With North Carolina’s population growing rapidly, counties are taking steps to make sure they balance development with protecting natural resources and farmland.

Two-thirds of North Carolina’s counties have established Voluntary Agricultural Districts, a planning tool that provides recognition of farming in communities.

And in November, Haywood County became the latest county to approve a farmland protection plan, joining Alamance, Buncombe, Cabarrus and Polk. Plans for protecting farmland are also in the works in 19 additional counties.

“Counties are recognizing that working lands are very important to our state’s economy and environment,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “Farmland provides stability for local governments. New schools, roads, and fire and police protection go hand-in-hand with new development, whereas privately owned and managed farmland requires very few public services. Surveys have shown that for every dollar in taxes received from working lands, local governments spend only 34 cents in services. That’s a net gain for the county tax base.”

A look at the state’s Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund provides ample evidence of interest in farmland protection by local governments and conservation groups. Last year, the trust fund received more than 90 applications requesting $29 million for a variety of farmland protection efforts, even though only $7.6 million was available. After evaluating the applications, the trust fund awarded grants for 41 projects across the state.

“The trust fund couldn’t fill every request, but we were able to boost efforts to protect some of North Carolina’s most valuable resources and sustain its leading industry,” Troxler said.

The General Assembly’s appropriation to the trust fund for 2009 is smaller, $4 million, but interest is still high. As of the Dec. 5 application deadline, the trust fund had received nearly 70 requests for $15.5 million in grant assistance.