Farmland Preservation at Hogeye Bottomlands in Sandy Mush Community
In the Sandy Mush farming community, scenic views of fertile bottomland, rolling pastures, and distant mountain ridges create a stunning backdrop for those who work the land. Now, SAHC has conserved another tract of farmland here, adding to a network of protected agricultural lands and wildlife corridors throughout Sandy Mush.
Farmers Aubrey and Rieta Wells graze cattle and produce hay on the 88-acre Hogeye Bottomlands — now permanently protected through a conservation easement.
Sections of Sandy Mush Creek and Hogeye Branch run through the tract, which contains prime soils (a designation for soils of national importance) as well as soils of statewide and local importance. Almost half (45%) of soils on the tract are considered prime, locally or statewide important soils. Found along waterways and formed over long periods of time, these soils are important agricultural resources — and relatively rare in mountainous areas. Unfortunately, the low-lying, fairly flat bottomlands where we find these soils are also sought after for easy development. Both Aubrey and Rieta grew up in families with long farming traditions and wanted to see this farmland protected for future generations.
“We’d like to see the Sandy Mush area stay as undeveloped as possible,” shares Aubrey. “It’s one of the few places in the county you can still go to see the beauty of natural spaces and farmland.”
Family History of Farming
Aubrey and Rieta Wells met through their shared family experience in farming.
“Farming is all we’ve ever known,” says Aubrey. He says his family has been farming for as long as they’ve been here — his father, grandfather… going back six generations or more. “Both my father and Rieta’s father were in dairy. That’s how we met.”
Aubrey and Rieta married in 1978 and purchased farmland in Sandy Mush from Aubrey’s father in 1980, starting Aubrey Wells Dairy in 1980-81. They worked the dairy together and began leasing the Hogeye Bottomlands property in 1996 to add land for hay production and grazing pasture for their herd. Both their home farm and the Hogeye Bottomlands tract were used for dairy production until April 2019, when they transitioned the last dairy operation in Sandy Mush to Black Angus cattle.
“We had worked the dairy for a lifetime,” says Aubrey. “I’ve been around dairy for more than 60 years and decided to try something new.”
Aubrey says that they enjoyed working the dairy when they were younger, but that it had been getting harder over the last 4-5 years. With 80-90 hour workweeks common, he explains there aren’t enough daylight hours in half the year to get everything done in dairy – so they did a lot of work in the dark for about half the year. “Raising beef cattle is a walk in the park compared to dairy,” he says.
However, Aubrey emphasizes that he has not retired, and has no plans for retiring. He says, “I just changed occupations — from dairy farming to Angus cattle. I’m going to keep farming till I can’t do it any more. I enjoy the cattle, and I love being outside — it’s all I’ve ever done.”
Aubrey and Rieta are glad that the Hogeye Bottomlands tract has been permanently protected for farming — whether by their family or someone else. Although their children have gone into different careers, they say “It’s good to know the land won’t ever be developed, and that it will always be here for agricultural use.”
Protecting Farmland for Water Quality and Habitat
Located in the French Broad Watershed, the Hogeye Bottomlands property includes portions of Hogeye Branch, Sandy Mush Creek, and their tributaries. Sandy Mush Creek is a direct tributary of the French Broad River, so protecting this land helps protect tributary streams of the French Broad River from sedimentation and other types of pollution.
“With financial and technical support from Buncombe County Soil & Water Conservation District, the landowners enrolled in the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Western North Carolina Stream and Water Quality Initiative to restore portions of Sandy Mush Creek that run through the protected property,” says SAHC Farmland Protection Director Jess Laggis. “Exclusion fencing prevents cattle from accessing main stem of Sandy Mush Creek, Hogeye Branch, and some tributaries. Drinking water for cattle is pumped from a well to off-stream, frost-free watering tanks.”
“Roughly a third of the tract is wooded, and the forest, pastureland, and riparian corridors offer habitat for a diversity of wildlife,” continues Jess. “Riparian vegetation — vegetated areas along Sandy Mush Creek and its tributaries — are important to water resources. The roots of riparian trees and shrubs help hold stream banks in place, preventing erosion. Riparian vegetation also traps sediment and pollutants, helping keep the water clean. Approximately 8,554 linear feet of stream corridor (which includes intermittent and perennial streams) occurs on the property.”
Farmland Preservation is a Collective Effort
Protection of this land was made possible by a grant from the USDA Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Agricultural Land Easements (a program of the Natural Resources Conservation Service), a grant from Buncombe County, generous private philanthropists, contribution from the landowners, and support of SAHC members.
Thank you for protecting productive, scenic farmland and streams!
Partners in farmland preservation make a huge difference by working together to secure agricultural resources. Thanks also to Ariel Zijp with Buncombe County Soil & Water, who facilitated relationship-building with the landowners in this project and as the county worked on additional farmland protection with the Wells. Read more about how Aubrey and Rieta Wells worked with Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation’s Farmland Preservation Program to protect their 88-acre home farm in Sandy Mush. We are very grateful to Buncombe County for supporting farmland preservation and recognizing the importance of protecting working lands!
Partner Perspective: Ariel Zijp — Soil Conservationist/Farmland Preservation, Buncombe Soil & Water Conservation
“This fall we recently protected 84 acres of farmland at Aubrey and Rieta’s homeplace and farm headquarters and we feel so grateful to have been part of this joint project to protect their entire farm operation. Buncombe Soil and Water has a long-standing relationship in the county helping farmers improve their conservation practices and through this we have built a strong foundation of trust within this community. Through this, we have been able to introduce farmers to the idea of conservation and create trusting relationships with SAHC. We are able to protect so much more property by strategizing through this land trust/soil and water partnership. By taking account the requirements and objectives of our different programs we have been able to divide and conquer and the Aubrey and Rieta Wells conservation project is a perfect example of how this partnership can work.”