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The Daily Tar Heel

'It's not static': Farming in Orange County changes with development

Photo Courtesy of Ashley Parker.

Jane Saiers, owner of RambleRill farm in Hillsborough, said that development that reduces farmland is happening all around her.

A 2022 study by the American Farmland Trust found North Carolina ranks second in the country for potential agricultural land loss by 2040.

“What’s happened out here, especially where we are — our farm is very close to downtown Chapel Hill, downtown Hillsborough, downtown Carrboro — is what used to be farms of a couple 100 acres or so, or even 100 acres or 50 acres, they’re being fragmented and bits and pieces of the old farms are being sold off, and it's fragmenting the farmland, and that makes it more difficult, just generally, for farmers to do their job,” Saiers said. 

RambleRill is one of more than 600 farms in Orange County that operates directly to consumers or through local farmers' markets.

The 2017 Orange County U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) census found that the number of farms in the county had increased by six percent since 2012. Updated census information will be available in February 2024.

However, Noah Ranells, the NC FarmLink Director for Eastern North Carolina — a program of N.C. State University Extension that connects farmers, landowners and service providers across the state — said the county's farmland acreage has generally declined steadily over time. 

He said counties in the Piedmont Crescent — which includes the Triangle — are seeing lots of development pressure. 

The Orange County Department of Environment, Agriculture, Parks and Recreation has programs to help preserve farmland, including the Voluntary Agricultural Districts program and the Lands Legacy Program. 

The Lands Legacy Program aims to protect the county’s most important natural and cultural resource lands. Most are protected through a conservation easement — a permanent, legal agreement between the County and property owners who are interested in conserving their land. 

“A lot of farmers don’t want their land developed, and they wanted to stay in farming, and that’s one way to try to ensure that that happens for the future,” Saiers said. 

McAdams Farm in Efland is one of 24 Century Farms in the county — a title given to farms that have maintained continuous ownership in the same family for over 100 years. 

Callie McAdams, a fifth-generation farmer, helps run the farm, which was founded in 1885. She said it is enrolled in the Voluntary Agricultural Districts program, which encourages preservation and protection of farmland from non-farmland development. 

McAdams said she has seen farms size down operations in the county over the years. 

In 2017, the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) reported that 291, or 42.4 percent, of farms in Orange County had between 10 and 49 acres of land. In 1969, 223 farms, or 24.91 percent, had this amount, according to the county’s census of agriculture.

“Now, the size of farms has shifted, and there’s also a lot of new and beginning farmers in the county as well,” she said.  

RambleRill Farm, which has been open for 13 years, has 28 acres of land, two of which are used for production. They grow certified organic fruits, vegetables, shiitake mushrooms and raise chickens for eggs. 

Ranells said there is a small resurgence in direct consumer farming due to 'Eat Local' movements and consumers connecting to farms in their community through farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture and farm sales. 

Corporate farms' percentage of total farm income in Orange County peaked in 2004 at 33 percent, but decreased to nine percent in 2015, the lowest in nearly 30 years, according to the OSBM. 

Parker Farm and Vineyard is a North Carolina Century Farm in Hurdle Mills. Ashley Parker helps run the farm along with her dad and her husband. They sell produce, flowers, beef and pork at the South Durham Farmers' Market and the Cary Downtown Farmers Market. 

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“I will say from my husband and I’s perspective, we couldn’t do what we do in a different area — we are able to resell direct sales, we’re super close to lots of farmers markets and to lots of people,” she said. 

McAdams said it’s a privilege to grow food eaten by people in her community. 

"It’s not static, but I think that’s one of the really interesting and incredible things about agriculture is that people still need to eat,” she said. “And the ways that that happens get to continue to change and to evolve to meet the needs of the population."


@dthlifestyle |