Building Assets for the Rural Future

Expand and Protect Economic Activities that Preserve Rural Natural Assets

Expand and Protect Economic Activities that Preserve Rural Natural Assets

The idyllic image of rural life is often associated with agricultural occupations—such as farming and fishing—that depend on rural natural assets such as ample land and fishable waters. Still today, agriculture remains an important part of North Carolina’s economy,[1] but farming, fishing, and forestry jobs face pressures from accelerating development, advances in technology, and globalization. These pressures will continue to mount as North Carolina’s population grows. In response, some rural communities have sought to protect agricultural uses of land in order to preserve the cultural heritage and livelihoods associated with such uses.

At the same time, not all rural spaces can be devoted solely to agriculture. In seeking to build or preserve natural assets, some rural communities therefore seek what they consider to be the next best thing: encouraging land uses that are consistent with the land’s rural character or at least do not involve the depletion of natural assets.[2] Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of such efforts is land conservation in conjunction with eco-tourism, a tactic that will not be addressed here because eco-tourism opportunities are unique to each community.

As a general matter in free markets, existing land uses will endure in rural areas as long as more profitable uses do not emerge. Nonetheless, some communities seek to tip the balance in favor of certain preferred uses—usually agricultural in nature—perhaps in recognition of the fact that markets do not always lead to the most efficient result in the short-term, and just as important, that markets almost certainly do not fully account for non-market factors such as local cultural preferences.

Several tactics have emerged to encourage land uses that preserve natural assets. The first tactic attempts to build individual and community wealth by focusing on agricultural-based businesses (Protect Agricultural Businesses and Jobs). The second tactic expands on the first by connecting smaller farms to revenue-enhancing markets (Connect Smaller Farms to Large Institutions, Urban Markets, and Food Systems). The third secures individual and community natural assets for the future with agriculture-focused preservation tools (Safeguard Farmland for Agricultural Uses). The final tactic takes advantage of opportunities in renewable energy production (Expand Rural Role in Renewable Energy and Ecosystem Services).

[1] Mike Walden, Agriculture and Agribusiness: North Carolina’s Number One Industry (2012), available at http://ag-econ.ncsu.edu/sites/ag-econ.ncsu.edu/files/faculty/walden/agribusiness-2014.pdf

[2] An example of a depleting activity would be mineral extraction. Depleting activities will not be discussed here for several reasons: they are too unique to each community and too obvious a use of natural assets to merit attention here, and this particular section of the report is devoted to building or preserving natural assets as opposed to extracting or depleting them.