Farmland Preservation Program marks 50th

Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Pennsylvania, and a program marking its silver anniversary helps to keep it that way.

The Pennsylvania Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program – commonly known as the Farmland Preservation Program – was developed to strengthen Pennsylvania’s agricultural economy and protect prime farmland. It was formed to slow the loss of the state’s best farmland to nonagricultural uses. The program, which enables state and county governments to purchase conservation easements from farmers, was approved in 1988, and the first easement was purchased in December 1989.

Today, Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of farms and acres permanently preserved for agriculture production.

“We have invested more than $1.2 billion in the future of farming. We have 4,491 farms with 480,089 acres enrolled in the program,” said Will Nichols, state Department of Agriculture spokesman.

“No other state has such a strong commitment to its farming future,” said state Agriculture Secretary George Greig.

Presently, 57 counties have established farmland preservation boards. A 17-member state Agricultural Land Preservation Board provides statewide governance of the program. That board is responsible for the distribution of funds, approval and monitoring of the county programs and specific easement purchases. The Department of Agriculture Bureau of Farmland Preservation is responsible for administration of the statewide program, Nichols said.

Lancaster County leads the nation in the number of farms preserved, while Berks County is the leader in the number of acres preserved through the state program.

To become part of the farmland preservation program, a farm must be located in an Agricultural Security Area. Legislation creating that program was adopted in 1981 to protect farmers from nuisance laws affecting normal farming activities.

Once a farm or part of farm is included in the farmland preservation program, it can be used for farming and nothing else.

Farmers are compensated for participating in the program.

“They are paid an easement value. That is the difference between the value of the land for general use or for farming. In virtually all cases, farmers take a bargain sale. They are willing to take less than the easement value,” Nichols said. “Very seldom do farmers receive 100 percent of the value of the land because they are so passionate about preserving the area so they donate it. They want to be sure it remains in agriculture for perpetuity.”

An interested landowner must contact his county farmland preservation board to be placed on a list to be considered for the program.

The applications are ranked on soil quality and development potential for farmland, other development and clustering potential, said Donna Fisher, Blair County Conservation District director and coordinator for the Blair County program.

“The one with the highest ranking is contacted to see if they want to have an appraisal done. The appraisal determines the value for development and the value for farming and the difference is the easement value,” Fisher said.

The program has been very popular in area counties.

“As of today we have 43 farms, which include 6,251 acres. We get between 20 and 30 applications every year. There is no lack of interest,” Fisher said.

David Hileman, owner of Hilecrest Angus Farm in Sinking Valley and Dennis Brumbaugh of Curryview Farms near Curryville are among those who participate in the program.

At one point Hileman owned five eased farms totaling 715 acres. Since then two have been sold, leaving three farms totaling 400 acres in the program. Brumbaugh and his family have two totaling 205 acres.

“We didn’t want to see it go into development. We wanted to keep this in farming for the next generation,” Brumbaugh said.

“This was a good opportunity of perpetuating the farmland in Sinking Valley as an agricultural community,” Hileman said. “In different areas of the state there are different conditions that cause it to be criticized, but in our area of central Pennsylvania, where we are under less pressure for development, I think it is a very good program.”

There also is no lack of interest in Centre County, which has 42 farms and 6,432 acres in its program.

“Our record speaks for itself. We have 68 active applications, there is quite a demand for this program. I think it has done a great job of rewarding land owners for their development rights, and they are giving them up very willingly,” said Sarah Walter, coordinator of the Centre County Farmland Preservation Program. “We’ve put $1.9 million into the program since 1989 and received over $13 million from the state and federal government. That is a pretty good return on our investment.”

Donald Schwartz, administrator of the Bedford County Farmland Preservation Board – the county has 15 farms and 2,845 acres in the program – bubbles with enthusiasm when talking about the program.

“We are preserving the highest quality soils for farms under perpetual easements. I see it as a gift to the future residents of the county. It is a wonderful way to preserve our agricultural resources,” Schwartz said. “I feel good to be involved with something tangible, this is very tangible, this is real, it is forever. I am proud to be associated with the program.”

Cambria County – with 15 farms and 2,059 acres – is one of the smaller counties in the program.

“We are always wishing we could get more money, there is a lot of interest in it,” said Mark Stockley, coordinator of the Cambria County Farmland Preservation Program. “We have had several blocks of farmland preserved, that is one thing we stress so it doesn’t get fragmented. It is one of the best programs.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.