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Farm preservation growing in Franklin Co.

July 15, 2007|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA.-The farm just to the north began sprouting houses instead of corn or alfalfa a few years ago, a fate Ferd Bikle did not want to see for the farm that has been in his family for generations.

"My grandfather bought this in the 1920s," Bikle, 80, said of the 141 acres of cropland along Black Gap Road in Greene Township. He leases the land now - it grew a good crop of timothy and wheat this spring - and he hopes a family member will take it over in the future.

No matter who ends up with the farm, it will, for the foreseeable future, remain just that. Bikle's is the 80th farm to be accepted into the Franklin County Agricultural Land Preservation Program.

Since 1992, when 56 acres of John Koons' Antrim Township farm were taken into the program, 10,980.52 acres of prime farmland in the county have been preserved.

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That has been accomplished by using a combination of county, state and, in some cases, township funds to buy the development rights. The total bill over 15 years has come to more than $18.5 million, according to county figures.

Bikle and his wife, Doris, sold those development rights for $353,016.25, just cents short of $2,500 per acre. That is far less than he would have received had he sold the land to the developer who purchased the farm next door.

"He wanted to buy this in the worst way," Bikle said. "If I was to tell you what they offered me, you'd think I was crazy, but I don't want to quote figures."

From a small orchard atop a hill, Bikle can see scores of new homes and homes under construction on what used to be his neighbor's farm. Across the road is the farmhouse of his son, Ferdinand Bikle III, and just down the road stands the one-room schoolhouse Bikle attended as a boy.

"About 60 of us went to school there, all eight grades in one room," he said.

Beyond sentimental value, Bikle worries that too many farms are being bought for development, hurting the local farm economy and leading to more imports of food.

Earlier this year, the county reached the 10,000-acre mark in preserved farmland, a relatively small amount considering that more than 240,000 of the county's 482,000 acres are listed as farmland.

Preserving those six farms cost more than $2.1 million, compared to the approximately $5.1 million it cost to preserve 19 farms in 2006.

The pace might slow, however, as $5 million that was dedicated from a bond for farmland preservation quickly is being spent, said Sherri Clayton, a senior planner with the county Planning Office.

Through the rest of the year, the county might place another 10 farms comprising about 1,800 acres in the program, Clayton said. In addition to $2 million in county funds this year, the state is contributing more than $1.9 million for farmland preservation, she said.

Direct payments to farmers in Franklin County are about $280 million per year, primarily for dairy, livestock, corn grains and fruit, Clayton said.

Those who apply for the program have their properties ranked on several factors, including development pressure, but 40 percent of the ranking is based on the quality of the soil, she said. To be eligible, a property has to be within an existing agriculture security zone and have at least 50 contiguous acres, a figure she said will be lowered to 35 acres in the future.

"It's obvious under the current board of commissioners that we've made farmland preservation a priority," County Commissioner Bob Thomas said. "Based on what I'm hearing from the other candidates (for the board), it will continue to be."

Thomas said the county has been under "tremendous development pressure," and preserving prime farmland is important to the economy and quality of life.

"It's something future generations will look back on and say 'Thanks,'" he said.

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