Eight farmers turned out last Thursday night for a meeting at the Cooperative Extension Service to learn about the county’s efforts to find farms for its farmland protection program.
The program was chaired by C. Monte Stephens, county agriculture and natural resources extension agent, but the featured presenters were Russ Page and Laura Hall.
Page is a retired farmer and agricultural businessman. Hall is conservation director at the Athens Land Trust, which has partnered with the county over the years on the farmland program.
Page gave a detailed history of the program and its success in the past and a very critical perspective on its future.
Farmers have until the end of the month to fill out an application to have their farms considered by the ranking committee the county appointed. Page, despite his involvement in the program over the years, was not named to that committee.
The ranking committee will use the same criteria as the Partnership for Farmland Protection used, drawing on the standards of the federal Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program.
The problem is, as Page told the farmers and the six others in the audience, the county passed up an opportunity to obtain $175,000 in federal funds to protect a farm this year, and the county doesn’t have sufficient resources of its own to fund the program.
In addition, Page noted, the federal farm bill is stalled in Congress, and there is no guarantee that federal funds will be available in the near future.
Page also said he was not confident that Board of Commissioners is supportive enough of farmland protection to include it in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that will be on the ballot next summer. Farmland protection is part of the current SPLOST program.
No One Claiming Responsibility
Sharon Holbrooks, conservation easement specialist with the Athens office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, told the BOC at the end of April that she had money for a continuation of the farmland program and that she needed the county to nominate quickly a farm for consideration.
NRCS is a division of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Holbrooks subsequently said the county decided not to submit an application, but she has be unwilling to say who told her the county had made that decision
BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, who has taken a leadership role in revising the procedures the county follows in running the program, has said that he did not tell Holbrooks the county would not submit a farm.
Mark Saxon, who has joined Davis in much of the discussion of the change in procedures, also told me last Tuesday night that he did not tell Holbrooks the county would not submit a farm.
Neither Davis nor Saxon said the county nominated a farm or asked for the $175,000 Holbrooks said was almost certainly available to the county if it nominated a farm.
Holbrooks said she sent the money back to Washington when the county did not act.
Extension Agent Stephens opened the meeting last Thursday by telling the group that he is told very often by people considering moving to the county that they are attracted by the rural nature of the county.
“They look at all of the greenspace we have and they love it,” he said.
Henry Hibbs, retired extension agent, was the only one of the five members of the BOC-appointed ranking committee to attend the Thursday evening meeting, held at the Extension Services offices at 1420 Government Station Road.
No member of the BOC was present.
Page told me that he was asked by Davis to make the presentation to the group even though he had been left off the ranking committee. Page said he made the presentation because of his commitment to farmland protection in the county.
Hall, in her comments, gave an overview of the Athens Land Trust and its involvement in farmland protection in Oconee County and elsewhere in the state.