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The Future of Farmland in Orange County

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The nature of the rural landscape in Orange County is changing as a result of growth. Growth has produced two major trends: more people and less farmland. Since 1950, Orange County's population has more than tripled, currently standing at approximately 110,000 people. Population outside of the municipal areas (Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough) has doubled. The proportion of land area devoted to agriculture has declined from 70 to 32 percent. The number of farms has declined from a post-World War II high of over 2,000 to less than 450 today. The pressures on the remaining farms are intense. The increase in non-farming population in the rural areas causes a myriad of problems for farmers. Rising land values, nuisance complaints, and impacts from growth-related public projects such as reservoirs and highways result from encroachment into farming areas. Coupled with external pressures such as low commodity prices, global competition, and increased state and federal government regulations, it is exceedingly difficult for farmers to retain profitable operations. With fewer young people entering farming, aging farmers often see no alternative other than to "grow houses" on their land instead of crops.

While agriculture remains a significant component of the County's economy (gross sales of $32.7 million in 1996), its character is changing in response to rapid growth and development. Revenues from commodities that traditionally formed the basis of the agricultural economy such as dairy, grains, tobacco, and cattle are on the decline, while revenues from sectors such as greenhouses, direct-market fruits and vegetables, and equestrian activities are increasing. These businesses have developed a market niche by serving the expanding base of suburban customers. Yet the future viability of this service-oriented agriculture is by no means assured. The changing character of agriculture in Orange County is inevitable. Whether the changes are positive - enhancing the role of agriculture in the local economy, or negative - resulting in the loss of rural character and a traditional way of life, is an uncertain proposition.

Fundamentally, farming is an economic activity, driven by individual investment decisions based on the productive and viable use of land. Opportunities to continue a successful agricultural sector are limited by the agricultural capability of land, business start-up costs, the availability of local, regional, and global markets, the competing goals of a rapidly urbanizing county, and other economic factors. On the other hand, Orange County is uniquely positioned to pursue opportunities for agriculture created by an affluent, highly-educated populace, seeking high-quality farm produce and services. Ultimately, the success of economically viable agriculture in Orange County is dependent upon education and understanding between farmers, citizens, and government. The rights and interests of each should be respected and nurtured. Particularly, it requires the realization that farmers must be able to make a living off the land. Without economically-viable agriculture, much of our rural character and its attendant benefits to the community are lost.