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State situation with farmland takes on ‘sense of urgency’

By Ron DaParma
Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s latest newsletter provides an insight into the organization’s efforts to protect and enhance historic farms.

The situation with such farms in the state “is taking on a sense of urgency,” according to the December edition of PHLF News, which identifies urban sprawl as the culprit.

“Urban sprawl is occurring at a higher rate in Pennsylvania than in almost any other state in the nation,” Landmarks says.

Slowing down that encroachment is a goal of the foundation’s Historic Farm Preservation Program, said Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., the organization’s president.

The program was established in 2002 with a $500,000 lead grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and augmented by additional grants of $100,000 from Richard M. Scaife, owner of the Tribune-Review Publishing Co. and a trustee of Landmarks, and $50,000 from the Laurel Foundation.

Since then, the organization has moved to protect some 1,300 acres and 35 historic farm buildings with a collective value of $6.4 million through easements, acquisitions and gift planning strategies.

“This is important, because we are losing farms at a rapid clip,” Ziegler said.

As reported recently by the Valley News Dispatch, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified 7.65 million acres in Pennsylvania as farmland.

Figures from the American Farmland Trust show about 150,000 acres in the state have been developed in the past 10 years.

In order to get a better handle on where the foundation can help, the organization is involved in a survey of about 1,150 farms and farm buildings in Washington and Greene counties. (Ziegler said an error occurred in the headline of the newsletter and in one part of the text, which identified Westmoreland, not Washington, as one of the two counties in the survey.)

Working with the Historic Pennsylvania Agriculture Project, Landmarks has joined with the federal Preserve America program and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to help fund and manage the survey, which began in July.

Total project cost is $109,942, with Landmarks responsible for raising $44,942.

Ziegler said work on the project is probably “about half done” at this time.

It’s being carried out by project teams who are photographing buildings and landscapes, sketching site plans of farmsteads and documenting special features that may be unique to the region’s agriculture.

In the meantime, a group of consultants is visiting historical societies and libraries to gather data, historic maps and photographs.

“The purpose of the survey is to document the agricultural history and resources of these two counties and create a comprehensive database that will support a statewide effort to preserve working farms, boost the agricultural economy, develop heritage education and tourism, and raise awareness about the importance of Pennsylvania’s agricultural history,” the newsletter says.

When the survey is completed in August, the data will be accessible online, along with a collection of oral histories from Pennsylvania farmers and archival materials, including federal and state agricultural census manuscripts for 1850, 1880 and 1927.

The foundation says it also hopes to raise funds to conduct a market analysis for special agricultural purposes based on the survey data.

It wants to define and implement a rural tourism program based on the region’s historic resources, and access the potential for developing a farm preservation easement program for the two counties.

The state Department of Agriculture says there are more than 100 farms in Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler and Westmoreland counties that are protected by the state’s program. 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.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633