ROCKINGHAM — When Paige Burns first interviewed for a job with the N.C. Cooperative Extension office in Richmond County, she brought up the concept of voluntary agriculture districts.
“Moore County already had a VAD program, and that’s something I wanted to do for the county,” she said.
After about a year of research and planning, the county established the program here.
The Voluntary Agriculture District program is through the N.C. Department of Agriculture, but implementation is left to the individual counties.
The program is run by the VAD Board, which Burns said is “by farmers, for farmers…looking out for one another.”
According to Burns, there are currently 11 VAD farms in Richmond County, covering more than 2,000 acres.
“It hasn’t taken off as much as we hoped it would,” she said, listing intimidation of the process and perception of another government program as possible reasons for the low numbers.
To help boost participation, a VAD sign-up is being held Tuesday at E.E. Vuncannon, Inc., a farm supply store on Railroad Street in Ellerbe, from 1:30 to 4 p.m.
Farmers interested in joining the district are encouraged to bring their recently mailed tax bills.
Burns said all the information needed will be on the bills, or be able to looked up on-site.
According to a brochure on the program, qualifying farms must meet the following criteria:
• be enrolled in, or qualify for present use value taxation;
• be a minimum of 5 acres for horticulture, 10 acres for general agriculture or 20 acres for timber or forestry;
• be enrolled in a conservation plan certified by the Natural Resources Conservation Service if it qualifies as highly erodible land; and
• be under a forestry management plan if timberland.
Participating farmers will also be required to sign a conservation agreement, which prohibits non-farm use or development of the land for 10 years.
“You need to be farming and not building solar farms or housing developments,” Burns said. However, she added that landowners can withdraw from the program by writing a letter to the VAD board.
The same brochure also lists several benefits of being involved in a voluntary ag district, including: eligibility for funding, the waiving of water and sewer assessments, preventing land from being taken for public use and increased protection from lawsuits.
Although it’s not common in Richmond County, Burns said outside people moving into rural areas have been known to file nuisance lawsuits against farms for noise, dust and other reasons. With signs placed on participating properties, potential movers will know they’re in an active farming district.
“That’s one of the biggest advantages to being in a VAD,” said Tommy Peacock, a farmer in the district and chairman of the board. “It’s as much a protection for newcomers as it is for established farmers.”
Peacock said there were a lot of big farms in the county that aren’t in the VAD, but said it would be “wise to have your farm registered…to keep from encroachment.”
His farm was the first to go through the process, followed by Rusty Williamson’s. He said the board has “been very diligent” in trying to get other farmers to join, but added that it’s hard to reach them without one-on-one contact.
“Farmers have always been notorious about not wanting governmental intervention in their farms,” he said. “But with the VAD, it is not that way.”
Peacock equated the district to insurance and being prepared for a problem.
“You don’t ever need a fire extinguisher until your house is on fire,” he said. “You let something happen, then bingo. You had the chance to protect yourself. It’s too late to buy insurance once you’ve been in a wreck.”
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.