Farmland preservation at crossroads

From the air, the county is a patchwork quilt of farmland. (file photo) (Richard Hertzler/Staff)

With more than 50 farms on its waiting list for preservation, Lancaster Farmland Trust raised about $130,000 through its annual dinner auction, which was hosted virtually this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Instead of gathering nearly 300 community members together in a room to share a meal, we hosted a live-broadcast event,” said Jeff Swinehart, the trust’s chief operating officer.

Still, trust officials are hopeful more donations will be made before their online Acres for Auction event concludes Saturday, Swinehart said.

The Acres for Auction event allows participants to donate directly toward the trust’s mission of preserving local agricultural land, with this year’s auction targeting an 82-acre dairy farm in Martic Township — the Beiler farm.

“We’ve already raised enough to preserve the Beiler farm,” Swinehart said. “We hope to keep the dollars coming in and use them towards the next farm on our waiting list.”

Securing a conservation easement on an average-sized, 60-acre farm costs about $66,000, a trust spokeswoman said previously.

Quickly acting to conserve farms on that list will be crucially important in the coming years, with Lancaster County’s growing population increasing demand for development, trust officials said.

Since 2019’s annual dinner, trust officials have preserved 806 acres on 14 farms, ensuring the land will see continued agricultural use — a five-year high for preservation.

And since the trust’s 1988 inception, 31,459 acres on 518 farms have been preserved, officials said.

This year, that work has been impacted by the pandemic, as well as related business shutdowns and social distancing requirements, Swinehart said.

“Like other businesses, our work stopped in the spring when our entire team began working remotely, and we couldn’t conduct our boots-on-the-ground work,” he said. “Through the summer and fall, our team has set several precautions in place and is working hard to continue our stewardship responsibilities to each farm while also shepherding new farms through the preservation process.”

The virus also has complicated the outcome of this year’s online dinner auction, he said.

“Since our window to raise funds for this event is still open, we don’t know for sure how this year’s event will compare, but we’ve had a solid response so far,” Swinehart said.

If there’s a silver lining, the pandemic likely has made consumers more aware of the importance local farms play in their communities, he said.

That’s due to virus-related breakdowns in the farm-to-grocer supply chain, which led to empty grocery store shelves, bolstering farm markers and other direct-to-consumer sales.

“During the pandemic, we’ve experienced an increase in interest from our community when it comes to buying local foods, which brings some light to the need to protect the land that provides our local and regional food supply,” Swinehart said.

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