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Franklin County hits farmland preservation milestone

October 20, 2006|by DON AINES

WAYNECASTLE, Pa. - Back on the farm where it all started 14 years ago, about 150 people gathered under a tent Thursday morning to mark the preservation of 10,000 acres of farmland in Franklin County.

The Koons Farm off Fort Stouffer Road was the first of 75 farms to have its development rights purchased by the county and state "to make sure that farms like this stay in agriculture for many, many generations," Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff said.

"I'm mighty fortunate I got to do what I wanted to do all my life," said John Koons Sr., who enrolled his first 56-acre parcel of land in the program in 1992. The next-door farm of Mark Hickman is the one that put the program above 10,000 acres, he said.

"I hope this 10,000 acres is just a drop in the bucket for Franklin County," said Koons, whose farm is now owned by his son, John Koons Jr.

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More than 100,000 acres of land are in agriculture security areas, one of the requirements for a farm to be enrolled in the program, said county Senior Planner Sherri Clayton. The acreage preserved or being processed for preservation totals 10,175 acres, she said.

Though scattered about the county, the acreage preserved so far is the equivalent of the land in the boroughs of Chambersburg, Waynesboro, Greencastle, Mercersburg, Mont Alto and Orrstown combined, with plenty left over, County Commissioner G. Warren Elliott said.

About $16 million has been spent to buy the development rights to the farms, approximately $7 million of which was allocated by the county, Clayton said. The formula for purchasing the rights is based on the difference between the land's appraised value for farming and what it would be worth if sold for development.

Antrim Township has its own farmland preservation program and Greene Township is starting one, Elliott said.

Agriculture is big business in Franklin County, with 1,420 farms totaling 243,500 acres - half the land in the county - producing about $280 million in cash receipts, mostly from dairy and cattle, Wolff said. The state has about $100 million available for farmland preservation, primarily through the Growing Greener II program, he said.

Franklin County ranks ninth in farmland preservation in the state, said Elliott, a member of the state's Agricultural and Land Preservation Board for 10 years.

Pennsylvania dairy production has dropped about $1 billion in the past five years, while Idaho has seen production increase about $4 billion, Wolff said. The dairy industry in Pennsylvania is at risk from low milk prices and development, but the state has programs aimed at helping preserve and expand farming, he said.

"It's a battleground between whether it's going to be the next strip mall or continue to be a cornfield or a soybean field," Wolff said.

Preserving farmland makes good economic sense, maintains open space need to recharge groundwater supplies and sustains "our ability to feed ourselves," Elliott said. It also saves vistas like the one at the Koons Farm, he said, where the dignitaries and guests were gathered in a green pasture by a pond.

An acre of corn has the added benefits of removing about 13 tons of carbon dioxide and six tons of carbon from the atmosphere, John Koons Sr. said.

Many of those attending the ceremony were owners of other preserved farms.

"I wanted to do what little I could to keep the land from being developed," said Richard Scott, who sold the development rights to his 87 acres in Washington Township for just $1. Scott said he is single and no one in his family wanted to take over the farm.

Clayton said Scott's farm has since been purchased by another farmer.

"Our family has been in this many generations and I'd hate to see houses going in there," said Ralph Tracey, whose orchard in Antrim Township is enrolled.

Approximately 3,000 farms comprising more than 300,000 acres have been preserved in Pennsylvania, according to state figures.

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