1,000 preserves … Saved farms hit landmark - LancasterOnline: News

1,000 preserves … Saved farms hit landmark

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Posted: Wednesday, October 8, 2008 1:40 am | Updated: 9:01 pm, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

A historic milestone is fast approaching.

When the Lancaster County commissioners meet this morning, they are expected to authorize the preservation of a 124-acre crop-and-dairy farm in Bart and Colerain townships owned by Bart Township supervisors chairman Calvin Keene and his wife, Valeria.

It will be the 997th farm in Lancaster County to be permanently protected from developers' bulldozers by the county and the private, nonprofit Lancaster Farmland Trust since 1981.

Matt Knepper, executive director of the county's Agricultural Preserve Board, said Tuesday that he expects the 1,000th farm to be preserved by the end of the month.

"Lancaster County is a national leader in the preservation of production agriculture and the sustaining of our culture and the industry that provides so many jobs that mean so much to Lancaster County," commissioner chairman Dennis Stuckey said. "It's going to be a real honor to stay the national leader and to hit that 1,000th farm in conjunction with Lancaster Farmland Trust."

With protected farm No. 1,000 at the county's fingertips, both Stuckey and Knepper said they have no idea how far the preservation program can go.

"Given the importance of production agriculture to Lancaster County, I don't really see an end to farmland preservation," Stuckey said. "It is such an important part of our culture, our heritage and our economy."

Added Knepper, "Without public support, we wouldn't have made it to 1,000 farms. As long as we have that support, and the county continues to provide funding, I think we can continue on."

Once the Keene farm is preserved today, the county will have bought the development rights to 691 farms over the past 30 years.

Lancaster Farmland Trust has preserved 290 farms, and the county and Trust jointly have protected an additional 16.

All together, those 997 farms cover about 80,000 acres, according to Knepper.

According to American Farmland Trust, 2 acres of farmland are lost to development every minute of every day.

The Trust's Web site states "farm and ranch land is desirable for building because it tends to be flat, well-drained and affordable."

Despite that nationwide trend, interest in farmland preservation among Lancaster County landowners continues to be high, Knepper said.

No matter how many farms the county preserves each year - Knepper said he expects that number to be about 40 this year - enough new farmers apply to the program each year that the Agricultural Preserve Board continuously carries a waiting list of more than 200 farms.

"Every year, we have more applicants to work with than we have funding for," he said.

Likewise, public support for farmland preservation seems unwavering.

Just last year, Lancaster Farmland Trust sponsored a poll of potential voters, in which 65 percent of respondents said they would pay an additional $2 per month in taxes just to preserve farms.

Finding money for the effort and stretching those dollars as far as possible are key issues facing the county's farmland preservation program as it passes the 1,000-farm mark, officials agree.

This past year, the county commissioners earmarked $8 million for the program, the Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Board chipped in $3.09 million and the federal government contributed an additional $500,000.

When the state's preservation program began in 1989, Lancaster County had a combined funding pool of nearly $5 million to work with.

The first farm preserved with state and county funds that year was a 173-acre property in Drumore Township, which cost $127,118 to protect.

The Keenes agreed to a "bargain sale" by knocking 10 percent off the appraised value of the easement on their 124-acre farm.

Even with that reduction, they are expected to be awarded $328,503 in county and federal money today.

"We have to continue to be creative in the ways we leverage our funding - with getting federal funding, working with the Farmland Trust, bargain sales - make the $8 million the county put up this year stretch further than it would without all that leveraging," Knepper said.

Stuckey sees plenty of "creative funding" for farmland preservation in the future.

"Do I see a time when there might be less than we're putting in today? Certainly," Stuckey said. "Given our current economic times and situation, that's a real possibility. …

"What I do see changing is finding different funding mechanisms and trying to wean ourselves from just borrowing money to continue to fund this program on a long-term basis."

The commissioners have not yet discussed how much to allocate for farmland preservation in next year's county budget, Stuckey said.

E-mail: preilly@lnpnews.com

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