Lancaster County’s farmland is valuable – increasingly valuable – in more ways than one.
It is essential to the county’s agricultural heritage and because of its contribution to putting food on people’s tables. It ensures that the people of the Plain and others raised in farming communities have the means to earn a living.
And many new farmers from different backgrounds continue to find creative ways to take advantage of the good soil here, despite its rising cost.
In 2017, as Sauro reported, “Local farmland was valued at an average of $18,285 per acre, according to the USDA’s National Census of Agriculture, which takes place every five years. … At that time, land values per acre in Lancaster County were already well above the state and national averages, which were then $6,470 and $4,030, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Sauro noted that Lancaster County “has exceeded these averages in every USDA agricultural census since 2002.” Another agricultural census should take place this year.
Several factors make Lancaster County’s farmland so valuable: the county’s “status as a premier farming community in the country, Lancaster’s desirable farmland advantage being so close to vital business infrastructure and agricultural markets, and agricultural land becoming available for sale relatively infrequently.
Here, you’d expect history to turn into misfortune – with most would-be farmers being evicted from the area and the farmland eaten up by commercial and residential development. And there have certainly been many of these.
But as Sauro discovered, it’s actually quite difficult to buy farmland for development in Lancaster County.
“Many communities in Lancaster County have agricultural zoning restrictions in place, an effort to ensure that certain areas with high agricultural density cannot easily be developed for non-agricultural purposes,” he wrote.
One aspect we found encouraging in Sauro’s reporting, however, is that the lack of availability of large tracts of agricultural land has not prevented all young farmers from entering agriculture.
Admittedly, it is intimidating to some. We can sympathize with Bryan and Brittany Donovan, who told Sauro that they finally settled in Montgomery County after a frustrating lack of progress in finding and granting farmland in Lancaster County.
“It’s pretty infuriating when you’re trying to grow your business and you’re like, ‘I can’t find anything. I’m stuck,'” Bryan Donovan said.
But in many other cases – and because the acreage they are looking to buy or rent is smaller – new farmers succeed here; often they choose to cultivate one or two things and do it very well. So maybe they grow vegetables or make cheese or raise livestock for farm-to-table restaurants in Lancaster County, instead of trying to do all three.
Among the successes, Sauro noted the story of Tyler and Joella Neff, who were able to purchase 20 acres in Bainbridge for their niche beef, poultry and pork operation.
It took patience, planning and hard work, but they managed to achieve their goal.
“Like others, they started on rented land and they looked for additional sources of income,” Sauro reported. “Eventually they found more land to lease in the county, continuing to farm more plots as they grew.”
It is encouraging that programs exist to help drive this evolution.
Pennsylvania’s Next Generation Farmer Loan Program, administered here by the Lancaster County Economic Development Corporation, is one such program Sauro cited. He assists 10 to 12 new agricultural properties in Lancaster County each year.
“It’s a program that Lancaster County sort of dominates,” said Economic Development Corporation President Lisa Riggs. “The program that we run here…is actually like a national leader.”
It seems only fitting that Lancaster County, home to the most productive farmland in the country, is also leading the way in ensuring agriculture has a strong future in the decades to come.
— Lancaster Online/LNP