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Private, public groups encourage farm protections

By Bob Stiles
Sunday, December 2, 2007

Levi Miller’s straw hat and long, white beard moved from side to side as he shook his head at the notion of the Amish accepting government money to preserve farmland.
“I don’t think any of our people would go for that,” said Miller, 80, of Smicksburg, Indiana County, who has farmed for more than 50 years. “They don’t take pay for something they don’t do.”

Amish farmers in the counties of Indiana, Somerset or Lawrence — areas with large Amish settlements — don’t participate in farmland preservation programs, according to preservation officials in those communities. But in Eastern Pennsylvania, Amish in fast-growing counties such as Lancaster and Chester have come to realize that preservation programs may be the best way to preserve farmland.

“I think part of it is, in southeastern Pennsylvania, it’s right in your face,” said Matt Knepper, director of Lancaster County’s farmland preservation program. “The conversion of farmland to other uses, we see it every day.”

With the preservation program, a farmer sells the right to develop the property, and receives a set amount of money per acre in exchange for keeping the land in agriculture. The amount varies from county to county, based on real estate values and the money available, agriculture officials said.
There has been less of a push with the farm preservation program in southwestern Pennsylvania than in eastern counties, where development is more rapid. The Amish in Western Pennsylvania also tend to be more conservative than those in the southeast, Kraybill said.

“They won’t accept any money from the government,” said Susan Moon, assistant manager of Somerset County’s conservation district.

Pennsylvania’s Amish population of about 48,600 ranks second to Ohio’s nearly 55,000 Amish residents, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County. Amish settlements in Lancaster County, Indiana County and the New Wilmington region of Lawrence County are among the largest in the country, according to the college’s Web site.

Pennsylvania ranks No. 1 in the nation in farmland preservation, according to the American Farmland Trust. About $536 million has been spent through the state’s conservation easement program, preserving 344,465 acres and nearly 3,050 farms.

Knepper said time, more liberal thinking among some Amish religious leaders and a better understanding of the purpose of the money were factors in getting the Amish involved.

Betty Reefer, of Westmoreland County’s agriculture preservation program, said that’s helped encourage Amish participation.

“In the beginning in Lancaster County, it was very tough getting them involved in farmland preservation because it involved the government, but they were able to convince them it fit into their lifestyle, and it caught on,” she said.

Of the 694 farms preserved through the Lancaster County program, about 25 involve Amish farmers, Knepper said. Most of those became involved in the program within the last three years, he said.

Karen Martynick, executive director of the nonprofit Lancaster County Farmland Trust, said about 60 percent of the 273 farms preserved through the trust, or approximately 165 farms, involve the Amish.

She said her group’s use of private money appealed to more Amish than the government-funded preservation program, even though the Trust is paying about $800 per acre compared to the $3,000 to $4,000 per acre typically paid through the state-county preservation program.

“They see changes on the horizon, and they see more and more young people going off the farms,” Martynick said. “They want to see it stay in agriculture.”

The trust began accepting government funding in 2005. Martynick said that money isn’t used to preserve Amish properties if the Amish object.

Henry Beiler, an Amish farmer in Lancaster County who participates in the preservation program, said many Amish farmers didn’t understand how they could receive money for something they couldn’t see.

Donald Kraybill, professor of sociology at Elizabethtown College and a noted Amish scholar, said the Amish reluctance to participate with the government stems from an age-old conviction.

“In general, they’ve always drawn a line between the church and the state,” he said.

They don’t take out insurance policies, Kraybill added, because “they feel the church should take care of its members and its people.”

About 20 Amish farms are included in the more than 200 farms preserved through Chester County’s open space and farmland-preservation programs, said Bill Gladden, director of the county’s open space program.

He said efforts of public and private groups have met with the Amish and that has made a big difference.

A farmland-preservation arm of the private Brandywine Conservancy was formed a few months ago, and Patrick Fasano of the conservancy said two Amish farms have been preserved so far through the conservancy’s efforts.

Bob Stiles can be reached at or 724-836-6622.

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