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July 7th, 2020
By Caitlyn Smith
To all appearances, farms are booming in the Upstate. Local food businesses like Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery, the Farmacy, and Oak Hill Café & Farm are thriving. Farmers' markets and agritourism spots like Split Creek Farm and Happy Cow Creamery are massively popular. We love our local food here in the Upstate — which is why people are often surprised to hear that our region’s farms are under serious threat.
The alarming truth is that farmland is rapidly disappearing in the Upstate, and across South Carolina in general. From 2001-2016, nearly 280,000 acres of agricultural land were developed in South Carolina, according to the American Farmland Trust. Greenville and Spartanburg County ranked in the top four counties in the state for land conversion threat. To make matters worse, South Carolina also ranks near the bottom when it comes to policies and programs that protect agricultural land from development.
Why is farmland disappearing? As our population grows and cities sprawl outward, the less expensive open land outside urban centers is increasingly converted into subdivisions, shopping centers, and other developments. Farmland is particularly susceptible to development as farmers often feel increased pressure to sell due to economic stress or lack of family succession plans. Without plans to protecting prime farmland resources, the Upstate faces a serious risk of losing their agricultural identity, associated economic benefits, and rural character tied to our farms.
This news is a challenge to the farming economy in the Upstate, a region that produces more agricultural goods like cattle and chicken than anywhere else in the state. Because cattle production in particular requires much more land than many other crops, large tracts of land are essential to ensuring the Upstate continues to be a leader in cattle production. The rapid loss of farmland also means the Upstate could easily miss out on emerging and growing agricultural products like industrial hemp, heirloom corn, and value-added dairy.
Diminishing farmland will also intensify food insecurity in the Upstate. Pickens, Oconee, Abbeville, Laurens, and Spartanburg counties have some of the most numerous of food deserts, parts of the country void of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, often found more in areas with low-income residents. In a sad irony, many farming-heavy counties have a high food insecurity rate; for instance, in Laurens County, the rate is 14.1%, with over 9,000 residents that are food insecure. This tells us there is a lack of local distribution outlets and incentives for farmers in many areas.
In the wake of the global COVID-19 health crisis, we’ve seen how important it is to maintain strong local systems for food distribution. When national supply lines for produce, meat, and other goods are disrupted, we rely on local farms to sustain us. If we don’t proactively work to protect farmland, we lose the flexibility and self-reliance that comes with robust local agriculture systems. Now, more than ever, we should be supporting our local food systems.
Fortunately, it’s not too late; but we must act immediately to enact policies, food equity measures, and farmland protection to improve the quality of life for all Upstate residents. One of Upstate Forever’s top priorities is protecting critical farmland and water resources through voluntary conservation easements. Our nationally-accredited land trust focuses our efforts in the areas that influence water quality and are at the highest risk from development pressure. We recently received more than $3.9 million in USDA funding to protect local farmland, and are always looking for even more innovative ways to work with landowners to preserve their properties forever.
You can help, too. Consider purchasing at least once a week from a local Upstate farm like Carolina Grassfed Beef or Greenbrier Farms (both Upstate Forever-protected properties). Here is a list of Upstate farms and businesses offering delivery, on-farm pickup, CSAs, and other options during social distancing.
On a broader scale, you can support initiatives to protect farmland through increased funding. Here’s how:
Local farms are prime examples of “essential businesses” and are central to the quality of life in the Upstate. Let’s protect them from mounting threats while we still can.
Caitlyn Smith is a Land Conservation Specialist at Upstate Forever and can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Morgan Yelton