The agricultural lease program on the Blue Ridge Parkway was begun by early Parkway Landscape Architects to provide designed, visual elements of the overall scenic experience. By merging the narrow ribbon of Parkway land with the broad rural scene, the Landscape Architects believed it possible to preserve and improve, in common with our neighbors, a picturesque highland scene. Spectacular views mile after mile, were enlivened by highland farms, whose pleasant weathered cabins, garden plots, and old barns compose the "hill culture." The established policy for the Parkway in its beginnings was to maintain the existing character of the land it traversed.
In areas where agriculture dominated the landscape, only a narrow strip of land was acquired because of the higher cost/value. Early managers believed that a return to forest in these areas would be unnatural, but if maintained by Parkway staff would be too costly. Consequently a decision was made to manage those lands in agriculture through a restricted leasing program where soil character and slope would not create erosion. These sites were planned, with an understanding of slope and soil types required, and were drawn on the original Parkway work plans. They were never intended to show Appalachian farm life as it really was, and this continues to be the case. Although some sites were already grazed or farmed, many required extensive removal of trees and other vegetation to create the desired scene. The Program was initiated in 1945 by hiring an agronomist to oversee the creation and maintenance of more than 350 agricultural leases.
In 1965 maintenance of the program was transferred to Parkway ranger and maintenance personnel. Today the program is managed by the Parkway's Branch of Resource Management. Instead of managing the leases as just an agricultural commodity, biologists are working to improve water quality, protect rare species that use the fields and remove invasive non-native plants. Since 1994 Parkway biologists have built almost 8 miles of fences to exclude livestock from streams in agricultural leases, thereby protecting the water quality and aquatic fauna. Today, according to data in the agreements themselves, there are 447 agricultural parcels under lease to adjacent landowners or other permittees. Of these, 280 are in Virginia and 167 are in North Carolina. Forty-three (43) percent (2,275 acres/921hectares) of the total lands under the agricultural lease are in pasture, requiring 155 miles (250 km) of fences for 1,077 animal units. Another 50 percent (1,087 acres/440 hectares) are used as hay and only 4 percent (151 acres/61 hectares) is used for crops. Another 3 percent are used for small garden plots or residential lawns.