt like she, she must have been crying at some point because it had to be so heartbreaking.
Matt Peiken: So what is the Outlook and picture for prospective farmers in their 20s and 30s who have not yet purchased anything And they don't have you talked to one couple who they readily admitted if it wasn't for my mother's money We would not have been able to purchase this piece of land that we're on a lot of people don't have that Kind of benefit.
What's the outlook here for younger? Would be farmers who don't have that pipeline to money and want to get into farming want to make that they're living What do you think is the outlook looking your story points to 2040? What is our outlook at 2040?
Gina Smith: Yeah That's a great question I feel like it's hopeful because a lot of people realize there's a problem and are looking for answers so So, some farmers are, again, getting creative and doing things like farming collaboratively, where they're like going in together, pooling their resources to, to buy land, or to lease land together, or whatever situation, just like joining forces so they can support each other.
So there's another installment to the series that's what's the outlook, what's happening, what's being done and also, one of the farmers I interviewed for that story said that they feel like communication is really important, and building relationships between older farmers and younger farmers, and being very intentional about that.
So there are conversations happening, so education is happening about what the younger farmers are doing, and what their farming practices are. Letting older farmers letting people know if they have land that they maybe they have some land that they can lease out and be intentional about pairing with someone who has similar goals and practices.
Matt Peiken: What can the public do, or is there anything the public can do to help this issue, to be part of this?
Gina Smith: Yeah, for one thing, we've already done something in Buncombe County. So back in 2022 the Open Spaces Bond was passed with a really overwhelming majority of voters were supporting that bond.
And a lot of money from that bond is going to be supporting conservation easements and making sure that farmland is preserved.
Matt Peiken: Talk about the Open Spaces Bond. What was this and what is it providing in terms of dollars?
Gina Smith: So Buncombe County stated that they have the goal that 20 percent of the land in Buncombe County will be preserved by 2030.
They're actually already over 18%, so they're doing pretty good. But that bond, which again, I'd have to look up the amount. It's in the 30, 30 millions, I believe. But a lot of that is supporting the kind of thing we were talking about earlier with succession planning, conservation easements, and that kind of thing which is amazing.
Matt Peiken: Are farmers The older generation of farmers, are they only recently getting aware of this as well and seeing a responsibility or have they long seen a responsibility in this?
Gina Smith: I think it just depends on the farmer. Of course there have been many that have been aware of it. Which is why there's been things happening over the past couple of decades in Buncombe County. But surely, yeah, I'm sure there are lots that don't, that haven't thought about it.
They just assume they'll pass their farm on to their kids and then it'll go to their grandkids.
Matt Peiken: And the kids or grandkids can do with it what they will. Exactly. And the preservation efforts from the county are putting in some guardrails around that.
Gina Smith: Yeah, guardrails and some thought processes about what happens if you do leave this to your child who works in New York and has never had an interest in the farm? What are they going to do with it?
Matt Peiken: even though there are these guardrails, I imagine some of these... People who inherit land who want nothing to do with farming. They think they can make many millions of dollars on a sale. Are these land trusts impossible to break? Yeah,
Gina Smith: if you have a conservation easement, it's, that land is preserved in perpetuity. That it cannot be developed legally, it cannot be developed ever.
Matt Peiken: So it can only be used for agricultural purposes?
Gina Smith: For agriculture and like forest, like forested areas are also, you can have easements on forested areas, so like environmental preservation too.
Matt Peiken: So part one of your series really pointed to a lot of the problem, you're saying part two points to some solutions and things that are happening forward. What else have we not talked about around your series and particularly part two what are some things that we can look forward to or people we can look forward to reading about and things they're doing?
Gina Smith: So yeah One of the coolest things from the second installment to me is a look at the Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy's farm incubator program.
So they have this place out in Alexander called the Community Farm where they do lots of things involving like reforestation and water and lots of cool stuff. But they have an incubator farm out there where they have a land set aside so new farmers can come out and get their business going. So I interviewed a flower farmer who's farming on two acres out there right now.
They have a limited time period. They have like up to five years, I think, to get their farm business going there. They have infrastructure, they have Barns, they have coolers, they have growing tunnels and greenhouses and all that there. So it's like the perfect situation for them to get started
Matt Peiken: I've never heard of something like that.
So it seems like it's, is there mentoring, there are classes out there. So how much land do these student farmers get to build up their practice and then what do they do? So let's say they build up the business. Then do they take that? the bounty of that elsewhere.
Gina Smith: What happens? Yeah. So they do. It depends on the business.
I think they have maybe three or four farmers right now. And so the one I spoke with had two acres, but they are like Talking with a mushroom grower, for example, who won't need that much, also, they have someone who has cattle out there right now, who has like a larger piece of land.
It depends on their business. And then they do, they get that up to five year period where they can Take advantage of all those resources, the mentoring they work with Organic Grower School so they can participate in their Beginning Farmers Program and that kind of thing. And then after that time period is up, then hopefully by then they would have had time to look for land, connect with other farmers, and find other opportunities to get started on their own.
Matt Peiken: Yeah. Wow, that's pretty groundbreaking. When did that open? When did that start?
Gina Smith: It's maybe ten years or so, the community farm has been around, and I'm not sure how long that incubator program has been around.
But it's there aren't many. I think there are only... Other than like maybe private ones that individual landowners might have as like a leasing situation where they offer additional resources, there are only maybe four others in this like whole broad area of the state.
Matt Peiken: So what else have we not talked about around your reporting or your series that you think is important for people to know and understand?
Gina Smith: I think just being aware of the problem of land access here And knowing what development pressures are doing to the area beyond, I mean, it's impacting our food system. And farmland is not just important because of food, it's also important because one of the reasons people love to live here and visit here is because of the beautiful views.
That's all going to go away if it all becomes houses. Also water quality is impacted by, if we have more farmland and forested land, we have better water quality, which is one of the things our area is known for, but when it's all covered with roads and houses, that water quality goes way down.
Matt Peiken: Agriculture uses a lot of water. It does. Yeah. So there's that. I don't know if it's fair to even label it a trade off, but is there some of that?
Gina Smith: I don't know in our area. I'm not sure in our climate how much additional water I don't think it's like other areas of the country that are drier where it really impacts.
Yeah I do know that there have been studies and speaking with the Southern Appalachians Highland Conservancy, they were pointing this out. There have been studies that show that having farmland is actually much, much better for the quality of, of the water. Like people complain about maybe cattle causing disturbances to stream health and that kind of thing. But overall agricultural land is better for our water.