Many North Carolinians (and people around the country) face a dilemma these days – what to do with farmland they’ve inherited if they have no desire or means to farm. Jenell Young has a story about that. She moved away from Cumberland County more than 30 years ago, but after her parents died she still wanted to preserve the farmland where she grew up.
She had actually been leasing the land to a farmer, but she wanted a little more assurance about her land’s future. She wanted to pass it on for at least one more generation, giving her daughter the asset.
One thing was for sure.
“I didn’t want to see a shopping mall there,” Young said as she explained her desire to protect the land from development during her lifetime.
Young found a way to preserve her land through North Carolina’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. A large section of her farmland in Vander is now the first property in Cumberland County to be protected through CREP.
As a result, Young has not only kept the land east of Fayetteville from being developed, she has taken a step in protecting water quality in Locks Creek and the Cape Fear River. It was at times a challenging process, but Young said achieving her end goal made it worth it.
“(It was worth it) when I go out there and walk the land where I grew up,” she said. “I think, ‘maybe I’m still my father’s daughter.’”
While meeting her goal of preservation, the easement also meets the goal of CREP to improve and protect water quality and the habitat in and near waterways. CREP is a program within the NCDA&CS Division of Soil and Water Conservation. It encourages farmers with land that touches a stream or wetland to stop growing crops for a period of time and instead plant trees or grasses on that land. In return, landowners receive annual payments and may also get one-time bonus payments depending on whether they choose a conservation easement to last 10, 15 or 30 years or permanently.
Young put about 52 acres – as much as would qualify – into a 30-year conservation easement through CREP. Land that had previously grown soybeans and cotton is now home to yellow poplar trees. Consultants including the N.C. Forest Service helped Young figure out what trees would be a good fit for her area. One factor consider is that yellow poplar trees are good for providing food for pollinators. Bees will benefit from the trees for years to come.
The farmer who was renting Young’s land and farming it had a hard time understanding her decision, she said. He didn’t quite understand why she would stop using good farmland to plant trees on it, but for her it made sense. She liked that she could keep the land and still get some income from it – making it financially possible to make the change.
For other owners of farmland, the decision may be more clear, especially if the land near water has been a challenge to farm. Eric Galamb, the CREP manager in the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said for some farm owners “we’re taking a liability and turning it into an asset, and landowners are getting paid at the same time.”
Galamb explained that the program grew out of a concern about runoff into rivers back in the 90’s.
“The program began in 1999, and as of Sept. 30, 2019, more than 30,000 acres across the state have been put into CREP,” Galamb said. “We have protected 950 miles of streams through conservation easements.”
After careers in banking and education, Young calls preserving her land her third act. It’s been a bit of a wild ride. After planting the first saplings on her land, Hurricane Florence flooded the area.
“Fayetteville went under water, and so did my baby trees,” she recalled.
Getting back on track involved a road trip to Tennessee for more saplings, storing them in a refrigerator and replanting trees when floodwaters subsided.
However, she said CREP was the right fit for her, so she persevered with the help of people in the many agencies involved. She hopes other farmers will consider if it’s right for them, too.
“I feel good knowing there is still a good use for my land,” Young said.
Now that she lives in western North Carolina, she’s not sure what her daughter may do with the land, but she does know she’s saved it so that her daughter can make that decision in a few more decades.
For more information on CREP, visit http://www.ncagr.gov/SWC/easementprograms/CREP/index.html. The program is available for landowners in approved watersheds in 76 North Carolina counties.