An Amish farmer cutting hay.
Photos by Patty O'Brien.
Agriculture, as a way of life, is integral to Lancaster County [Pennsylvania]," said Karen Dickerson, director of communications and marketing with the Lancaster Farmland Trust (LFT).
"Farmland preservation protects not only the soils that grow our food, but the agricultural industry, which provides one in five jobs in the county and is the foundation of our economic engine," Dickerson continued.
LFT (http://www.lancasterfarmlandtrust.org) is a leader in the nation when it comes to preserving farmland. In October 2013, LFT celebrated its 25th anniversary and the 100,000th preserved acre of farmland in Lancaster County.
History of LFT
As development continued to increase during the 1980s, folks realized something had to be done to safeguard the essence of Lancaster County - available farmland and the county's number one industry, agriculture. Additionally, there was a sense of urgency about protecting the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, the backbone of Lancaster County farming.
"Lancaster County's old-world charm stems from the heritage of its Pennsylvania Dutch residents, a culture known for its horse-and-buggy transportation, simplicity and family-centered, religious way of life. The heritage of these Plain sect people goes back hundreds of years. As a private, nonprofit organization, LFT is dedicated to helping landowners preserve their farms and way of life for future generations," Dickerson said.
Amos Funk, one of LFT's founders, was known as the "father of farmland preservation" in Lancaster County. He and co-founder Marilyn Ware are credited with creating the trust. In 2010, Funk died at the age of 98.
In 1980, a nine-member Agricultural Preserve Board was formed to preserve Lancaster County farmland. However, the majority of county farmers were part of the Plain sect, and the board was not able to reach them due to the reluctance of the Amish and Mennonites to partner with government agencies.
Funk and Ware discussed the need for an outreach organization to help Plain sect farmers preserve their land. A new group, Friends of Agricultural Land Preservation, was formed to reach out to these farmers.
The group still exists today and functions as an arm of the Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board (LCAPB). "The two organizations frequently complete joint preservation projects," Dickerson noted.
In August 1988, the LCAPB changed its name to Lancaster Farmland Trust, also known as "the Trust."
"The Trust is a private, nonprofit, local organization with the mission of preserving agriculture and protecting the land," Dickerson explained. "The organization is governed by a volunteer board of trustees. Funding for the Trust is provided by donations from private individuals and businesses, and grants from various private and public organizations and foundations."
Ware is still a supporter of LFT. She serves as an honorary trustee on the board so she can continue to advocate for farmland preservation.
According to Dickerson, LFT has met the founders' goals. It has developed strong relationships with the county's Amish and Mennonite farmers. Amish and Mennonite families own approximately 90 percent of the farms preserved through LFT.
A young Amish boy holds out brown eggs. Selling eggs is one of the side businesses that many Amish and Mennonite farms provide for the local economy.
Celebrating a milestone
"In addition to celebrating the organization's 25th anniversary this year, the Trust and the Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board celebrated the milestone of 100,000 acres of farmland preserved in the county - a first in the nation." Dickerson said. "This accomplishment is truly impressive when you consider the fact that the average Lancaster County farm is only about 78 acres."
What's so special about Lancaster County's farmland that the Trust celebrates its 100,000th acre of preserved land?
Dickerson noted that the county's farmland has some of the richest, most productive nonirrigated agricultural soils in the world. Every year, Lancaster County's agricultural industry provides more than 51,000 jobs and contributes more than $4 billion to the local economy.
According to Dickerson, dairy farming is the county's main agricultural business. Yet many farmers diversify their farm businesses with everything from stand-alone produce stands to crop farming to selling pasture-raised eggs and meat.
"As Lancaster County struggles with the increasing pressure of development at its borders, communities are recognizing that new growth does not have to come at the expense of farmland," Dickerson noted. "LFT provides a solution to farmers who want to preserve their land and way of life, including attracting jobs, enhancing property values, safeguarding a valuable way of life for future generations, ensuring an adequate fresh food supply, and protecting the quality of the environment."
Preserving farmland and teaching sustainable skills
The Susquehanna River and its tributaries flow south from New York and into the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Unfortunately, for many generations, Lancaster County farms abutting creeks that flow into the Susquehanna River, as well as the Susquehanna itself, have contributed to Chesapeake Bay's pollution problem.
In 2006, LFT realized it needed to help farmers with conservation awareness in order to reduce the amount of manure and other farming byproducts flowing south into the bay. Dickerson said, "Good conservation practices not only protect the local water and the Chesapeake Bay, they also can increase farm profits by improving and protecting soil, water and animal health."
A Lancaster County goat stares into the lens for a close-up.
LFT and the LCAPB worked together to help farmers with conservation practices. Both organizations regularly visit preserved farms to ensure they are using sound conservation practices. The LCAPB has also teamed up with the Lancaster County Conservation District to visit farms and ensure that soil conservation measures are in place.
LFT doesn't act like an environmental police force. It holds educational workshops, teaching hundreds of Lancaster County farmers about the value and importance of best management practices.
Many Lancaster County farms are intergenerational.
The Smart Farms Program
"The Trust has been successful in helping farmers ensure that the county's rich agricultural soils remain productive and water quality remains pure," said Karen Dickerson of Lancaster Farmland Trust (LFT). "Through the Trust's Smart Farms program, staff works one-on-one with landowners to assist them in deciding how to best care for their land and its valuable resources."
In 2006, LFT created the Smart Farms program to educate farmers about good conservation practices. The program has helped over 1,000 farmers by offering consultations and workshops; writing conservation and manure management plans; and providing funding and technical assistance to farmers who want to use agricultural conservation practices.
"Smart Farms is an agriculturally and environmentally conscious program that assists local producers in managing sustainable operations. With a host of soil and water conservation practices available to farmers, Trust staff will help tailor a selection of practices that will provide long-term benefits for the producer and the environment," Dickerson stated.
"Some of the best management practices that the Trust can assist farmers with include nutrient management, stream bank protection, no-till and cover cropping, barnyard runoff controls, manure storage, terraces and diversions, and nutrient credit trading," Dickerson said. "The Trust offers on-farm consultations with the Trust's stewardship coordinator and other experts in agricultural operations who can address farmers' concerns and assist farmers to comply with regulations affecting agriculture," she added.
Trust: The building block of preserving farmland
Farmers in the northeastern U.S. can learn a lot from LFT's example. One of the keys to its success came from building consistent relationships and developing trust with the Plain community.
LFT also built relationships with the local municipalities that make the land use decisions. The LFT helped municipalities realize the importance of supporting agriculture and farmland preservation in their local communities.
"LFT's municipal outreach program was established to work with municipalities to plan, protect and fund the preservation of agriculture in Lancaster County, including establishing Agricultural Security Areas and zoning and subdivision ordinance revisions. The Trust has been extremely successful in partnering with Lancaster County municipalities, including Warwick, Penn, West Lampeter and the Elanco [Eastern Lancaster County] region, to establish the transferable development rights [TDR] program to protect ag land and create a revolving fund for preservation while appropriately accommodating for growth in the region. Several of these programs have been models across the U.S. for TDR implementation elsewhere," Dickerson explained.
According to Dickerson, LFT's relationships with the LCAPB, local municipalities, businesses and elected officials have contributed to preserving Lancaster County's farmland.
An Amish farmer and his team out in the field near Strasburg, Pa.
"Each of these partnerships can be reproduced in other parts of the country and be equally as successful," Dickerson said. "Trust staff has led numerous workshops through the national Land Trust Alliance and the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, sharing experiences, knowledge, strategy and skills to help other conservation groups. Our executive director, Karen Martynick, has also shared LFT's strategies with farmland preservationists in surrounding counties and neighboring states, as far as away as Michigan."
Indeed, for the past 25 years, LFT has protected Lancaster County's farmland from overdevelopment, allowing the Amish and Mennonites to continue their centuries-old tradition of farming and lifestyle. LFT plans to continue its outreach to the Plain sect community for the next 25 years and beyond.
Dickerson concluded: "Reaching 100,000 acres of preserved farmland is just one measurement of our progress on the path to piecing together Lancaster County's landscape, one farm at a time." Dickerson concluded.
Wendy Komancheck writes about the green industry from her home in Lancaster County, Pa. For more information, visit http://wendykomancheckswriting.wordpress.com.