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Farmland preservation coffers overflowing in Franklin County

February 24, 2006|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - John Koons of Waynesboro, Pa., owned the first farm ever preserved in Franklin County and now it belongs to his son, which was what he wanted in the first place.

"With the land preservation program, I feel I can keep it in the family," Koons said Thursday after Franklin County Commissioner G. Warren Elliott announced that more than $6.2 million will be available for the program in 2006.

Since farmland preservation began in the early 1990s, Franklin County and the state have bought development rights to 7,791 acres of prime farmland, according to Sherri Clayton, a senior planner with the county Planning Department. Applications from another 53 farms have been filed with her office, she said.

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Over the life of the program, about $13 million has been paid to county farmers, with more than $10 million coming from the state and $2 million from the county, along with some federal funding, according to county figures.

The $6.2 million for this year, up from $1.8 million in 2005, includes $2 million from a 2004 county bond issue that set aside $5 million for farmland preservation, Elliott said. The other $4.2 million is state money, he said.

Elliott, the only county commissioner on Pennsylvania's Farmland Preservation Board, said agriculture is still the county's No. 1 business, supporting a number of ancilliary businesses, such as feed and seed dealers, and farm equipment companies.

County farmers produced about $230 million worth of milk, meat, grains and fruits in 2002, ranking second statewide in milk, cattle and apple production, according to the county's Agricultural Land Preservation Board.

"It's still a bargain at this time," Elliott said of preserving farmland, which costs about $2,000 an acre. The cost is the difference between the appraised value of the land for development and its appraised value as farmland, he said.

To be eligible, the land must have prime soils, comprise at least 50 contiguous acres and be in an agricultural security area, Clayton said. She estimated the $6.2 million is enough to raise the county's total of preserved farmland to about 11,000 acres. She said seven or eight farms could be approved for the program this year by the state farmland preservation board.

For agriculture to remain viable in the county, Elliott said about 50,000 acres will have to eventually be preserved. There are about 225,000 acres of farmland in the county, with about 95,000 acres currently meeting the qualifications for preservation, Clayton said.

"This program is not without its detractors," but it benefits people other than farmers, Elliott said. The country already relies on foreign sources for much of it oil and "heaven forbid we ever get to the point where we can't feed ourselves," he said.

Koons, who serves on the county's preservation board, said he wants to see the pace of preserving farms accelerated.

"Development has been moving much faster than preservation," he said.

John Stoner of Mercersburg, Pa., said 800 of the 1,600 acres his family corporation farms are preserved. Farmers make money for selling the development rights, but there are easier ways to make a buck, he said.

"We'd all be on easy street if we sold it for development," he said. "You have to be dedicated to the concept of farming."

"I don't think we want to see a time when farming becomes a spectator sport," Elliott said.

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