To farm, or not to farm: That is the question many locals in the agricultural business have had to ask themselves over the last couple of decades.
About 14 years ago, Russ Page, an Oconee County cattle farmer and business owner, noticed the issue of development encroaching into agricultural areas began dominating discussions with friends who worked in agriculture.
The challenges of farming -- drought, disease, bug infestations, restrictions on pesticide use to control those issues, not to mention fluctuating selling prices of commodities -- have made the option of selling out to developers a temptation for local landowners looking for alternative uses for their property, he said in a recent interview.
Page and his friends knew there had to be another option, one that would hopefully preserve the county's pastoral setting while saving family farms.
The group decided to educate themselves about what was being done elsewhere to protect farmers and farmland and how those programs could be implemented in Oconee County.
Page was the only farmer on that team; others worked in the field. They began by holding pubic forums and inviting guest speakers like Jerry Cohn, Southeastern representative of The American Farmland Trust.
“He helped us decide the programs that were best for us.” Page said. “We started by evaluating what Oconee County would allow given existing laws. We looked into the options of PDR (Purchase Development Rights) and TDR (Transfer Development Rights) programs."
A collaborative effort
After spending quite some time in research -- a natural thing for Page, who's an adjunct professor in the Animal and Dairy Science Dept at the University of Georgia -- he dove in head first and gave the project his all.
It took a collaborative effort by Athens Land Trust, Oconee County government officials, the Georgia Greenspace Program, the USDA-NRCS, and individual families to go through all of stages involved in piecing together the Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection.
Finding sources of funding was the first thing to do. Locally, funds initially came from the Greenspace Program. Then, the Farmland Protection Program was approved as a line item in the budget, Page said, and now it receives about $75,000 a year from the special-purpose, local-option sales tax.
Previously state funding came from the Georgia Land Conservation Program, but none has been available for the last three years, he said. Federal funding is provided by the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program.
"They match each dollar we raise from local, state and farmer donation total," he explained. "So we try to leverage the local funding as much as we possibly can, by matching as many funding sources as we can find, with the federal funding."
Next, agricultural conservation easements --contracts farmers must sign and adhere to-- had to be drawn on the land.
"[Farmers] still own the farm, can farm it any way they want to, they can leave it to their kids or sell it to someone else, but the easement stays with the deed...the land can never be developed," Page said.
Athens Land Trust agreed to help with the easements.
"[Page] is a farmer himself and he understands what it takes to survive as a farmer," Emerita Director Nancy Stangle said. "He works continuously to educate people on the importance of protecting productive farmland, preserving the rural and scenic character, and maintaining the economic viability of agriculture in our area. He also shares solutions on how to make it happen so that everyone benefits."
Efforts Pay Off
Stangle said Page's efforts in Oconee County alone have led to the permanent protection of four family farms consisting of 450 acres.
Also protected is Charles Hillsman's family farm.
"[Page] has put in probably thousands of hours for no personal gain to help the rest of us," he said. "Everyone else involved was partially behind the programs, but Russ is the one who really made it work. He is amazing."
Page is a familiar face at meetings of the Board of Commissioners, having addressed the Commission on multiple occasions about the program.
Commissioner Chuck Horton said, when it comes to protecting farmland and greenspace, Page is one of the most passionate people he knows.
“He works tirelessly for the benefit of others. I don't think anyone could possibly count the hours he gives for this endeavor. He is a good person with a big heart."
Chairman Melvin Davis said the county would not be where it is today without Page.
"His dedication and thorough research has not only helped us gain funding for the program, but the people he helped bring in educated us all on what was possible with Farmland Protection for our county."
But Page said he doesn't want personal recognition, he only cares about the land, the farmers and their families.
Spreading the word
There are currently 25 farms in Oconee County requesting protection and the group says they will not quit until each one is addressed. In fact, Page encourages other farmers to come forward.
Page writes articles such as the one on page 16 of the Georgia Cattlemen Magazine in order to share what he has learned about protecting farmland with other regions.
“It takes every one of us on the team to accomplish these programs, but you have to have one person to be the spokesperson who doesn’t mind walking off the gangplank, and I certainly have not minded that one bit.”
And while frustrations, complicated paper work, and jumping through a number of other hoops may at times make those involved feel like throwing in the towel, the long-term successful results show the efforts are worthwhile, Page said.
If you are interested in learning more about placing your farm into a conservation program, contact Russ Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.