Zoning Limits on Agricultural Activities in Orange County?

Lately I have read many articles on the success and development of small farms and agri-businesses across the country.  Key to the success of these operations is on-site processing of the agricultural products to add value. For example, rather than simply raising goats, the farmer would collect the milk, process to cheese and potentially retail on site.  Another example was a farmer growing hops and barley for an on-site microbrewery.

A nearby example would include grape growing and wine production in the Yadkin Valley.

I wondered why more of these types of businesses were not being started in Orange County.  On the surface we would seem like a good market.  In reviewing our land use ordinance, my interpretation is that the Agricultural and the Agricultural Residential designations would preclude even these types of small-scale, value-added processes.  The Rural Industrial Activity Node designation would certainly allow this, but there are not many parcels with this designation in the county.

Is my interpretation correct?  If so, are we zoning ourselves out of economic development activity which could benefit our tax base and bolster efforts to consume more locally grown produce?


and very important. The future of our local economy will be highly dependent upon local agriculture. To put the question another way: Are we doing everything we can to facilitate the success of local agriculture? Or what else should we be doing?

Zoning has nothing to do with it.  It makes no economic sense to farm in Orange County.  It barely makes financial sense to build one story buildings, never mind growing tomatoes.  You can zone all you want, but nobody can make a farm work at $50K/acre.

Mark,Your rephrasing is more concise than my original point and right on the mark.  If you were looking to start and Ag business in Orange County, the county website would be an obvious place to start.  While the website does list support of local agriculture as a goal, I find the zoning ordinances to be confusing.  For comparison I reviewed the Durham and Chatham websites.  Their ordinances are much, much clearer on what you can and can't do and how to ask for a variance. 

Are there any other local examples besides Maple View?

I can think of a few.  You might be interested in the Hillsborough Cheese Company, who we (Weaver Street) profiled in our newsletter a while back:From: http://www.weaverstreetmarket.coop/enews/web-content/2007/10162007.html

... Hillsborough
Cheese Company began making sheep's milk cheeses, but they couldn't
find a local supplier of sheep milk so they switched to goat and cow
milk. They work with several local dairy farms, developing long-term
relationships and trying to help each other out with cheese-making
advice. Dorian visits the farms often—he picks up the milk twice a
week—and is committed to using only milk that is produced sustainably.
Hillsborough Cheese Company is fairly small on the local cheese-making
scale: they process about 100 gallons of milk a week. (One big bucket
of milk [about three gallons] makes ten small wheels of Camembert.)
During the summer, they sell their cheese at the Hillsborough Farmers'
Market and the Saxapahaw Farmers' Market. Now, you can find
Hillsborough Cheese Company cheese at Weaver Street Market. The first
two cheeses for sale at WSM are their Sweet Ash and their Camembert,
but more may be added soon. Hillsborough Cheese Company produces twenty
varieities of cheese and there is always some chevre, feta, a bloomy
rind cheese, and a pressed (or hard) cheese. 

Similarly, there's Chapel Hill Cremery.  On another side, there are wellness products like Suki Roth's herbal products and Will Endre's Wild Herbs.  And then there are several local farms (like Parker's Farm near Hurdle Mills) whose meat products are cut and packaged in WSM's meat facility at our Food House in Hillsborough.  And while it's not always something that comes to mind as a value-added agricultural operation, there are also quite a few restaurants who source some or all of their raw materials locally.  For example, during the NC growing season, Panzanella restaurant will partner with a local farm to produce a Farm Dinner made from items directly from that single farm.

Just in case I didn't promote my own causes enough, let me encourage everyone to attend the 14th Annual Piedmont Farm Tour on April 25 and 26. :)  In order to determine what we can do to promote local agricultural initiatives, it helps to look at what's working well already.

This year’s Piedmont Farm Tour will bring together consumers, farmers, and producers in one of the largest farm tours in the country. It is a great time to go exploring in the North Carolina countryside. With over forty farms to choose from, you and your family can craft an exciting day visiting and learning about farming and agriculture.  If you’re looking for some animal action you can pet goats, hold chickens or rabbits and get up close to cows and sheep. Plant lovers can learn about growing flowers, vegetables, fruits, and berries. See how farmers manage their land with hoop houses, traveling chicken coops, irrigation systems, and greenhouses. Learn how prawns are saving farmland at Stagg Creek Farm, new to the tour this year.

There will be lots of opportunities to buy meat, eggs, poultry, and prawns, so bring a cooler. One button buys a carload of people two days of touring. The area covered by the Piedmont Farm Tour is quite large, so it’s recommended that you cluster your farm visits together to save driving time. 

Farm Tour Buttons (aka tickets) go on sale April 3rd.  There are over forty farms on the tour this year (new additions in bold): Anathoth Community Garden, Avillion Farm, Ayrshire Farm, Baldwin Family Farms, Beausol Farm, Benjamin Vineyards & Winery, Bluebird Meadows Farm, Braeburn Farm, Cane Creek Farm, Captain J.S. Pope Farm, Castlemaine Farm, Celebrity Goat Dairy, Chapel Hill Creamery, Cohen Farm, Coon Rock Farm, Dancing Pines Farm, Eco Farm, Fickle Creek Farm, Flat River Nursery & Farm, Four Leaf Farm, Hogan's Magnolia View Farm, Horizon Cellars, Iron Gate Winery, Maple Spring Gardens, Maple View Farm, McAdams Farm, Millarckee Farm, Peregrine Farm, Perry-winkle Farm, Pickard Mountain Eco Institute, Piedmont Biofarm, Pine Knot Farms, Plant @ Breeze Farm, Spence's Educational Farm, Stagg Creek Farm, Sustainable Farming Program, CCCC Timberwood Organics, Turtle Run Farm, Walters Unlimited at Carls-Beth Farm, Whitted Bowers Farm, and Wild Hare Farm.  While not all of these have value-added components to their production, many do.

I think the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) does deserve some credit on this issue.  I am not saying they have gone as far as they could, but notice that they are working on creating a public agricultural product processing center (essentially an industrial kitchen etc.) that local farmers can use without having to invest so much in building there own kitchen.Also, I think Barry Jacobs in particular has been pursuing expanding the processing activities that are allowed in rural OC.At a much smaller scale, here in Carrboro we have tried to be Ag-friendly with fairly liberal rules on keeping chickens and a community garden at MLK Park.  On the other hand, it is hard (under current ordinances) to have any other livestock within town limits:http://heraldsun.southernheadlines.com/orange/10-1129423.cfmHere's a little bit of Beth Veliquette's story (because the link will stop working soon): "A Carrboro woman who recently bought two goats only to find out she may be violating Carrboro's ordinance for keeping livestock is expected to present a petition tonight asking the Carrboro Board of Aldermen to update its laws to allow town dwellers to keep small livestock." [The petition will actually be presented April 7.]Stay tuned, as this issue will be coming to a head.

Jason, Thanks for the info.  My family and I are looking forward to the farm tour.  To the extent that these businessed do perform value-added processing, do you know what zoning designation they have and whether it was necessary to apply for a variance?

You can process your own output if you are a bonafide farm (and meet State Health and Sanitation requirements/inspections).  Zoning designations are an issue only if you're processing things you didn't grow yourself (i.e., from other farms).

The word you're looking for isn't "variance" (which has to do with hardships due to the actual land), the word you want to use is "conditional use permit" (aka CUP) when talking about value-added processing and land use regulations. 


Thanks for the clarification.  I have arranged a meeting with the Orange County Zoning Enforcement Office next Tuesday.  I'll post a summary of what I learn from the meeting.

The County Commissioners are also researching a shared value added processing facility that would allow local farmers to take that next step with their crops---this facility might allow local farmers to can or flash freeze their vegetables and meats, among other things.   Many of our farms are too small for the owners to invest in this technology on their own, so a shared facility is very attractive.   Chatham and Alamance counties might be partners as well.  

I arranged a meeting with the Orange County Zoning department to discuss the issues listed in this thread.  They were generous with their time and very informative during a hour long meeting.Here is a summary of the key points:- Bona Fide farming activities (defined by the state, but not particularly clearly) cannot be restricted in the county other than by the three towns.- Therefore, the bulk of the land in Orange County, which is zoned as rural buffer or Ag-residential is open to farming- In general, value added processing, my main original question, is allowed as well- The zoning department only becomes involved when the public is invited on to the property, e.g. for retailing, tours, other events - The county is working on an initiative to allow more flexibility for non-ag related activities to occur e.g. holding a concert to allow for more income opportunities for farmers in the county. I came away very impressed with the efforts of the county to support economic development related to agricultural ventures  


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