Agriculture is the leading economic enterprise in Pennsylvania. Between 1982 and 1997, over a million acres were developed and converted to other uses—the equivalent of 209 acres a day. In 1988, the state instituted a program to help slow the loss of prime farmland.
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program looks to preserve large clusters of farmland by buying development rights from eligible farms. The director of the Bureau of Farmland Preservation is Doug Wolfgang. “Developing should occur in those areas that are best suited, and the area that is retained for agriculture is in something called the Ag Security Area, which is a designation at the township level, and that’s a prerequisite to apply to the state farmland preservation program.”
Farms in an Agricultural Security Area get some protection from local ordinances and nuisance complaints as well as special consideration in cases of eminent domain.
A total of $1.2 billion federal, state and local dollars have gone into the program--in 2013, almost $52 million preserved 168 farms in Pennsylvania. State funding comes from a share of the cigarette tax and the Environmental Stewardship Fund. Some federal funds are available through the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program. Doug Wolfgang said, “After the farm is preserved, it continues to have to be used for ag production, so when that farmer passes the farm on to the next generation, or sells it, those deed restrictions that require it to be used for ag production stay in place, and that transitions from one farm owner to the next…in perpetuity.”
Wolfgang said agriculture’s total economic impact on the state is $68 billion dollars a year, so it is essential to protect the land base for future generations, but its importance goes beyond state borders.
“We’re located within close proximity of a large percentage of our nation’s population. We have some of the most fertile, non-irrigated soil found anywhere in the nation. These are critical lands to preserve and protect, so it’s a wise investment with a great return on that investment, assuring that these farms will stay in production for years to come.”
Farms apply to the farmland preservation program through county boards that rank the applicants. Wolfgang said soil quality is most important, along with proximity to existing preserved farmland. Other criteria include conservation practices and potential for commercial development. “How close is this farm to infrastructure, in other words, so is there a good chance that if we don’t preserve it, that in the future it’ll be used for some other purpose?”
Farmers accepted into the program receive the difference between the market value and the agricultural value of their land, as determined by a real estate appraiser, according to Wolfgang. “They often use the proceeds to offset debt, pay down mortgages, expand their operations, diversify their farming operations, so they’re able to tap into some of the equity of the farm while at the same time using it for agricultural production, so it’s a win-win, and for the community there are benefits to having open space and farmland that are innumerable.”
57 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties participate—not every county has exactly the same requirements. Washington County has preserved almost 4700 acres on 29 farms and recently increased the maximum it will offer per acre to $3000, according to administrator Caroline Sinchar. “This is our first increase since the inception of the program. Last year we were allocated about $450,000—we’re only able usually to pursue the top-ranked one or two farms.”
Sinchar said the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service will write a free conservation plan for any farm, which is a prerequisite to apply for preservation. “Each year a member of the conservation district and myself will inspect the farm to make sure that they’re following their conservation plan, that they haven’t put up any buildings that are not farm-related.”
Manchester-Farms, on 400 acres in Avella, Washington County, is about 200 years old. Joe Pagliarulo said he and his wife, a descendant of the original Manchester, bought it in 2005 when another branch of the family wanted to sell. They milk 100 cows. “We’re the only local organic dairy in the Pittsburgh area. We’re all grass-fed, grass-finished. We are non-homogenized, which means the cream comes to the top like an old-fashioned milk. We’re the closest thing to raw milk that you can legally buy in a store.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Manchester-Farms on its 2011 list of most endangered sites because it was threatened with longwall mining, according to Pagliarulo. Being in the farmland preservation program doesn’t invalidate a third party’s mineral rights, but he hopes it is a layer of protection, if only in the court of public opinion. “Everything is here from the early 1800s—all of our structures and whatnot. When you come in and longwall mine, you undermine the ground by a good 4 or 5 feet, so everything at the surface drops, and all your foundations, your waterways, wetlands--anything like that--becomes destroyed.”
The farmland preservation program allows farms to negotiate oil and gas leases, which Manchester-Farms has done. Pagliarulo said he has emphasized the historic value of the land to Chesapeake Energy, and all their drilling structures have been placed on adjacent property. “With fracking, there is certainly the possibility of mishap. Our major concern is obviously our water because we go through thousands of gallons of water a day to feed our cattle, and we just haven’t had an issue at all. With longwall mining, there is not the possibility, there is a 100% guarantee that that ground is going to subside by some 4 to 5 feet.”
The effects of the subsidence caused by longwall mining vary greatly because of the many forces involved.
Pagliarulo said the proceeds from selling the farm’s development rights to the state have also helped sustain the farm. “The farmer on the small scale is getting crushed. It is a tough, tough line of business. The margins are incredibly thin, and that’s why you have the agribusinesses out there. They’re milking 5,000 cows, 10,000 cows—they don’t need to have a 10% margin. They can work off a 1-, a 2% margin and make a profit out of it.”
Pennsylvania has preserved half a million acres on more than 4600 farms—more than any other state. 1900 eligible farms remain on county backlogs because the interest exceeds available funding.
Joe Pagliarulo said the farmland preservation program is important. “If you want to keep an area rural, it’s the way to go. It’s a great part of America that is getting sort of steamrolled. Out here, thank God, it still exists, and if you want it to continue to exist, you’ve got to put some effort into it—it’s not just going to happen on its own.”