Photo by Roger Walter Donald Walter has been farming fields on game lands in York County for nearly 50 years, but was recently informed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission the practice is coming to an end. The agency is shifting away from active agriculture on game lands to manage the fields exclusively for wildlife habitat.

Randy Kilgore is the fourth generation to milk cows on his family farm, and his son wants to become the fifth. But a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Game Commission may change Kilgore’s plans. The Airville, York County, farmer was recently notified by the agency that the approximately 70 acres he farms on two nearby state game land tracts (SGL 83 and SGL 181) will be changing, reverting from a primary use of active agriculture to a focus on wildlife habitat.

If Kilgore loses the land, he said he’ll likely sell the cows as well. “I have a lot of critical decisions to make in the next six months,” he said.

Pennsylvania State Game Lands Currently Farmed

The Game Commission owns nearly 1.5 million acres of state game lands, and roughly 8,000 of that is currently farmed, according to Travis Lau, communications director for the agency.

Some of the land is farmed under multiyear sharecropping agreements, he added, and other parcels fall under deals that are renewed annually. Some farmers pay rent, some agree to leave a percentage of the crop unharvested for wildlife, and others perform in-kind services in return for farming the land.

But that’s all scheduled to come to an end.

According to Lau, the agency wants to shift its currently farmed tracts to long-term habitat that provides food and cover year round for a multitude of species.

That habitat usually includes pollinator mixes and grass and forb combinations rather than row crops of corn and soybeans.

Kilgore milks about 40 cows and has 100 head, including dry cows and heifers. He said he could probably produce enough feed for his cows from his own 160-acre farm, but with weak milk prices, he needs to augment his income in order to survive.

On the Game Commission fields, Kilgore plants corn, wheat and clover, some of which is used to feed the cows and the rest is sold to help him stay in business. Without the acreage, Kilgore said he’d have to completely rely on his milk check as his only income.

“That’s not feasible with the milk prices right now, and I don’t see a good future as far as milk prices returning,” he said. “The value of the crops that I grow on the game lands is basically what’s been holding me over.”

Other Farmers Affected

Kilgore isn’t the only York County farmer affected by the Game Commission decision.

Donald Walter, also of Airville, is 87 years old and is close to retiring. For nearly 50 years, Walter has planted corn, oats, hay and other crops on 15 acres of State Game Lands 83.

Like Kilgore, Walter said he was informed by the Game Commission that his time farming the land will come to an end, concluding next year when he harvests the wheat.

“I know it’s almost time for me to quit, but it would be a shame to see all that farm ground gone,” Walter said. “If they let all of this land grow up, then what are they going to have? Who’s going to manage it all and control the thistles and other weeds?”

Walter said he doesn’t have a written agreement with the Game Commission to farm the land, but was told almost 50 years ago by the agency to go ahead and farm the ground. He said he’s worked with the agency every year since to help meet its goal of wildlife habitat, including letting part of his crop stand.

“They used to bring me a bag of grain sorghum and I’d plant it and leave that stand for wildlife. This year, after I took the oats off, I seeded the fields with oats and winter peas for deer,” Walter said. “I thought that maybe that would help.”

Kilgore said the crops he raises on the game lands are a valuable food source for wildlife, especially corn and clover. He also plants wheat to aid wildlife in the winter, doesn’t mow the corn stubble until the end of March to provide cover, and doesn’t harvest rows of corn along the field edges.

The agency is planning on expanding the brushy growth along the edges of the fields by 50 feet, Kilgore said, and he may be able to farm some of it while paying a rental rate of $100 per acre.

“If you take the edges out 50 feet into the field and allow it to grow up, it’s going to cut the acreage in half,” Kilgore said, adding he purchased and spread 74 tons of lime on the game lands fields this spring, before he got notice of the change.

“I spent all of that money and could’ve invested it in my own ground if I had known this was going to happen,” he said.

The Game Commission Responds to the Change from Active Farming to Wildlife Habitat

York County resident Michael Mitrick represents the south-central part of the state on the Game Commission’s Board of Commissioners. He said the decision to transition from active farming to wildlife habitat on game lands wasn’t made by the board, but it’s an issue that could be discussed by the commissioners.

“The biologists feel it’s the best way to go,” Mitrick said. “I think, on game lands, the intent was not about having people farming. The intention was to get the game lands to a more wild state.”

Mitrick added that he was unaware of the issues with Walter and Kilgore in York County, and felt that something could possibly be done to aid Kilgore for the expense of the lime he applied, such as extending his lease to farm the acreage.

“That to me sounds like an injustice,” Mitrick said.

Active agriculture does attract wildlife, he said, adding that crops attract pheasants, rabbits and deer among other species popular with hunters.

Kilgore is fine with altering his farming practices to benefit wildlife on the game lands, he just hopes he doesn’t lose the acreage outright.

Or his dairy farm.

“When my father had heart trouble six years ago, I quit working construction to help him keep this operation going. This is heartbreaking for him,” Kilgore said. “My son wants to pursue dairy, and that’s the only reason I’m trying to stay in business. But if I lose that ground, we’d have to face a different reality.”

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