Farmers line up to preserve land for agriculture
By Michael Aubele
VALLEY NEWS DISPATCH
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Pennsylvania’s Farmland Preservation program arguably is the leading program of its kind in the country in terms of money spent on protecting land and acres acquired.
Since creating the program in 1988, the state has invested roughly $1 billion in purchasing development rights — known as easements — from farmers who want to ensure their land remains dedicated to agricultural use.
But even with the vast amount of money being spent on easements and success of conservation efforts, many interested farmers find themselves being told they have to wait for a chance to participate.
While the state has preserved more than 3,300 farms, about 2,000 farmers have their names on a program waiting list, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Meanwhile, the state ranks sixth among those losing farms to development most rapidly.
Agricultural experts say even though Pennsylvania’s farm preservation efforts could be considered a model program, more funding is needed to prevent prime farming land from being converted to housing, commercial or industrial developments.
State leaders say finding additional funding might will be difficult and that there’s no guarantee throwing more money at the program will make it more successful.
“It is the nation’s leader, unquestioned,” Jim Baird, an official with the American Farmland Trust, said about Pennsylvania’s program. “But there really is more that needs to be done.
“The development pressure that is out there still is looming.”
The Trust, a nonprofit created in 1980, is lobbying Congress to allocate more money to farmland preservation and was involved in helping Pennsylvania create its preservation program.
The federal government spends money on protecting farms through the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. But Baird said the bulk of money being spent on farmland protection is done at the state and county levels.
Farmers who enter the program voluntarily sell development rights to the state, which guarantees that the farms remain agricultural land. This is “for perpetuity,” according to the state’s agriculture department.
Through Pennsylvania’s program, easements are purchased from farmers through state, county or local dollars or a combination.
Farmers interested in the program apply through the county. They must meet criteria, such as soil type, acreage and location.
The program is competitive. Farms are ranked and then offers are made by the county through an appraisal process. Final approval comes from the state.
As for the farmers waiting for a chance to participate in the program, state and county officials said they keep confidential the names on the program waiting list.
The backlog, state officials said, is an indication of how well the program is working.
“The key to Pennsylvania’s success has been farmers’ willingness to participate,” said Doug Wolfgang, director of the agriculture department’s Bureau of Farmland Preservation.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said the state spent a record $102 million on easements last year when Growing Greener II was approved. In 2005, he said, the state spent from $35 million to $40 million on the program.
“That boost saved an awful lot of farm acreage that otherwise wouldn’t have been funded,” Ferlo said.
The state appropriated $40 million for this year, said Betty Reefer, Westmoreland County farm preservation administrator.
But, Reefer expects the appropriation to drop to about $34 million for next year.
“Whether or not there will be another effort for conservation that might be in the early stages of debate, I don’t know,” she said. “I’m thinking there will be a slight decrease in next year’s appropriation, but it’s not until February that the state announces what the appropriation will be.”
“It is likely to be less than this year’s allocation because the Growing Greener II bond monies have been obligated,” Wolfgang said.
Reefer said she’d like to see more money allocated because her county can only protect about 10 percent of the farms on her waiting list each year.
“The most applications we’ve gotten in one year was 65,” she said. “And in one year, the most we can protect is maybe five farms.
“We just don’t have the adequate funding to move ahead with it. I wish we had enough dollars to protect the farms of all the farmers that apply.”
She said some farms have been on the county’s waiting list for as long as 10 years.
“That shows that the level of dedication among farmers is very strong,” she said. “I’m sure there were opportunities that might have come along to subdivide or sell part of their farms.”
Reefer said now is the time to dedicate the funding to protecting those farms.
State Rep. John Pallone, D-New Kensington, sees it differently, however. While an ardent supporter of the program, he doesn’t believe that pumping more money into the program is the answer.
“The intent of the program is being met, based on my knowledge of it,” he said. “I think we’re meeting our goals, and I don’t know that throwing more money at the program will make it any better.”
Pallone suggested the state might be on the tail end of farms that would qualify for a preservation easement.
“It becomes a matter of whether or not it would be prudent to preserve these lands,” he said. “Obviously, we want to preserve as much green space as possible and as much farm land as we can,” he said. “But, and I say this with reservation, I don’t know that we should preserve 100 percent of our farmland. If we continue to do things at a reasonable pace, we can implement reasonable controls on development.”
Pallone said that, at the county level, officials are working diligently to review the applications and that throwing more money at the program could jeopardize how thorough the review process is.
Ferlo said that, at some point, the state might revisit how it funds its farm preservation program but that, right now, it’s not being discussed.
“We have to deal with the hand we’ve been dealt,” he said. “There are so many competing needs out there, such as infrastructure. I want to fund all of these programs, but it’s a question of whether or not the Legislature has the appetite for binding debt.”
HOW THE PROGRAM WORKS
The state’s Farmland Preservation program was developed in 1988 to help slow the loss of prime farmland to nonagricultural uses. The program enables state, county and local governments to purchase conservation easements (sometimes called development rights) from owners of quality farmland. Counties participating in the program have appointed agricultural land preservation boards with a state board created to oversee this program. The state board is responsible for distribution of state funds, approval and monitoring of county programs and specific easement purchases.
Eligible farms must be part of an Agricultural Security Area (ASA), which is a designation made at the local level based on several criteria. In addition to being part of an ASA, the farm is rated against other eligible parcels according to the following criteria:
• Quality of the farmland. State regulations require that easements be purchased for farms containing 50 acres or more. Parcels as small as 10 acres may be preserved if adjacent to existing preserved farmland or used for the production of crops unique to the area. At least half the tract must either be harvested cropland, pasture or grazing land and it must contain soil that meets the state’s quality criteria .
• Stewardship. Farms are rated on the use of good conservation practices and best management practices of soil nutrients and control of soil erosion and sedimentation.
• Likelihood of Conversion. Easements offered for sale to counties will be scored and ranked for acquisition based on a variety of factors, including proximity of farm to sewer and water lines; extent and type of nonagricultural uses nearby; amount and type of agricultural use in the vicinity; amount of other preserved farmland in close proximity.
Farmers can receive the proceeds from easement sales in a lump sum payment, installments up to five years, or on a long-term installment basis. Many farmers use the proceeds from easement sales to reduce debt loads, expand operations, and as a way to pass on farms to the next generation.
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
COMPETING WITH DEVELOPMENT
According to American Farmland Trust, Pennsylvania ranks sixth in the country among states losing prime farmland to development. Here’s a look at the top 10.
4. North Carolina
Michael Aubele can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-226-4673.