By JIM WISE

The News & Observer of Raleigh via Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- On a dark winter morning in 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 lush, wide row of bright-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 Durham County, Kathryn Spann and David Krabbe broke ground for the milking barn and cheesemaking room at their goat farm.

"I have a very strong vision of a renaissance of farming in Durham," Spann said.

Last week in Wake County, Soil and Water Conservation Director Dale Threatt-Taylor was starting work on a proposal to promote farming and preserve farmland.

"Sometimes people look at Wake County and they just think of Raleigh or Cary," Threatt-Taylor said. "But they forget how huge Wake County is."

Wake County covers 532,429 acres. In 1997, 113,201 of them were farmland. By 2007, according to the latest federal census of agriculture, acreage was less than 85,000 -- but the number of farms had risen from 772 to 827.

The trend is the same across the growing Triangle region: less farmland, more farms. It may seem odd, but for agriculture in the Triangle, urban and rural are in a symbiotic relationship. Growing towns and changing times are both curse and blessing.

On one hand, the popularity of local farmers' markets, the growth of "community-supported agriculture" systems under which consumers contract to buy a share of a farmer's produce, and restaurateurs' willingness to pay top dollar for local produce has created a bull market for locally grown vegetables, meat, cheese and other farm products.

That blessing encourages young people, retirees and career changers to try the farming business, and offers a way for long-timers to stay on the land raising crops other than tobacco.

On the other hand, development eats into the land supply and inflates land values, giving incentive for profit-strapped producers and uninterested heirs to sell out and raising a barrier for newcomers in need of ground to plant seeds or graze livestock.

"How are you going to milk cows on land that's worth $30,000 or $40,000 an acre -- and/or pay the taxes?" said Orange County cattleman Gordon Neville. "One acre's worth more than the whole farm was 50 years ago."

Threatt-Taylor said she hopes Wake County's Agricultural Development and Farmland Protection Plan will be drafted by October. Johnston County has a plan in progress and Chatham's is awaiting county commissioners' approval. Durham and Orange already have plans in place.

Counties with formal preservation plans can get preferential treatment when asking money for conservation easements and agricultural training programs from agencies such as the state's Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.

The General Assembly established the fund in 2005 to preserve farming, forestry and horticulture industries in a state rapidly losing open land to urban development. According to the fund's Web site, North Carolina has lost 600,000 acres of farmland since 2002 -- the highest rate of farm loss in the country.

So far, six county plans have passed muster to get special consideration from the fund, said office manager Holly Gilroy, including Haywood, Buncombe, Polk, Cabarrus, Alamance and Orange. Approval is close for Durham, she said.

Such plans typically describe the problems and growth opportunities with a county's agriculture, and prescribe ways of preserving farmland by ordinance.

They also suggest ways to cultivate farmers through high-school courses, expanded extension services and neo-agricultural practices such as inner-city vegetable patches and backyard chicken coops.

Wake County is prime for farmland preservation, Threatt-Taylor said. It already has 41 farms in Voluntary Agricultural Districts that total 4,624 acres."Citizens of Wake County are really engaged," she said. "This county (has) an urban and suburban population that really wants local food."

For some people, farming is tradition. For some, it's a career change.

Heeks is 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 don't have a farming background," Heeks said. "I sort of always had an interest in gardening and I kind of thought it was something I would do when I retired.

"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."

Spann also forsook the office 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. She and Krabbe opted for open spaces and bought an old tobacco farm near Rougemont and spent the past two years preparing it for the goats.

On the side, Spann chairs 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 leave 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, rising costs for fuel and fertilizer make it tough to be a farmer, he said. But the metropolitan Triangle does offer a future for farmers who make the most of the land they have and cater to the market at hand.

Neville cited the case of a laid-off salesman now making a career in growing 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."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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