Food for Thought: Lowcountry Agricultural Land Preservation
by Emily Hall -- August 3rd, 2016
From plantation style agricultural based on slave labor, to feeding prominent northern cities like Chicago and New York with fresh produce, to cotton, corn, and cattle being some of the state’s top crops today — agriculture has been one of the most important industries in South Carolina. It is important to understand this evolution in terms of both a historical and environmental context to foretell what role agriculture may have in South Carolina’s future. Throughout this summer, I have taken on the task of researching and assessing potential solutions for the preservation of agricultural land along the coastline of South Carolina.
My first question was: What is threatening the retention of agricultural land in the first place? The two most prominent answers I found were, a changing coastal climate and a shifting population arriving in metro areas across South Carolina’s coast. Pursuing agriculture on any coastline comes with both its risks and rewards. With its subtropical nature, the low country coastal climate provides an almost year-around growing season and in some cases the coastal breeze can be very beneficial to combat humidity. However there also comes the risk of tropical storms, flooding, and storm surge that will be exacerbated by climate change, which induces additional threats such as sea level rise. Also, as I spoke of in one of my blog entries, “Density is not a Bad Word”, the South Carolina coast is one of the most coveted regions in the country for people to visit and move to. These threats can both disturb and eliminate the use of agricultural land, thus eradicating the benefits that agricultural land can provide.
Potential benefits of maintaining a rural landscape with strong agricultural use include:
- Providing a community with access to healthy and sustainable food.
- Conserving a strong agricultural history and culture.
- Further developing a coastal green belt of protected land.
- Promoting coastline resiliency in the face of climate change.
To better understand where the problems were with agricultural land retention and what solutions may be viable, I conducted a two part analysis. First I looked into a 2016 Grower Survey conducted by the Coastal Conservation League in February and March 2016. This survey was conducted across the state of South Carolina, and I decided to compare some of the respondents in coastal counties with those in the rest of the state to recognize any trends and gaps between coastal and non-coastal respondents. Next, it was time to go out into the community and interview a series of local farmers, land trust staff, and others with a stake in the agricultural economy for additional insight on small scale land retention.
Main findings from the 2016 Grower Survey conclude that farmers are having trouble selling locally due to lack of knowledge/time to market product, a small number of respondents have food safety certifications, and for those who believed 2015 was a bad year for income they pointed to the devastation caused by the fall 2015 extreme flooding event. Top findings from the agricultural stakeholder interviews include that farmers had difficulty with their storm water infrastructure, there is a need for a diversity of protection measures and funding mechanisms, and that there is a need to educate the public on sharing the risk of farming.These findings and some associated background research, led me to begin to organize some “Next Steps” to promote agricultural land retention. One of these potential next steps would be to organize a Voluntary Agriculture District (VAD) in Beaufort County, SC. VAD’s are highly regarded tools, and very well utilized in NC, that allow a county to establish (1) an Agricultural Advisory Board that meets and gives comment to local officials about proposed projects and other agricultural issues in the county and (2) an agricultural district, for which if you are a member you are required to have some acreage of your land under a non-development agreement with the county. However, since this district is voluntary a member may leave at any time without penalty. This type of policy tool seems like it would aid the farmers in a lot of issues that they brought up. For one, farmers can now have a more prominent voice in the community to discuss their concerns with items like storm water infrastructure/regulation and local marketing ability. And most importantly from my time working with those in this community and at the The Coastal Conservation League, is not only important to protect the rural and agricultural landscape but also to protect the sustainability of the local, small scale farmer.