Since the turn of the century, there’s been a whole lot of development in Guilford County, but there’s also been another effort going on largely under the radar – an effort by state and county officials along with landowners to preserve county farmland through the establishment of what’s known as “Voluntary Agricultural Districts.”

Unlike major new developments, which generate a lot of news, the creation of these agricultural districts rarely gets any notice; however, in Guilford County over the past two decades a steady stream of these districts have been approved by the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. In December, for instance, the commissioners approved Agricultural District status for 83 acres of farmland at and around around 6741 McLeansville Road in McLeansville.

That addition was two parcels of land owned by William and Irene May that are currently being used to grow tomatoes, corn and strawberries and to produce hay.

When landowners in the county like the Mays agree the land should be established as an agricultural district, the owners commit to no non-farm development and those districts are identified on county maps in the Guilford County Planning Department, the Register of Deeds Office and in other county offices. The owners become exempt from certain requirements other landowners may face – such as a requirement to connect to water and sewer systems. The status also helps protect the owners from some noise and smell nuisance lawsuits that are sometimes filed against farmers by neighbors, and it makes the owners eligible for state and federal farmland preservation grants.

North Carolina counties, such as Guilford County, that are participating in the program, establish Agricultural District Advisory Boards to recommend the agreements to boards of commissioners and to oversee them. According to information provided by the Guilford County Agricultural District board, since that board was established in 2000, more than 325 farms have signed on to the program with about 15,000 acres of farmland now included.

The right of counties in North Carolina to participate comes from the NC Farmland Preservation Enabling Act passed by the state legislature in 1985.

According to information from the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, currently, 90 counties in North Carolina have ordinances that allow for the establishment of Voluntary Agricultural Districts. There are about 10,200 farms enrolled in the program that’s helping preserve nearly 850,000 acres of farmland and forest.