Lancaster County Celebrates Farmland Preservation Milestone: First in the Nation to Set Aside 100,000 Acres

10/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

LANCASTER, Pa. — Local government and business leaders gathered Tuesday at the Lancaster County Convention Center to recognize the county for being the first in the nation to preserve 100,000 acres of farmland.

The Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board and Lancaster Farmland Trust also honored four people for their longtime support of the cause.

Former county commissioner Terry Kauffman, who moderated a fireside chat with the honorees, said the four were involved in farmland preservation back “when it really wasn’t cool.”

Early in their efforts, the 100,000-acre mark seemed like a point where the county would be able to preserve the agriculture industry, he said.

Award recipient Marilyn Ware, who served as U.S. ambassador to Finland from 2005-08, was a co-founder of the 25-year-old Farmland Trust.

While the effort faced “mild opposition” early on, farmland preservation caught on because so many people in the county were either farmers or were close with farmers, she said.

The county’s strong youth education programs, such as FFA, have made it possible to keep preserved farms in production, she said.

Phyllis Whitesell, a retired Franklin & Marshall College English professor who lived in Lancaster Township but did not have a farm, reminisced about the early efforts. She spent seven years on the trust’s board but stepped down when the board needed to fill its quota of farmers.

She had a stake in a family farm in Virginia, but “that didn’t seem to count,” she joked.

She also served as secretary and president of the trust.

“We’ve had a long journey, but it’s been very rewarding,” he said.

Ed Goodhart, another honoree, has served on the county ag preserve board since its inception.

“Since I was on the board when we preserved acre No. 1, I thought I might as well be there when we hit the 100,000th acre,” he said.

Goodhart credited the county’s success at preservation to collaboration between farmers and local officials.

“This has been a real labor of love,” he said.

Kauffman said Goodhart was instrumental in seeing the need for a nonprofit to work with Plain Sect farmers on farm preservation.

Retired state Sen. Noah Wenger was recognized for his pioneering efforts in the state Legislature. He helped establish the state Department of Agriculture preservation program in 1989.

Stories of Amos Funk, the well-known farmland preservation advocate who died in 2010, peppered the talk. Goodhart told of an early meeting where Funk asked him, “Are we going to accomplish this, or are we spitting into the wind?”

Whitesell reflected on the Funk family energy. She had brought the elderly, wheelchair-bound Funk to an event, and his spry wife, Esta Funk, took charge of pushing him before Whitesell could offer to do so.

Kauffman remembered that when he was running for office the first time, Goodhart suggested he pay Funk a visit. After a 5:30 a.m. meeting over coffee, Funk uncharacteristically handed Kauffman a $100 bill.

Though Funk’s memory still looms large in Lancaster County, Wenger noted that farmland preservation is about more than just one person but requires participation from many people.

“I think the indication’s good that that will continue,” he said.

Gene Garber, a former Major League Baseball player and chairman of the ag preserve board, preserved his farms at the trust’s beginning back in 1988. Garber said Lancaster’s preservation stature is so great that the trust gets calls from as far as Michigan and Dade County, Fla.

He recalled a conversation with one Grand Rapids developer. The man could not believe that Lancaster has coordinated local planning across its roughly 60 municipalities with buy-in from the county commissioners and developers who respect areas planned for agricultural preservation.

“Your nonbelief doesn’t make it not so,” Garber told the man.

A number of political figures addressed the large audience. County Commissioner Scott Martin emceed the celebration, and fellow Commissioner Craig Lehman said farmland preservation has helped Lancaster County preserve its rural identity even as it has urbanized and become one of the state’s most populous counties.

“We want to maintain our character,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. said he was impressed with the county’s success at preservation despite the rapid disappearance of farmland over the past 50 years.

“This is truly a sacred act that you have involved yourselves in,” Casey said. He also quoted a verse from the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” describing the land’s fruits reflecting God’s glory.

State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-West Lampeter, and state Reps. Gordon Denlinger, R-Narvon, and Keith Greiner, R-Upper Leacock, presented citations from both houses of the Legislature celebrating the preservation achievement.

At the end of the night, the final 100 acres needed to bring the total to 100,000 were auctioned off.

Beverly “Peggy” Steinman, chairwoman of Lancaster Newspapers Inc., which owns Lancaster Farming, started the bidding by preserving 10 acres.

The final acre was preserved through a drop-in-the-bucket gathering of cash and checks of any amount.

While the speakers lauded past efforts, they also looked forward to the next 100,000 acres.

“The job’s not done, people,” said Dennis Grimm, chairman of the Farmland Trust.

The night was enjoyable even for those who did not give presentations.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Shelley Brubacher, an agribusiness operator whose Morgantown farm is preserved.

Marti Early, a volunteer who helps with the silent auction, said she starts collecting donations in July. She tries to keep auction lots around the same dollar value. “People are pretty generous,” she said.

“It’s good to be part of the celebration,” said Christ Taylor of Quarryville. He and his wife, Susie, preserved their farm 10 years ago, and they attend the trust’s annual banquet most years.

Taylor said it is impressive that Lancaster is not only the first county in the U.S. to preserve 100,000 acres but also responsible for such a large percentage of the 480,000 acres preserved statewide.

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