Farmers like option to ‘save’ agriculture
By Michael Aubele
VALLEY NEWS DISPATCH
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Butler County farmer Ed Thiele said he has no regrets about enlisting in the state’s Farmland Preservation program.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me I was foolish for doing it,” he said. “But I did it to preserve the ground. We have to do something to preserve our farmland. We’re losing too much of it.”
The state paid Thiele $363,432 in 1996 for development rights on his dairy farm in Jefferson and Winfield townships. The easement guarantees the farm remains designated for agricultural use.
Thiele likely could’ve earned much more by selling his farm, or a portion, to a developer. But he said he has plans to keep the farm working and pass it on to his children.
The goal of the program is to conserve valuable farmland that can’t be reclaimed once it’s developed, That’s because the soil won’t be suitable for agriculture after it’s been so seriously disturbed.
Thiele and a few other Butler County farmers said the state’s program has been successful in reaching that goal. “There are always people stopping by, asking if I’ll sell them a portion to build a house or a church,” he said. “I tell them right off the bat that there’s a deed restriction on it.
“It’s a pretty big decision if you’re going to do it. If you’re going to do it, you’d better make sure it’s the right thing,” Thiele added. “If your goal is to make money, don’t get into the program. If it’s to preserve the land, then do it.”
Thiele said that once a farmer decides to sell development rights to the state, there’s no turning back.
“It’s not something you can get into and then get back out of again,” he said. “I’ve heard of cases where people tried to get out by paying back the money plus interest but couldn’t.”
According to the state Department of Agriculture, there are more than 100 farms in Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler and Westmoreland counties that are protected by the state’s program. About a dozen of those farms are in the Alle-Kiski Valley — the bulk of them in Butler County.
Agriculture department officials said more than 370,000 acres are preserved in the state, representing about 5 percent of the state’s farmland.
“Pennsylvania leads the nation in farmland preservation,” said Doug Wolfgang, director for the agriculture department’s Bureau of Farmland Preservation.
Wolfgang said it is unknown how many of the state’s farms would qualify for the program. The USDA, he said, has classified 7.65 million acres in Pennsylvania as farmland.
According to the American Farmland Trust, about 150,000 acres in the state have been developed over the last 10 years.
“Pennsylvania is blessed with a lot of good soil that’s better used in the long run keeping it farmland,” said Jim Baird, American Farmland Trust official. “There is other suitable land available to put buildings on to deal with growth.”
Ed Goldscheitter, who farms in Buffalo and Clinton townships, agreed and said that’s why he decided to protect his land through the state’s program.
“For 40 years I’ve been concerned about losing farmland to development and urban sprawl,” he said.
Goldscheitter has two parcels in the state’s program. He said he intends to pass the property down to family.
“We’re stewards of the land,” he said. “You just can’t keep putting up housing plans on it and continuing to destroy it. It’s not something we can let disappear because we don’t understand the value of it.
Goldscheitter said that when he decided to enter his second parcel into the program, he was one of the farmers forced to wait for funding to become available.
But he declined to say he felt any disappointment at having to wait. He said that’s the nature of the program.
“It is more difficult to get in now,” he said. “You make the assumption that farmers want to keep their land in the family and continue farming.”
Goldscheitter said he doubts farmers seek out the program to make money.
Fellow Butler County farmer Harold Foertsch estimated that he could earn three times as much money by selling his land to a developer than by selling development rights to the state.
Still, Foertsch said that didn’t dissuade him from applying this year for the program.
Foertsch farms corn, beans, wheat and potatoes and raises cattle. He said he’s seeking to have 100 acres protected and has been told his farm was accepted although he hasn’t been paid yet.
Like Thiele and Goldscheitter, Foertsch said his concern is watching good farmland turn into developed property that can’t be returned to agricultural use.
Farming for Foertsch is a family affair and he said he plans to keep it that way.
“It’s a way of life,” he said.
Michael Aubele can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-226-4673.