Columbia Star

1963        Celebrating 60 Years      2023

The Working Agriculture Lands Preservation Act



On a blustery, bright April 23, at Cottle Strawberry Farm, politicians, farmers, and other dignitaries gath­ered for the official signing of the Working Agricultural Lands Preservation Act. Cottle Farm is located in Hop­kins, about halfway between Food Lion and McEntire Joint National Guard Base. This law is a result of bipar­tisan agreement, diligence, and detail oriented coordi­nation— things that are hard to find in government these days.

The Working Agricultural Lands Preservation Act is a critical move for an industry that generates billions and billions of dollars and employs thousands in the Palmetto State. South Carolina farmers are celebrating new law hoping it helps preserve the family farm and a shrinking supply of available farmland.

The legislation creates the Working Farmland Protection Fund, which helps landowners preserve working agricultural lands through voluntary conser­vation easements. The fund is stored at the S.C. Con­servation Bank and is intended to complement agri­cultural projects funded by the Conservation Bank, creating a matching grant payment for qualified proj­ects.

Grant applications must meet specific evalua­tion criteria, which includes the value of the land’s nat­ ural resources, the economic viability of the property in terms of current and future commercial agricultural activities, and the threat of non-agriculture-related development.

The landowner must also derive at least 50 per­cent of his or her income from the eligible farmland. The legislation also expands the Conservation Bank’s board membership to include the Commissioner of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, and Secretary of Transportation.

First read before the South Carolina House on Valentine’s Day 2023, the bill had dozens of sponsors and near total support. The House Bill was approved by Roll Call vote 104-2 in March 2023 and sent to the Sen­ate. Unanimous Senate approval happened January 30, 2024, and Governor McMaster signed it into law on March 11. The ceremony 11 days later provided law­makers an opportunity to take a much deserved victo­ry lap and other folks to add their own remarks.

Host Joy Cottle gave a brief history of Cottle Strawberry Farm, telling how she refused a multi-mil­lion dollar offer for the farm’s property from a develop­er at her son’s urging. Hunter said, “Mom, some dreams are not for sale.”

Farm Bureau President Harry Ott mentioned how many people came together to make this bill hap­pen and reported South Carolina had lost “over 280 thousand acres of cropland in the last 20 years” and pointed out that while we, “need development we also need to protect our agriculture. This bill is not perfect but will allow farmers who want to keep their farm the ability to do so.”

Conservation Land Bank Executive Director Raleigh West III recalled a discussion with a terminally ill farmer who told him if South Carolina farmland dis­appeared it wouldn’t be because of inferior product but poor policy. West said, “I think this bill gives farmers the opportunity to liquidate equity out of their farm without having to sell it if they agree to keep it in farm­ing. But it isn’t an entitlement program; it’s an invest­ment by South Carolina to make sure that places like Cottle Farms last well beyond our lifetimes.”

Governor McMaster ended the speaking portion of the event by saying, “This is a great step forward. A lot of people have been working for a long time to see that we preserve what is best in South Carolina.” After talking about the state’s strong points and mentioning Revolutionary War battles and the Swamp Fox, the gov­ernor closed with, “A hundred years from now we’re going to be just as beautiful and maybe more than we are now.”

For more information on this Ag Bill, please visit •www.sfntoday.com/2024/04/23/sc-commissioner- weathers-working-ag-lands-act/ •www.scstatehouse.gov/sess125_ 2023- 2024/bills/3951.htm •sccbank.sc.gov/.

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