Almost 160 farms have been selected to stay in agriculture since the Cumberland County Farmland Preservation Program ranked its first round of applicants in 1992.
Virtually all the preserved farms are located in the fertile valley of limestone soils between the Conodoguinet Creek in the north and the Yellow Breeches Creek in the south, said Stephanie Williams, program administrator.
The farms total about 18,200 acres or about 12 percent of all the farmland in Cumberland County, she said. “We are ranked eighth in the state in the total number of acres preserved.”
A seven-member board will be meeting this spring to select eight more farms in which to purchase conservation easements using about $3 million in state and county funds, Williams said. There are 30 applicants on the list.
Williams and her staff will weigh each application based on a set of criteria before recommending a ranking to the board. Staff will then contact the farms that are selected to verify if the property owners want to proceed with the appraisal stage of the process.
Under the program, each property owner is paid no more than $4,000 per acre based on their location and the difference in the appraised value between their land in agriculture and their land in development, Williams said.
If the property owner approves the restriction, the land will be placed in a conservation easement for perpetuity meaning that it must stay in agriculture forever. It is not a program that should be entered into lightly.
“The deed of conservation easement is a 10-page document that gets recorded in the recorder of deeds office,” Williams said. “It is a legally binding document that follows the land from property owner to property owner.
“The decisions these families make will affect future generations,” she said. “I always encourage applicants to talk with their family and their children. Hopefully, everyone is on the same page.”
Williams is straight-forward with every applicant. The current cap on conservation easements is $4,000 per acre. “We are not in a position financially to compete with developers,” she said.
The county maximum is nowhere near what some developers are willing to pay a farmer for their land, said Kent Strock, a farmer in Upper Allen Township and president of the Cumberland County Farm Bureau.
What the program does is give the farmer a short-term influx of cash in exchange for a long-term restriction on his property, Strock said. He said the money can be used to expand a farm operation by adding acres or livestock to improve the standard of living of the farmer.
“Many farmers are using the money to pay down debt or to buy new land or equipment,” Williams said. “Our hope is they are taking the funds and reinvesting in agriculture.” The program rules do not put any restrictions on how the farmer could spend the money.
Preserved farms continue to increase in value even though they are restricted to agriculture, Williams said. “As land gets developed, preserved farmland is at a premium.
“We are always looking for eligible applicants,” she said. “We want to preserve the best of the best farms.”
The county program started in 1989 and had its first round of approvals in 1992. By that time, there was so much development in the eastern part of Cumberland County that there were no farms left to preserve, Williams said. To be eligible for the program, the farm must be in an agricultural security area as designated by a township.
The amount paid per acre tends to lean towards the $4,000 cap between Mechanicsburg and Carlisle, Williams said. This is because that farmland is under the greatest amount of development pressure. There is a cluster of preserved farms in Monroe Township that extends into the nearby townships of Upper Allen, South Middleton and Middlesex.
Most of the 160 farms preserved in the program are west of Carlisle where the development pressure is not as great and there is no public water and sewer, Williams said. There the amount paid per acre tends to average around $2,500.
To qualify for the program, the farm must be at least 52 acres and located within the security area. In the past, the board has accepted smaller farms if the land is adjacent to a preserved farm in the theory that the program can build upon an existing block, Williams said.
She said 50 percent of the soil has to be Class One or above and the farmer must provide an approved erosion and sedimentation plan. “We want to make sure they are being good stewards of the property,” Williams said.
Farmland preservation is a program of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture administered at the county level. As such, the bulk of its funding is from the state with support from the county.
“Occasionally, we get federal funds or work with a municipality,” Williams said. “We also have the ability to accept private dollars to invest in the program. If someone is willing to donate, we can use that money as match to get additional state dollars.”
Striking a balance
The seven-member board includes a township supervisor, two at-large citizens and three farmers. There is also a contractor who represents the development community.
“They are geographically varied and diverse in their backgrounds,” Williams said. “The common thread is they are all passionate about farmland preservation and agriculture.”
She said the board tries to balance the need to preserve agriculture as an industry with the need for growth and development. Each year each application receives a ranking based on criteria.
Forty percent of the score takes into account soil quality based on soil maps. Limestone soils between the two creeks tend to be the most productive while the more shale based soils north of the Conodoguinet and south of the Yellow Breeches tend to be less productive and more prone to drought, Williams said.
Another 30 percent of the score takes into account “clustering,” the proximity of the applicant farm to other preserved farms within the agricultural security area. The location of the applicant farm must also be consistent with the Cumberland County land use map.
Having preserved farms clustered together makes it easier to farm and lessens the impact agriculture has on nonfarm neighbors, Williams said. “Where you have more preserved farmland, you can sustain ag-related businesses.”
Twenty percent of the score examines the farming potential of the applicant, specifically how much of the farm is being used for production and how much income is being generated by the farm. This factor is important in determining the long-term sustainability and viability of the farm.
Lastly, 10 percent of the score is what the board terms “development potential.” This takes into account the proximity of the farm to public water and sewer and the amount of road frontage.
Farms with only a couple hundred feet of frontage are less at risk of development because of the distance criteria needed for a major driveway or entrance street. “If you have a mile of frontage, you can subdivide off lots pretty easily,” Williams said.
The reason “development potential” only makes up 10 percent of the score is because the county only wants to preserve the best farms in those areas where it makes the most sense to sustain the agriculture industry, Williams said.
The county does not want to encourage the preservation of farms in areas where there is public water and sewer because development would just skip over the preserved farms and create a patchwork of incompatible uses.