Family saves farm by selling development rights

April 09, 1997


Staff Writer, Waynesboro

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - The open, gently rolling land along Oellig Road has served the Stoner family well for five generations, and now the family is taking steps to ensure that the 1,650-acre property will remain much as it is down through the years.

The five brothers who make up Stoner's Inc. are selling development rights to the land, a few hundred acres at a time, to the state's farmland preservation program.

Eleven other farms in Franklin County also have been placed in the preservation program.

"You've got to have a love for the land to put it in ag-land preservation," said John Stoner, the oldest of eight children born and raised on the farm.


With the next Stoner generation taking an active interest in the family dairy farm, it made sense for John and brothers Gene, Bob, Jay and Dave to take a hard look at the future of farming, both for the family and for Franklin County.

"Even if all the kids said no to farming, I'd want to see it preserved for posterity," Stoner said.

He is well aware of statistics that show Franklin County, which ranks second in the state in dairy, peach and apple production, is losing prime agricultural land at the rate of 4,000 acres a year.

Stoner's Hijos Hill Inc. was founded as a dairy farm by J.W. Stoner in 1942, but the family's link to the land goes back further than that.

The original 238-acre farm, where John's grandfather planted 100 acres in potatoes, had to be sold during the Depression.

That acreage is back in the family now, and was the first portion of Stoner land placed in the preservation program.

The family was paid about $2,000 an acre, or about $470,000, for the development rights to the 238 acres.

The family has applied to have 200 more acres included in the preservation program and will continue to apply as more money becomes available at the state and county level, Stoner said.

Eventually, the family would like the entire farm - which has a milking herd of 500 cows and grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa and barley - to be placed in farmland preservation, Stoner said.

The Stoners began to consider preserving the farm shortly after the state approved the program in 1989.

Under the preservation program, the owner of agricultural property sells the development rights to the state. The state matches the county's contribution, which this year is $91,000.

Most of the farms surrounding the Stoner land are in an agriculture district set up by individual townships. To be eligible for inclusion in the farmland preservation program, property must be in an agriculture district.

Farmers in an agriculture district gain some benefits, including exemption from nuisance laws.

In Peters Township, where the Stoner property is located, property owners must apply to be included in an agriculture district. If the request is granted, their inclusion can be renewed every seven years.

"That's a tool that has some teeth and prevents major development," Stoner said. "Being in an agriculture district gives farmers some breaks. We are allowed to do normal farming practices."

Stoner said the bottom line is, something must be done to preserve land for farming.

"I'm not against development," Stoner said. "I'm not against housing, but we're developing prime agricultural ground at a more rapid rate than nonproductive soils. We've got to stop some of the rapid use of farmland."

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