Commentary: Helping farmers saves farms

Three trends are on a collision course:

A rapidly growing regional interest in and market for, locally grown foods: vegetables and fruits, meats and even dairy products.

Rapid disappearance of farmland in the fast-sprawling Charlotte region.

An aging farming community.

Together, they raise the question: If more and more people want foods grown close to home, who's going to grow them, if farmland disappears and farmers can't make a living?

Cabarrus County, northeast of Charlotte, has embarked on an innovative program to try to nurture its own agricultural future.

As reporter Bruce Henderson outlined in a recent article, Cabarrus has opened an incubator farm park on land bequeathed to the county for a park. For a $100 yearly fee, would-be farmers can use a half-acre, a tractor and other equipment, and see if they truly want to farm. The idea is a bit like student teaching: a real-world experience so you can decide if you're really cut out for this. They get more than land; they get training not only in soils, but in insurance, finances and other such business topics.

But Cabarrus has done even more. It worked with UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute to study the foods produced in Cabarrus. The study found that while beef cattle are the county's biggest agricultural product, the county has no facility to slaughter livestock. Farmers must truck their animals elsewhere.

So Cabarrus put up $175,000, got a state grant, and will build a facility to help its farmers stay closer to home.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Charlotte Observer.