By: Bryant Spivey
County Extension Director
I was born in rural Chowan County in Northeastern North Carolina. I lived in Tyner in a very rural farming community with crop production including grains, cotton, peanuts and vegetable crops; the primary livestock was swine. While my parents, sister, and I moved to Elm City, NC when I was very young, I spent a great deal of time in Chowan County growing up and working on the farm. Today, this township in Chowan County has a population of around 3,300 people with a density of approximately 47 people per square mile. To put this in Johnston County terminology that community reminds me a good bit of Bentonville, NC. The Bentonville Township in Johnston County is very rural with a population estimate today of 51 people per square mile. To contrast this with other parts of Johnston County, Cleveland Township has approximately 600 people per square mile and the town of Clayton, NC has a population of 1,424 people per mile.
In considering these numbers, I asked myself, “How is rural defined?” Merriam Webster defines the word rural as, “of or relating to the country, country people or life, or agriculture.” USDA refers to areas with more than 1,000 people per square mile as urban or urbanizing and areas with less than 7 people per square mile as highly rural. I think it is relatively clear to most folks that live in Johnston County that we have areas that are rapidly developing and I would even say urbanizing. However, some of you may not realize how very rural much of the land area is in Johnston County.
Johnston County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state with an estimated population exceeding 200,000. In spite of tremendous population growth and loss of farmland to housing and commercial development, Johnston County is still a top 10 ag county in North Carolina. Johnston County GIS Mapping, you can look at zoning in your community. A very large portion of the county, perhaps 75% is zoned as AR (Agricultural Residential). By the name of this zone, one would assume that agricultural uses and residential uses are complementary and can coexist in the same area. While this has been true in rural areas for many years, it does not always mean that problems do not exist or arise on occasion. A great example of this are the nuisance lawsuits that farmers in Eastern NC have faced during 2018 and in this case neighbors became a threat to the existence and continued operation of the farms. Even the NC Right to Farm law passed in 1979 was not able to protect the farmers in these cases and for now, they have been forced to halt production.
As Johnston County has grown and continues to grow, problems do arise along the interface between urbanizing and rural areas. If you live in Johnston County you are well aware of some of these issues. Agriculture operations must move large amounts of material including soil, produce, equipment, and therefore must use large equipment for efficiency and productivity. Farmers must use roads for this transportation and some of the equipment is slow and wide. In certain areas farmers now must carefully pick their times to move equipment and goods. Farmers must also work late hours or early hours with tractors that create dust, noise, and lights and neighbors may be annoyed. Irrigation equipment could run all night making noise and sometimes the things we do in agriculture create smells. I recently visited a sweet potato field that was affected by drowning from Hurricane Florence. The potatoes had rotted under the wet conditions and were giving off a foul odor. Farmers realize these conditions exist and they do everything possible to minimize impacts on neighbors and the environment. However, if we desire to have local food supplies rather than import everything we eat from other countries, these are things with which we will have to compromise.
In spite of the parts of agriculture that some people may find to be a nuisance, there are many, many benefits of living in an agricultural community that are impossible to enumerate. I have known farmers from all over the United States and a few other countries. My experience tells me that farmers and their families are the salt of the earth. They work hard to make a living and produce the food and fiber that we all need. They take great risks and they are great neighbors. I recently heard a story of a local farmer that drove a high clearance tractor through flood waters from Hurricane Florence in Johnston County to carry food, water, and important medical supplies to a stranded family that he had never even met. Now that is the kind of neighbor that everyone would like to have and needs.
Additionally, our farms support our local, state, and national economy. Just like with an investment portfolio, agriculture brings diversity to our economy. For instance, during the last economic downturn, agriculture was the bright spot. Having grown up in the country, it is much more peaceful for me to drive on a rural road where I can see farms, livestock, crops, and tractors than to drive on I-40 at the Clayton bypass or even NC 42 or some of our 2 lane roads in rapidly developing areas. Farmers are good stewards of the land, and they pay taxes that support services in our counties, state, and nation while they require precious little in the way of community services.
Farmers desire to be good neighbors. Many rural farmers and landowners are members of the Voluntary Agricultural District (VAD) Program in Johnston County. Over 150 landowners have enrolled over 17,000 acres in the program. The Voluntary Ag District is simply a public notification program that seeks to alert neighbors that farms exist in their communities and they should expect normal farm activities. NC Senate Bill 711, which became law in June of 2018, affirms the existence and rights of farms and farmers in North Carolina. It also further strengthened the notification of agricultural operations and agricultural districts existence, requiring that this information now be revealed through a typical real estate title search when it occurs within ½ mile the parcel being sold. If farmers and rural landowners are not enrolled in the VAD program, they should. It is a simple application through the Johnston County Soil & Water District Office. There is no cost and it is a great way to be a good neighbor while offering some protection to your farming operation.
From my perspective, living in a rural farming community is the very best way to live. However, when enough people move into such a community, agriculture can get choked out like weeds choke out a crop if they are not managed. So, those that are in a position to make and set policy must strike a balance between landowners, farmers, developers, builders, and families that need affordable housing. To be successful in this manner begins with good planning. In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, number 2 is “Begin with the end in mind.” This definitely applies to land use planning. None of us have a crystal ball, but to the best of our ability we must plan for what Johnston County should be and will be in 10, 20, 30 or more years. So, if you already have or are thinking of moving into a “rural” area of Johnston County, be aware that you are entering an agricultural production area.
There may be some inconveniences to living in close proximity to a farm, but how wonderful it is to have access to fresh local food, see production in action, and enjoy the rural countryside in Johnston County.