Back in the late 1980s, leaders in Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry were noticing a troubling trend in farmland.

Increasingly, valuable and productive farmland was being sold for development. Entire counties were being transformed by a shifting demographic. The loss of farmland made it tough for others in agriculture to thrive. Agriculture-related businesses, like equipment dealers and hardware stores, felt the loss of the farming base.

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and others in the agriculture sector took action and helped convince the state’s General Assembly to create the mechanism for farmers to preserve farmland. Farm Bureau also helped educate the public on the issue, and in 1987 voters approved a $100 million bond to use for farmland preservation.

The following year, lawmakers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, created the state’s farmland preservation program, opening the way for counties to set parameters for how farmers could sell their development rights. As part of the agreement, the farm families continue to own the land, but give up their right to sell the land for residential or commercial development.

The Keystone State’s preservation program had a humble beginning, but it is now a national leader, with more farms and farmland enrolled than any other state in the country.

Pennsylvania’s program recently reached a significant milestone, eclipsing the 500,000-acre plateau of preserved farmland. To put that in perspective, 500,000 acres is roughly two-thirds the size of the state of Rhode Island.

This milestone was celebrated with a ceremony at Flinchbaugh’s Orchard and Farm Market in York County. The family farm recently enrolled 235 acres in the program, pushing the state over the half-million-acre threshold, and ensuring a family farming legacy for generations to come.

The Flinchbaugh family is symbolic of how the state’s farmland preservation program was designed to operate. The farm is located in a growing area of York County, which is experiencing development pressure from a number of regions, including Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

The next generation of the family has already taken over a major role on the farm and created a destination for the local community to spend time at their corn maze, pumpkin patch and farm market. There are thousands of stories like this throughout the history of the state’s farmland preservation program.

Despite the preservation program, suburban and rural areas have experienced growth from residential and commercial development. Places like Montgomery and Chester counties around Philadelphia have seen significant housing growth, and the same can be said around Pittsburgh and other cities. But I’m willing to bet that Pennsylvania would have lost significantly more farmland to development had the preservation program not been so robust.

Farm families have learned to adapt and change. We can grow more food per acre of land than ever before thanks to research and technology. We also go to great lengths to improve our soil and protect our natural resources, but we still need topsoil to succeed.

Like many states in the Northeast, agriculture continues to be one of the leading economic forces in Pennsylvania. The farmland preservation program has helped the industry survive and thrive. With the success of the program over the past 25 years, there is no reason why it should not continue to flourish in the future.