Buying the Farm

How Lancaster County Preserves its Farmland

The Landis Farm is proteceted by a conservation easement.

Credit: Justin Stoltzfus

Lancaster County, Penn., located in the southeastern corner of the state and within hours of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., is an area destined for growth.

Today many parts of Lancaster County are becoming theaters of conflict between large, new residential developments and centuries-old farms. Often, money trumps such intangibles as history, character, and scenery. How can family farms containing dozens of acres coexist with more and more residential development?

With help from nonprofits and municipal planners, Lancaster County's small farms are surviving as wide gaps in the suburban landscape.

Fourth-generation farmer Jay Landis is optimistic about his part in the future of farming in Lancaster.

The Landis farm, on a rural stretch of road in Warwick Township, is a well-kept farmhouse surrounded by outbuildings, a small pasture, and open fields. The multi-use farm mainly produces corn and soybeans but also houses 26,000 chickens.

Among big challenges for today's farmers, Landis cites the encroachment of new development and rising land prices. "If you want to buy a farm that's not zoned agricultural, it's expensive," he says.

But Landis says there are ways to keep agriculture alive, and organizations that can help. 

Landis Farm

Credit: Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau / Coy Butler

One of them is the Lancaster Farmland Trust, a nonprofit that has been working with Lancaster's farmers since 1988, when citizens established the group.

The Farmland Trust helps create conservation easements, guaranteeing that the land will not be developed by current or future owners. The farmer can choose to receive cash in exchange for the property-use restriction.

Landis says he preserved his farm through the Farmland Trust. "It went pretty well for me," he says.

According to Karen Martynick, executive director, last year was a banner year for the Farmland Trust, which she says has preserved 250 farms for a total of 15,000 acres to date.

A goal for 2007, the Farmland Trust's Web site says, is to reach out to the 85 percent of Lancaster county citizens she says support local preservation efforts.

A similar organization, the Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board, was formed by county commissioners in 1980. The board, along with the nonprofit Lancaster Farmland Trust, has preserved more than 72,000 acres of farmland, according to a Mar. 21 editorial in the Intelligencer Journal.

A board program document says 39 of the county's 41 townships have adopted various forms of zoning to keep farms from being developed, with a total of 320,000 acres currently zoned agricultural.

Matt Knepper, board director, says the group works with state and county funding to give farms economic incentives to sign their land over for agricultural use "in perpetuity" so that new buyers cannot develop it. Farms are selected from a waiting pool.

"It's not first come, first served," says Knepper, noting that the board will give priority to farms that have multiple funding sources.

Wide open spaces

Credit: Justin Stoltzfus

That's where local programs come in. Township officials can work with the county Agricultural Preserve Board to get local farms higher on the list.

Some municipalities, including Warwick, buy Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) from farmers. Dan Zimmerman, Warwick's township manager, describes the township's TDR program as a "full circle" plan.

Zimmerman says Warwick pays a per-acre amount to farmers who agree to have their farms preserved. The township keeps the TDRs in a "bank" and sells them to developers who want to create more impervious surface area in their plans than the township allots. Warwick takes the money from the developers and puts it back into preserving more farms.

"We've been fortunate," Zimmerman says. "It's worked well for us."

Now Warwick's western neighbor, Penn Township, has a new plan for preserving farms.

Penn Township's board of supervisors chairman David Sarley believes in defending local farmers against modern development. Sarley was part of a "Blue Ribbon Commission" that studied farming in the county last year. He served as the chairman of a subcommittee on government, studying how best to provide for viable farmland in the county's future.

"I don't have all the answers." said Sarley in March. "I don't know if anybody does. Our township has gone from rural to suburban overnight."

So Sarley and others started their own Agricultural Preservation Board to work with the county board and the Trust. Sarley says the township's ag program started in 2005 because of a donation from the Manheim Auto Auction, a large commercial tenant of the township. In return for approval to expand its operations, the auction gave the township $1.2 million to be used specifically for preserving farms. He says the board faced a lot of questions about how to use the money.

"None of us on our board are farmers," Sarley says. "How do we know what farms to preserve?"

The township turned to the Amish community for advice. The Amish faith and heritage includes prohibitions on dealing with government, and though some of those rules, like many others, have become more flexible over time, Sarley says the Amish still prefer to work with the nonprofit Lancaster Farmland Trust.

So in 2006 Penn Township partnered with both the Farmland Trust and the agricultural preserve board to protect its rural acreage.

The Pennsylvania Countryside

Credit: Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau / Terry Ross

Amy Bradford, a member of the township's Agricultural Panel, has worked with Sarley and others to implement Penn's program.

"We have smart growth," Bradford says, referring to the time and research that goes into planning new development. "We need smart preservation."

Besides the obvious issues of generational shift and farmers' attraction to more rural areas, Bradford says farmers, especially livestock producers, have to deal with increasing pressures from their new neighbors, who may inhibit farmers by trying to control the results of a farming practice.

"People like the farm setting," Sarley says, "but they lack understanding of what farming entails."

Bradford says it's the little nuisances that cause problems. "People don't like to get stuck behind tractors," she says.

In response to the conflict between new residents and longtime farmers, Bradford says, the ag panel uses a "block preservation" strategy, creating "ag districts" to preserve adjacent farms where there is space to expand.

Last year, the township put its ideas into practice for the first time, funding two farms located next to each other in a northern area not yet saddled with new houses.

Today, eight years after the National Trust named Lancaster County one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1999, the region is still in jeopardy. Whether or not Lancaster County will be farm country or housing developments in a decade or two may well depend on the assistance of civil servants and new residents. Planners in Penn, Warwick, and the county's other towns are doing their best to make sure that help doesn't come too late.

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