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December 8, 2023

Nonprofit working to secure local farmland

Carolina Farms Fund kicked off at a recent event

by Lynn Caldwell

Carolina Farms Fund held its kickoff event at the Innovation Barn, with food provided by chefs in the Piedmont Culinary Guild. Photo courtesy

The demand for farmers markets and more access to local food is increasing in the Charlotte area, but the number of local farmers is dwindling for many reasons, including access to affordable land. Developers are snapping up land in the 15-county region around Charlotte that was previously available for agricultural production.

After 18 months of planning and some initial fundraising, a nonprofit is moving forward with its goal to combat the loss of farms. The Conservation Fund’s National Farm Fund recently helped establish the Carolina Farms Fund in collaboration with Tim Belk, former Belk CEO and owner of 12-acre Wild Hope Farm in Chester, S.C. The Working Farms Fund was originally established in Atlanta in 2020 and expanded to Chicago last year. 

Three million dollars has already been raised here toward a 17-million-dollar goal, which will ultimately be used to preserve 5,000 acres of valuable agricultural land, and to support more than 150 farmers. The farmland would be purchased, put under protection, and sustainably farmed through lease-to-own agreements with selected farmers. Putting land under protection reduces its value by up to 50 percent. The lease and sale of the farmland will generate dollars that are recycled back into the Carolina Farms Fund to continue to expand the program.

There was a grand launch event in Charlotte at the Innovation Barn on Nov. 6, which began with many of the attendees showing up early in a sign of interest and enthusiasm. Chefs from the Piedmont Culinary Guild provided small bites, including Monte Cristo sandwiches featuring duck prosciutto from Chris Coleman of Built on Hospitality and butternut and mushroom bruschetta from Treasure Williams of Divine Cuisine. All featured products from local farms.

But the spirit of the evening was embodied by the attendees. There were farmers. Funders. Board members. Leaders of organizations like the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. Members of our community who care about the future of our food. All eagerly came together to hear about this growing effort in the Charlotte region which promises to have a huge impact on the future of farming.

Tim Belk, who will be the Chairman of the Board for the Carolina Farms Fund, shared the hopes for the new non-profit in opening remarks to the audience. “Our goal is to build awareness around the opportunity to conserve land as working farms in the metro area, and match farmers to the properties, helping them become owners.”

The Working Farms Fund to date has established 10 farms on 745 acres of land valued at over $7 million dollars, supporting 40 farmers. Twenty-seven percent of the farm owners are women, and 68 percent are BIPOC.

Aaron Newton, who previously ran Lomax Incubator Farm in Concord, will be managing the day-to-day efforts of the Carolina Farms Fund. Newton has a long history of leadership with significant impact in our urban farming communities and hopes to rely on those groups in his new role. 

“For me the Carolina Farms Fund launch event was a great reminder that there are smart, fun, passionate people ready to support our work,” he says. “These are people that understand the importance of protecting farmland and supporting farmers.” 

To highlight the importance of nonprofits supporting local farms, Monica and Russell Ponce of the Love is Love Cooperative Farm in the Atlanta area spoke eloquently, and even sometimes emotionally, about the impact that the Farming Fund has had on their success, their growth, and their future. 

“I am so grateful for our partnership with the conservation fund,” Ponce shared. “Access to land was a huge barrier and without their help, all of our savings would have gone to a mortgage and not building up our farm business. It can be hard to get away from the farm, but I was happy to go to N.C. to let others know of this incredible opportunity. I hope the farmers I met will strongly consider applying for the program or share with other farmers in their area.”

“Financing farmland acquisition is one of the most significant obstacles new organic farmers face, especially if that land is in close proximity to high value urban markets,” says Roland McReynolds, of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. “The Carolina Farms Fund is an innovative approach to addressing this challenge. Protecting our environment through organic farming practices and making organic food accessible to more consumers is a win-win-win.”

The Carolina Farms Fund intends to match four farms with farmland and purchase those four farmland properties in 2024. The goal is to have the first one done by May 2024.

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