Lancaster County is known for its productive soils and the hardworking farmers who devote their lives to providing food and fiber for people around the world.
For centuries, farmers in Lancaster County have worked the land and, when the time came to retire, transferred that land to the next generation, ensuring that the cycle would continue and the county’s most important natural resource — its land — would continue to feed millions of people each year.
A July 25 LNP editorial (“Present and future”) stated, “We must juggle helping older farmers and encouraging the next generation.” That historic cycle is now out of balance as farmers age and new farmers face obstacles such as the availability of farmland and the associated costs of establishing an operation.
This is not a new phenomenon but it has been exacerbated by challenges in the dairy industry, the escalating cost of agricultural land, and increasing environmental regulations on farming that often require expensive improvements with little benefit to the farm’s bottom line. Couple this with the (before) sunup to (after) sundown hours required of farmers and it is not hard to understand why this crisis has been worsening for decades.
As the editorial points out, farmers are often reluctant to step away from their operations “simply because there is no good exit strategy for their families.”
It was once assumed that the next generation would take over the operation from their retiring parents. That, too, has changed dramatically over the past several decades and now farmers who followed in their fathers’ footsteps often have no family member to whom they can pass the operation.
It is important to address this imbalance to ensure that we have farms — and farmers — to grow the food needed by an increasing population. And we are encouraged that our elected officials at the federal, state and local levels are seeking solutions.
While our elected officials look for new ways to address this growing problem, it is important to recognize that there is a tool that has been available for more than three decades to help in the transition of farms from one generation to another. That tool is farmland preservation.
Utilizing either the Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board or the private option of Lancaster Farmland Trust, preserving a farm can help farm families transition to the next generation or to a new owner. Preserving the farm, in most cases, provides a payment to the landowner that can assist in retirement planning. If the farmer opts not to take any payment, a tax deduction can help offset taxes incurred when the farm is sold.
At the same time, by removing the development potential on the land, preservation can make the land more affordable for a new farmer. For farmers who preserve with Lancaster Farmland Trust, assistance is available to improve their farming practices and comply with environmental regulations, including funding to relieve some of the financial burden.
Most importantly, the preservation of our productive farmland ensures that land will always be available for the next generation of farmers — and the generations after that — to grow the food we need to feed our families.
Lancaster County’s comprehensive plan, Places 2040, projects that the population of the county will increase by almost 100,000 people in the next 20 years. This growth will put tremendous development pressure on farmers and farmland. Good planning and effective zoning are important but the only way to ensure that farmland is available for aspiring farmers is to permanently preserve it.
Our farms provide fresh food and beautiful vistas. They support our economy and attract tourists from around the world. They improve our environment and enhance our quality of life. Farmland preservation provides a valuable tool to ensure that farmers and future farmers can continue to provide these valuable benefits to our community.
Karen Martynick has been the executive director of Lancaster Farmland Trust since 2004. She previously served as a Chester County county commissioner. Email: KMartynick@lancasterfarmlandtrust.