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Farm Aid 

State program to preserve farmland in jeopardy

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When Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget threatened to end funding for the Keystone Recreation, Parks and Conservation Fund, the outcry was immediate. The Keystone Fund conserves green space and supports trail projects, parks and more. Ending it, supporters claim, would harm landscapes, recreational opportunities and municipal budgets.

According to the group PennEnvironment, Keystone Fund supporters flooded Harrisburg with tens of thousands of messages. And last week, the House unanimously passed an amendment to restore full funding.

With the budget talks continuing, the Keystone Fund isn't safe yet. But it's better off than an equally important but lesser-known program also in peril.

The Department of Agriculture's farmland-preservation program pays farmers to permanently devote their land to agriculture. Created in 1988, it's protected nearly 4,300 farms and more than 460,000 acres from being plowed under for subdivisions, shopping centers and the like — about 6 percent of all agricultural land in the state. (By contrast, the Keystone Fund has conserved 120,000 acres.) In 2010, the Department of Agriculture claimed that Pennsylvania led the nation in number of farms and acres preserved.

The farm-preservation program is primarily seeded by $20.5 million in cigarette-tax revenue. Starting this year, Corbett proposes transferring that money to the state's general fund and replacing it with revenue from the Growing Greener Bond Fund. But that bond revenue is projected to last only two years, effectively defunding the program.

And with no dedicated funding stream, "We'll see more productive farmland consumed by development that farmers wanted to preserve," says Pennsylvania Land Trust Association Executive Director Andy Loza.

Alongside all their other financial challenges, farmers are notably beset by development pressures. Under the program, farmers have their property assessed for both its market value per acre and its agricultural value. Participants are paid the difference, or a portion of it, in exchange for a conservation easement — a legally binding agreement that the land will remain farm forever, even if the property changes hands.

The payouts are often significant. In Washington County, the owner of one 240-acre farm now seeking an easement would receive $336,000, says Caroline Sinchar, the county planning-department employee who administers the program. The program preserves one Washington County farm each year, she says, with a typical payment of $150,000 to $200,000.

Counties and townships also contribute to the program: nearly $17 million last year, compared to about $21 million the state paid. But, says Loza, "If the state money goes away, the local governments lose their matching incentive."

Farmers typically use conservation-easement payments to upgrade their operations. "I see a lot of new John Deere tractors on farms that have been preserved," says Betty Reefer, who heads Westmoreland County Agricultural Land Preservation, which has preserved 84 farms and 10,960 acres.

Environmentally, farms aren't all friendly; agricultural runoff is a big water polluter, for instance. But farms are greener than pavement or McMansions, and a lot more scenic. 

"Working family farms, that's like hand in hand with what makes Pennsylvania Pennsylvania," says David Masur of PennEnvironment, which is also working on preserving the farm-preservation program.

Moreover, there is ... food. Agriculture is among Pennsylvania's top industries, and farmland preservation is "critical to the survival of the farm industry," says Roy Kranyck, director of land protection for the Allegheny Land Trust. Citing the rise of the local-food movement, he adds, "This is not the time to be pulling funding for farmland preservation."

 "Agriculture is still our county's number-one industry," says Reefer. "They're all feeding all of us and I don't know how much more important it is than that."

"There's only so many acres out there that are prime soil," she adds. "They're not tearing up any blacktop anywhere to grow corn."

State Rep. William Adolph (R-Delaware), who led efforts to save the Keystone Fund, is also working on farmland preservation. An Adolph spokesman says a proposal to restore the cigarette-tax funds is under discussion. But contacting your legislator wouldn't hurt.

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