RALEIGH, N.C. — Online matchmaking isn’t just for finding a date.
When Bernadette Pelissier and Vann Bennett decided to reintroduce farming to their 10 acres in Orange County, North Carolina, they knew they’d need help. Their most important concern: finding farmers who shared their values. So they logged in to a new online program: NC State Extension’s NC FarmLink, designed to connect prospective producers and service providers with landowners who might be a good fit.
That was five years ago. Now dubbed Nourishing Acres, the certified organic farm is run by Keith and Megan Marshall, young farmers with years of experience managing small farms around the East Coast. They were among the first NC FarmLink-facilitated matches in the state.
“Without FarmLink, we would not have found Keith and Megan, farmers who share our values but lived out of state at the time,” Pelissier said.
Small-scale farming has become increasingly popular in recent years. With that popularity comes scarcity: it can be hard for a new farmer to find agricultural land. NC FarmLink was created to bridge that gap – and to cultivate lasting business connections that grow the state’s agriculture industry.
“When it comes to farm transition and land stewardship, it’s very important for folks to know their options,” said Noah Ranells, Extension associate and co-director of NC FarmLink with Extension’s William Hamilton.
The service also helps North Carolina agriculture as a whole, Ranells said. National Resource Inventory data indicates a loss of 336,300 acres of prime farmland from 2012 to 2015, equivalent to 3,363 acres for each of our 100 counties. From 2015 to 2019, over 705,000 acres for agricultural land will be transferred, an estimated 9.5% of all farmland in North Carolina. Over the coming decade, there will be another 1.3 million residents, and the state’s 6.2 million acres of prime farmland will be at risk of residential development.
How does it work?
The program works with both landowners and producers to maintain databases of available farmland and farmers looking for land. Land seekers can develop a profile to be viewed by farm owners and landowners seeking someone to buy, lease or work on their farm. Farm owners and landowners can develop property profiles to describe the land they want to sell, lease or put into use. NC FarmLink is managed by NC State Extension, with valuable support provided by a network of partners across the state.
The system is designed to be user friendly and minimize the need for assistance from program staff. From the property profile or farm seeker webpage, an NC FarmLink user can contact the profile owner by email or phone.
“It is critical that North Carolina communities continue the great tradition of diverse agriculture production across this state that is blessed with abundant natural resources and prime agricultural soil,” Ranells said. “Providing land tenure options … will help contribute to building resilience into our farming system.”
The newly released 2017 census data indicates that agricultural commodity sales represent $12.9 billion in annual sales, with an estimated $76 billion in associated agricultural economic activity – including 17% of all jobs in North Carolina.
“Given these data, it is important to continue efforts to keep farming productive in North Carolina,” Ranells said. “NC FarmLink is an innovative effort in the big picture.”
Of course, internet access in rural areas can be patchy. So, in addition to making the site as user-friendly as possible, Ranells and Hamilton aim to keep the service accessible in other ways. They are available by phone, as well as in person at outreach events. They’re working with NC State Extension agents in every county who can facilitate locally. And they’re figuring out direct mail options to landowners who have a minimum of 20 open acres.
Participation is welcomed from anyone who is interested and motivated to provide support to farm transitions in their counties. The program will host at least two webinars in 2019 to provide initial training to those interested in NC FarmLink.
In the meantime, visit go.ncsu.edu/NCFarmLink to learn more about the program, as well as the database and its customizable searches, including region/county, farm infrastructure and farmer skill levels.
Please share input and suggestions on how NC FarmLink can provide effective support to your programs and communities by contacting Hamilton or Ranells. They are also available for regional meetings, workshops and related outreach opportunities within Extension as well as other agricultural agencies.
—Chelsea Kellner, N.C. State University