Pennsylvania boasts progressive movement to preserve farmland
Before Bill Iams began raising beef cattle and planting acres of hay on a farm in southern Washington County, five generations worked the soil and raised livestock there.
Soon, Iams hopes to ensure the 155 acres in Amwell, which the king of England granted to his ancestors before the American Revolution, remain farmland forever.
“Look around at the changes in this area over the last 50 years, especially in the Washington area. North on Route 19 was all farms,” said Iams, 57, owner of Log Cabin Fence Co., a farming supply business off Interstate 79 in Amity. “Now you’ve got malls and everything else going on but farming.”
Iams awaits approval by a state committee to sell development rights to his farm to Washington County through the county’s Farmland Preservation Program, part of a statewide initiative to make certain that fertile land is used for agriculture.
Iams’ interest in the program is unusual for a Washington County farmer. The number of applications has dwindled from a high of 18 filed in 2006 to none this year, said Caroline Sinchar, a county planning administrator who runs the program. Iams applied last year.
“It’s only since gas came into play that our applications have dropped off. … A lot of people have misconceptions that the government is buying their land or gas rights to the land,” she said. “We’re not. We’re only buying your rights to develop your land.”
Since 1995, Washington County has preserved 29 farms and nearly 4,700 acres. The program added six farms and 1,200 acres since the end of 2008 — about the time the Marcellus shale natural gas boom struck.
“Now we can’t even get people to come to a meeting,” Sinchar said.
Preservation with purpose
Other counties where natural gas drilling isn’t as prevalent report continued interest. Westmoreland County leads Western Pennsylvania with 95 farms and more than 12,000 acres preserved, said Betty Reefer, director of that county’s Agricultural Land Preservation program.
Development rights to three more farms are being sold.
“We always have more applicants than we can preserve,” Reefer said, noting the program received as many as 65 applications in a year. Last year, it received 12.
Michael Burgoon, a Butler County real estate agent, recently added 60 acres of farmland his grandfather bought in 1925 to 87 acres he has preserved in the program. Eventually, he said about 220 acres of his family’s land will be included.
“I think it’s important, and I’m glad to have ours in there,” said Burgoon, 63, of Clay Township.
Houses line two roads that run along the family farm, which is leased to another operation to grow corn and soybeans. Before Burgoon’s mother died in 2010, she declined numerous offers to develop parts of the farm, he said.
“My mom didn’t want anyone living here but us. And the way the whole farm will be established when we’re gone, no one can ever develop it,” Burgoon said. “A hundred years from now, people might wonder why we did it. But they will still be getting food from it.”
How it works
Since the program’s inception in 1989, Pennsylvania has preserved 4,612 farms and nearly 500,000 acres at a cost of about $1.2 billion, said Doug Wolfgang, director of the state’s Bureau of Farmland Preservation.
Last year, programs across the state spent about $52 million to preserve 168 farms. State funding comes from portions of cigarette taxes and the Environmental Stewardship Fund; some federal money is available.
Rights are worth an average $2,500 per acre. Property owners receive the difference between the land’s market value and agricultural value. Delaware County farms receive the most, at $13,500 per acre; Bedford County land gets an average $676 per acre, the lowest.
Washington County recently increased its per-acre maximum to $3,000 from $2,000.
Prospective properties must include at least 50 acres, unless they border a preserved farm, and at least half of the land must be used for agriculture. Eligible farms are ranked according to the number and kinds of farms in the area and demand for development, among other criteria.
Almost 1,900 Pennsylvania farms are on waiting lists for preservation.
One of Iams’ relatives sold to a developer. What once was their grandfather’s farm became Lone Pine Country Club in Green Hills, Washington County.
Iams doesn’t begrudge that decision. But it isn’t one he plans to make with the family farmstead or two adjacent farms he owns.
“The number of farms in the area keeps dwindling,” Iams said. “Once a farm is subdivided, it never goes back to being a farm again.”
Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or [email protected].