Nov 7, 2023 - News

New fund aims to preserve farmland in the Charlotte region

Belk farm

Belk Farm

A new fund being launched in coordination with former Belk CEO Tim Belk aims to preserve the Charlotte area’s rapidly disappearing farmland.

Why it matters: Affordable farmland is increasingly difficult to come by in a fast-growing city like Charlotte, where land is often gobbled up for new apartments and other developments.

  • What’s more, the average age of a farmer in the region is around 58.
  • These farmers are nearing retirement age. Plenty don’t have anyone left in their family to hand the farming business down to, says Aaron Newton, program manager of Carolina Farms Fund. “One of their options is to cash out,” he adds.

What’s happening: The Carolina Farms Fund has a goal of raising $17 million to preserve 5,000 acres of land across 15 counties in the Charlotte region. The effort will include working through 68 sustainably managed farms and supporting 155 farmers.

  • Land that’s 25-30 miles outside the city center — and therefore a bit more affordable — is what Belk calls the “sweet spot” for preservation.
  • Funds will be “recycled” over time and used for multiple projects, organizers say.

Flashback: Belk retired as CEO of the Charlotte department store chain that bears his family’s name in 2016, a year after the company sold itself to private equity firm Sycamore Partners. Belk’s retirement drew to a close 128 years of Belk family leadership at the retailer.

  • After his retirement, he and his family launched his next endeavor: Running an organic farm, Wild Hope Farm, on family land in Chester, S.C.
  • It’s from launching Wild Hope Farm that Tim Belk became passionate about organic farming and understanding where food comes from.

“I’ve always thought once we get the farm up and running I’d spend time on other things,” Belk tells Axios. “One other thing that’s been of interest is environmental issues.”

How it works: Local fundraising for The Carolina Farms Fund will go toward acquiring potential farmland, then placing a permanent agricultural easement on the property so it can’t be turned into other uses. The fund will then lease land to local farmers, with the goal of ultimately selling it to them at a discounted price.

  • They aim to work with minority farmers, women and immigrants.
  • Fund organizers say it promotes sustainability by reducing the distance between farmers and consumers in the Charlotte region.

By the numbers: Charlotte’s farmland is at risk of losing 19,400 acres by 2040, according to the Carolina Farms Fund.

Between the lines: The Carolina Farms Fund is an expansion of The Conservation Fund’s National Farms Fund program, which started in Atlanta in 2020. It has since expanded to Chicago, with the goal of preserving thousands of acres for farming there, too.

  • Program leaders are considering expansion into Philadelphia and southern California, Newton says.
  • “Major metros offer the challenge of development but also the opportunity of population density,” Newton tells Axios. “(The population is) also interested in eating well and having a relationship with the food they eat.”
Aerial image of the Love is Love farm in Georgia. Photo: Addison Hill via The Conservation Fund
TIm Belk. Photo courtesy of Fionix Consulting

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