On Monday morning, the basketball court of Cedar Grove Community Center is filled not with athletes but with farmers. They’re here to learn about a topic you’d think they’d be experts on: What exactly does it mean to be a farm?
“How many of you are farmers?” the discussion’s moderator asks. Hands shoot up across the crowded room. “How many of you plan to pass that on to the next generation?” The hands go up again, this time with less confidence.
Among those with their hands raised are Kara and Chris Brewer, owners of a twenty-two-acre property on Morrow Mill Road known as the Barn of Chapel Hill. But not all of the Brewers’ neighbors in rural Orange County think they deserve to have their hands in the air.
The Brewers’ plan to grow flowers and chestnuts and host weddings on their property has become central to the debate of what should—and should not—constitute a farm in North Carolina today.
The Brewers’ stance is simple: they’re following the law. In May 2015, they were issued a USDA farm number, one of five items that, under state law, qualifies a property for bona fide farm status and, in turn, exemption from county zoning laws.
Since June, the case has bounced between the Orange County Planning Department, which maintains that local authorities have no place saying a property isn’t a farm if it meets statutory requirements, and the county’s Board of Adjustment, whose members seem to doubt that the Barn of Chapel Hill is anything other than an events center. (In 2015, the BOA rejected a special-use permit for the Brewers to open an events center, saying it wasn’t in harmony with the property’s surroundings. The Brewers proceeded with their plans anyway because of their farm exemption.)
After hearing the neighbors’ first appeal in October, the BOA sent the matter back to the county’s planning staff, who again determined that the forty-two-hundred-square-foot barn on the Brewers’ property will be used for farm purposes.
“Our hands are tied,” says Craig Benedict, Orange County’s planning director.
But while bona fide farms are exempt from county zoning rules, nonfarm uses on those properties are not. This is where the question of what makes a farm a farm becomes complicated: from animal-assisted therapy to weddings, farmers are looking for new ways to bring people and money to their farms. As a result, agritourism was a more than $17 million industry in North Carolina as of 2012, a 39 percent increase since 2007, says Annie Baggett, agritourism marketing specialist at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. From 2007–12, the number of North Carolina farms that reported agritourism-related income increased from 602 to 1,135.
“The question is how far can you go in a commercial activity and still be a farm use?” says David Owens, a UNC law professor and panelist at Monday’s Orange County Agricultural Summit.
What happens with the Barn of Chapel Hill could provide the precedent for making that determination, Owens says.
In Owens’s opinion, weddings at the Barn of Chapel Hill are “pretty clearly incidental” to the flower farm as a way of bringing in revenue needed to support the farm. But neighbors fighting the project—which has come to be known as the “party barn”—say it’s clear that weddings, not agriculture, are the Brewers’ priority. They’re concerned about noise, traffic, and lights from the venue—and the 250 people it can hold—as well as the trees cut down to make room for it and its impact on property values.
Projects like the Barn of Chapel Hill are “proposing to be exempt as agritourism farms before they’ve ever farmed,” says Laura Streitfeld, director of Preserve Rural Orange.
For the Brewers, hosting weddings gives a purpose to their flower farm and brings in revenue so their farm can grow. The barn will also be used to process flowers and chestnuts in late fall.
“We could have built a barn with four poles and a roof, sure, but if we make it a little bit nicer and still have the same function, then we also can do weddings as well. So if you are someone who thinks about a business plan and how to make something profitable, that’s the most profitable use of your money,” says Chris Brewer.
Although it won’t be open to visitors until May because of construction and planting, the Barn of Chapel Hill has already booked seventeen weddings from May to November. Kara Brewer says she won’t book any more for the year and probably wouldn’t have that many events slated if it weren’t for media attention surrounding the property’s farm status.
For both sides, what happens with this case will have far-reaching implications. Neighbors fear that if the Barn of Chapel Hill proceeds as planned, an onslaught of commercial businesses will be allowed to establish themselves in rural areas with minimal oversight. If the Brewers’ plans are found not to be farm-related, however, the Brewers worry that the decision will have aftershocks for others trying to break into a farming industry that is increasingly difficult to breach.
“We’re getting a lot of criticism and nothing’s even been finished,” Chris Brewer says. “I think once people actually see what’s going on, the reality of what it is versus the fear of what they think it’s going to be will be completely different.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “What Makes a Farm a Farm?”