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Strange strategies are helping save some farms

December 04, 1997

Strange strategies are helping save some farms

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

When a Washington, D.C., lawyer died three years ago, the Mercersburg, Pa., area property he owned ended up in the hands of the American Farmland Trust.

The organization, which seeks to preserve farmland across the country, leased the property to Glenn Moyer, a dairy farmer from Somerset County, Pa. Now Moyer, 44, is preparing to turn the former hay farm into a pasture-based dairy farm.

If he succeeds, Moyer will make a successful living and a piece of property that could have been developed for homes will remain green.

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"I've often said I'd like to start from scratch," said Moyer, who will begin a five-year lease in March.

Moyer said his grown children will run his farm in Somerset County with about half his herd. The rest, plus new animals he intends to buy, will remain at the Mercersburg farm.

A grass-based dairy operation differs from a traditional dairy farm in several important ways. The cows graze the fields and are not milked during the dead of winter. This allows farmers to save money because dry cows are much cheaper to maintain, and since the cows eat grass, the farms do not have to grow or buy corn and other crops, Moyer said.

While still relatively small in number, Moyer said it is a growing phenomenon. When he made the switch in 1986, he said there were only a handful of pasture-based dairy farms in his county.

But the change has allowed him to survive, Moyer said.

"If we had continued to operate that way in the mid-1980s, we probably wouldn't have stayed in business," he said.

Moyer's demonstration farm is one of several ways dairy farmers are attempting to cope with pressures that have run many of their colleagues out of business during the last decade.

Another tactic is legislative. Washington County extension agent Don Schwartz and others blame a "cheap-food policy" of the government that has kept prices for some crops low.

Having failed to push a milk price-support bill through the General Assembly last year, the Maryland Dairy Industry Association now plans to pursue a long-term strategy of organizing a farming compact among Southeastern states, officials said.

Boonsboro-area farmer Janet Stiles, a member of the association, said that - or some other measure - is desperately needed. She predicted this summer's dry weather will drive more farmers than usual out of business.

"There's probably going to be a mass exodus, I'm afraid," she said.

State governments in Maryland and Pennsylvania have launched programs as a hedge against development.

The programs in both states work similarly. Administered by county governments, state and local money is used to buy easements from farmers who agree not to develop their properties. The easement covers the difference in value between farmland assessed at a fair market value and an agricultural value.

For example, if an acre of land is assessed at $3,000 development value versus $1,000 agricultural value, the farmer could recoup all or part of the $2,000 difference.

Phil Tarquino, Franklin County planning director, said the county has purchased easements on 12 farms. Three more have been approved, he said.

"It's one tool. And it's relatively new. It's been in place for less than 10 years in Pennsylvania," he said.

But the programs have limitations, farm experts said. Franklin County extension agent Philip Wagner said the deal is mainly attractive to farmers who want to keep the land a farm, but not to those lured by big development dollars.

And, he added that it preserves relatively few farms.

"When you look at the big picture, that's a pretty small percentage," Wagner said.

Eric Seifarth, a land-use planner in Washington County, said funding sources do not provide enough money. Last year, he said there was $600,000 available, enough to buy three easements. But the county received about 15 applications, he said.

"The problem with the easement is there's just not enough money," he said.

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