The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


June 26, 2010

Farm preservation in jeopardy

Program funds face budget raid

LEWISBURG — Jim Brubaker, of Lewisburg, has sold development rights for four farms to a county preservation program in hopes of keeping farmland abundant and thriving.

Now, neighboring farmers might not be able to follow Brubaker's lead because Gov. Ed Rendell hopes to shift dollars used for farmland preservation to other uses as the state grapples with a looming budget deficit.

The Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Association in Union County has preserved 60 farms — 6,633 acres — since the program's start in 1992, paying farmers $7.9 million in county, state and federal funds, said program administrator Cindy Kahley.

Brubaker was one of them.

Formerly a resident of Lancaster, he saw the push for development on farmland there. Once in the Central Susquehanna Valley, he and his family felt strongly about saving farmland. They started Buffalo Valley Farms and purchased two additional properties already preserved through the program, totaling 750 acres of safe land.

State Sen. John Gordner, R-27 of Berwick, said Rendell, a Democrat, recently has come up with proposals to raise taxes or take funds from the preservation program to bring money into the general fund.

On the governor's list of funds to raid are the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund, Growing Greener funds and the Farmland Preservation funds, said Gordner.

"We're opposing that," he said, "and I think a lot of environmental folks would have a problem with the money directed elsewhere, too."

The program in Union County is thriving and has more than 40 farmers on a waiting list, hoping to preserve their land, Kahley said.

Here's how it works: the association buys the development rights from the land owners. Their farms are appraised, and the difference between the market value and farmland value is paid per acre. She said farmers have been paid between $1,300 to $2,000 an acre to give up their development rights.

The program funds are allocated through the county's budget each year, and that county expenditures are matched by the state.

Applications open every January, and Kahley said seven new applications were filed this year, to be added to the backlog of 44 farms, or 4,784 acres, waiting to be preserved. Each of these farms are ranked according to specific criteria and the rights are purchase according to that ranking.

The criteria include: being located in an agriculture security area; at least 50 acres in size; half of the land tillable; and the other half of the land has to be in class 1-4 soils in the county.

The farms are inspected once a year to make sure there's no development and to check the status of the conservation plan.

"We need to continue to keep agriculture land because that's where food comes from," Kahley said. "If we develop all the land, where will we be getting our food source?"

Both Kahley and Brubaker believe the proposed program cuts could have a negative impact on the county, and allow developers to scoop up the farmland.

According to the 2007 census, 8 percent of farmland had been lost since 2002.

"Union County is ranked 17th for the market value of products sold," she said. "It does have an impact as far as agriculture, and we cannot risk losing that."

Brubaker agreed, mentioning agriculture is the No. 1 business in the state and said there isn't much funding for it.

"In terms of the amount of jobs ag creates, it's huge," he said. "So whenever you can support that, it's very positive. I think it would be very unwise to eliminate this program."

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