Development is among the threats to farmland across the country. New American Farmland Trust Regional Director Courtney Owen is fighting to preserve it.

Protecting the land: Courtney Owens ’05, ’08, takes new role with American Farmland Trust

Courney Owens, Ph.D.

All throughout America, farmland and ranchlands are under threat.

A number of factors — development, climate change, energy production, the retirement of older farmers, the rising price of land and more — pose grave dangers to agricultural land. If projections hold true, the United States could lose farm and ranch acreage by 2040 that’s nearly the size of South Carolina.

As the new Southeast Regional Director of American Farmland Trust, Courtney Owens, Ph.D., is fighting to preserve and protect agricultural land. Owens, who holds two degrees from North Carolina A&T State University, was named to that position in October.

“We are losing farmland through development at alarming rates,” Owens said. “It’s my role to develop and lead programs to advance AFT’s mission to save the land that sustains us by protecting farmland, promoting sound farming practices and keeping farmers on the land.”

Owens came to agriculture in a roundabout way. He grew up in Henderson, about 40 miles north of Raleigh. His grandfather was a sharecropper who grew tobacco, and his mom, aunts and uncles all sometimes worked on the farm.

At A&T, Owens did not study agriculture but political science because he was interested in government and policy. When law school didn’t work out, he asked an A&T professor for advice. James Mayes — a local lawyer known around campus as “Attorney Mayes” — suggested Owens go talk to his wife, Minnie Mayes, then the director of international programs.

Minnie Mayes introduced Owens to two faculty members in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences: Antoine J. Alston, Ph.D., now an associate dean; and the late John Paul Owens, who then was A&T’s coordinator of a new Peace Corps program.

That conversation with Attorney Mayes turned out to be life-changing for Owens. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 2005, he became the first Aggie to sign up for the new three-year Peace Corps Master’s International program.

“It’s always who you know, but it’s really who you talk to,” Owens said. “That’s what you get by going to an 1890 (historically Black university). You’re not just a number. You’re a human being, and everybody there matters.”

The Peace Corps sent Owens to Burkina Faso, one of the poorest nations on earth, and tasked him with teaching sustainable agricultural practices and helping cotton farmers develop money-making projects to supplement their meager farming income.

“It was literally life or death. If they didn’t farm, they wouldn’t have food to eat or money,” Owens said. “That started my service-oriented career and how I view the world.”

After two years in West Africa, Owens returned to Greensboro and earned his master’s degree in agricultural education in 2008. More importantly, he had found his calling as an educator.

Owens worked for three years with Cooperative Extension at A&T, then earned his doctorate in 2016 from the University of Florida in agricultural education and communication with a specialization in extension education. He wrote his dissertation on the lived experiences of Black farmers — men like his grandfather — with University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension.

Owens spent nearly six years with Kentucky State University Cooperative Extension, where he supported 4-H, community health, small farm development and other programs. He still lives in Lexington with his wife and two children.

At AFT, Owens is now responsible for programming in five southeastern states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. He also will build relationships with internal and external stakeholders and work to preserve and protect farmland in his region. It’s an urgent task: AFT notes the Southeast has some of the highest concentrations of threatened farmland in the nation.

Owens said he was attracted to this new role for the chance to give back to farmers in underserved communities and disenfranchised minority populations — a mission that started for Owens when he spoke with a professor who steered him to the Peace Corps.

“For me to now be in a place where not only am I making a difference for future farmers, I’m also paying homage to my grandfather,” Owens said. “I’m supporting minority farmers and all farmers so they have the same access to the land and are sustaining and protecting the land. That’s what drives me.”

Digging into solutions: Troxler highlights strategies for N.C. farmland

North Carolina is the second-most at-risk state in the nation for farmland loss, according to a study by American Farmland Trust.

N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler is working on ways to preserve N.C. farmland.

Agriculture may be North Carolina’s top industry, but the state is losing farmland – fast.

In fact, North Carolina had the second highest rate of farmland loss in the country in 2020, according to a report from the American Farmland Trust.

Evan Davis, director of the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, joined N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and other officials from the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services in the third professional development seminar of the fall, speaking to students and faculty about the importance of farmland preservation and conservation measures to curb future loss.

According to the report, Davis said, “732,000 acres of ag land were converted to non-ag uses between 2001 and 2016. More than 571,000 acres were converted to scattered, large-lot housing developments. North Carolina led the nation in this kind of development.”

Unfortunately, much of this land was categorized by the agency as “nationally significant land,” the best land for long-term production of food and fiber.

“So, not only are we losing farmland, but we’re losing our most productive land,” Davis said,

Upon entering office in 2005, Troxler said he and his attorney spent several weeks looking for answers on how to preserve N.C. farmland.

“I grew up in the little town of Brown Summit,” said Troxler. “When I was farming, I saw encroachment start to happen and I saw farms and forests start disappearing. When I went into (this) office, I looked around the state and saw the same thing all over North Carolina.

“We found out that the states that were doing the most to preserve farmland were the states that had already lost the majority of their farmland,” said Troxler. “We certainly don’t want to get to that point in North Carolina.”

A recent report by American Farmland Trust predicted the rates of national farmland loss by the year 2040 under current development trends, runaway sprawl and “better-built cities” (compact and dense development). According to the report, North Carolina would lose farmland at the second-highest rate in the nation in each scenario.

“If you look at the current development trends, we’re projected to lose almost 1.2 million acres by 2040,” said Davis. “In the worst scenario we would lose more acres, 1.6 million, than the entire state of Delaware.”

To mitigate this, Davis said it’s important to look at legal tools that would aid in preservation such as agricultural conservation easement.  Easements restrict residential, commercial, and industrial development to ensure the land remains in agricultural, horticultural, or forestry production. The most common, a perpetual conservation easement, is often used in partnership with USDA, the military and ADFP Trust Fund.

Land -development issues making sure that the open space and natural resources of private farmland cleansing water runoff, wildlife habitats, etc. – were preserved during zoning while not decreasing the property value as well as ensuring the landowner’s private property rights were not infringed.

“We set up a system where we pay people for the development rights on the piece of property that they own,” Troxler explained. “They can participate in escalating real estate prices, but at the same time, make sure that the land is always farmland.”

Assistant Commissioner Alexander “Sandy” Stewart, Ph.D., used the history of his farm in Moore County, a 186-acre non-contiguous property owned by his family since 1775, to illustrate his personal stake in preservation.

“Farmland preservation, for my farm, is important, but it’s also important to what my neighbors do with their place, up the hill and around in the community,” said Stewart.

Studies show that both agricultural land and industrial land are net contributors to a county, Stewart explained.

“The cost of a county providing trash, water, sewer, fire prevention, police or other services to the land costs the county less than what the land generates in tax base. However, when you get to residential land, the cost of community services is usually the opposite. It normally costs the county more per acre to provide those services because they’re such heavy users of the services. Tax rates are higher, but they use the services at such a higher rate.”

Stewart explained that while those in agriculture and general landowners aren’t categorically opposed to development plans, a proper arrangement between landowners and county/municipal government.

“I think that everybody wants good neighbors,” said Stewart. “They just want to see a smart plan.”