Farmland is a rapidly disappearing natural resource, but much of Pennsylvania’s rural landscape will continue to be dotted with productive farms forever thanks to the state’s nation-leading farmland preservation program.
I’ll be on Jere and Angie Hissong’s farm in Mercersburg, Franklin County, on Oct. 10 to celebrate the program’s 25th anniversary.
To date, more than $1.2 billion in federal, state, local and private funds have helped state and local programs purchase development rights from property owners.
About 480,000 acres on nearly 4,500 farms have been preserved since the program was launched in 1988.
It’s remarkable when you realize the number of acres that have been set aside for future agricultural production in a relatively short period of time. No other state has such a strong commitment to its farming future.
Lancaster County leads the nation in the number of farms preserved, while Berks County is the leader in the number of acres preserved through the state program.
The most active county programs are in the southeastern quadrant of the state, where development pressure comes from Philadelphia, Maryland and New Jersey.
To be eligible for the program, a farm must be within a county-designated Agricultural Security Area, a cluster of farms within a municipality set aside for future agricultural production. The property must also be used for cropland, pasture or grazing land.
Farms are evaluated by county officials based on soil quality and development pressure. Each farm is ranked and placed on a waiting list according to its ranking. About half of the farms on this list don’t get preserved because of funding limitations.
A volunteer county board decides which farms will be preserved each year. The county facilitates contracts between the landowner and funding source, whether it’s federal, state, local, private or a combination.
Finally, the farm is presented to the State Agriculture Land Preservation Board. Approved farms are preserved in perpetuity — forever.
Every two years, county and state officials visit preserved farms to ensure they are still in agricultural production.
The program is successful not only because property owners have the foresight to set aside their prime farmland for future generations, but also because of the cooperation between federal, state and local governments and nonprofit organizations.
What lies beyond the preservation of a farm — making sure there are farmers to farm the land forever — is a real concern, and one the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture faces head-on.
The average age of a farmer is 57. Around kitchen tables across the state, families are having difficult conversations about the future of their farms. When grandpa dies, who’ll get the farm? How can I protect my farm against uncontrollable risks?
The agriculture department has already taken steps forward in keeping farmers farming.
We unveiled a new economic development program — Keep Pennsylvania Growing — in August at Ag Progress Days (keepPAgrowing.com).
Whether you’re looking to grow or change your operation, manage your risks or transition your farm, the program offers assistance through the successful PAgrows, crop insurance education and Center for Farm Transitions programs.
As always, the help you receive is free and confidential.
Gov. Tom Corbett enhanced the impact of these programs by eliminating the “death tax” on farm real estate, helping producers save thousands of dollars that can then be reinvested in their agricultural operations.
We’re also working to make farmers more profitable by expanding markets for their products. PA Preferred, the official brand of agricultural products made or grown in Pennsylvania, helps consumers identify products produced here.
When Pennsylvanians buy PA Preferred, they are supporting local farms and producers, and helping keep farmers and food processing jobs in Pennsylvania.
It’s tough to predict agriculture’s future — after all, 100 years ago we were relying on horses for our fieldwork, and steam engines and threshing machines to finish preparing crops for storage, all with the work of dozens of hands.
Instead of horse-drawn two-row planters, we’re using 12- or 24-row planters behind tractors that cost more than many houses and using computers to conduct business.
I can tell you that no matter how technology changes how we operate, farmers’ first priorities withstand the test of time. Whether in 1813, 1913, or 2013, farmers have been caring for their animals, their land and their families.
Thanks to farmland preservation and other programs that keep farmers farming, Pennsylvania’s future farmers will continue in that rich tradition.
Visit keepPAgrowing.com to plan your future.
George Greig is the Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture.