|Lawmakers Want to Save
June 03, 2005 — By Tom Barnes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NEW HOLLAND, Penn. — With development pressures
continuing to threaten prime farmland across the state,
two lawmakers are proposing measures to keep family
farms in the family and prevent them from being turned
into sites for luxury housing or big-box retail stores.
In the heart of scenic Lancaster County farm country,
state Sen. Noah Wenger said yesterday he wants to expand
"agricultural conservation easements" -- state
payments to farmers to keep their farms producing crops
and livestock and put them off limits to commercial
or residential development.
"The farmland preservation program, which I helped
create, is a keystone to ensuring that Pennsylvania
will continue to be a leader in agricultural production
for the future," said Wenger, R-Lancaster.
He spoke at a news conference where a bale of straw
served as a lectern and a herd of black Angus beef cattle
and rolling fields of alfalfa and corn as a backdrop.
Wenger, who owns a beef and poultry farm 12 miles north,
proposed new tax breaks for farmers and cuts in farm-related
inheritance taxes to ensure that agriculture, the state's
No. 1 industry, stays strong and attracts younger farmers.
Wenger was joined by state Sen. Michael Waugh, a Republican
from neighboring York County who chairs the Senate Agriculture
Committee. Waugh owns show horses.
According to the National Resources Inventory by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, done in the late 1990s,
Pennsylvania had 244,500 acres of farmland converted
to some type of development between 1992 and 1997. That
amounts to a loss of 113 acres of farmland per day.
Wenger and Waugh will introduce bills to make it easier
for the state to buy up development rights to farms
and to make it easier for aging parents to deed their
farms to relatives without paying heavy inheritance
taxes, which now range from 4.5 percent to 15 percent.
"Agriculture continues to be Pennsylvania's economic
engine, with 59,000 farm families working 7.7 million
acres of farmland," Wenger said.
He said agriculture produces $45 billion a year for
the state's economy, in terms of food sales domestically
and overseas exports, plus spinoffs such as farm equipment,
seed and fertilizer sales; harness and thoroughbred
racing; and food processing, marketing and transportation.
Tourism, the state's No. 2 industry, produces about
$23 billion a year in direct and indirect benefits for
lodging, shopping, restaurants and transportation.
The two legislators said the average age for state
farmers is 53; they would like to lower that by attracting
more young people into agricultural pursuits.
Wenger and Waugh held their news conference at a picturesque
85-acre farm owned by Larry and Barbara Weaver, the
fourth generation of the family to work the land. Patches
of green alfalfa alternated with areas of brown dirt
where young corn plants were growing, forming a checkerboard
pattern on the landscape.
The Weavers both have nonfarm jobs during the day,
while hired hands tend to the Angus cattle and the alfalfa
hay and field corn that will be fed to the animals.
The Weavers work the farm in the evenings and on weekends,
which Wenger said shows the economic pressures on many
"Many family farms are struggling to make a profit,"
Just up the road from the Weaver farm, luxury houses
costing $350,000 and up are being built. Wenger said
this shows the rising value of farmland as sites for
housing developments. He said the state must do more
to keep farms from being swallowed up by housing.
The state already spends about $30 million a year to
buy up development rights from farmers "in perpetuity,"
so the land will stay agricultural even if it changes
ownership. So far, 2,600 farms, with more than 300,000
acres, have been included in the preservation program,
Wenger said, but there is a long backlog of farmers
who want to join but can't because the state doesn't
have enough money.
The preservation money is generated by a 2-cent-a-pack
tax on cigarettes and a 1997 environmental program called
Growing Greener. Pennsylvania voters in May approved
a $625 million bond issue called Growing Greener II,
which will go for a variety of environmental protection
projects, including an additional but so far unspecified
amount to add more farms under the preservation program.
Wenger proposed an alternative for the state money,
which would allow the state to pay the tab for a farmer's
property taxes. He said these taxes are often onerous
and can lead farmers to sell their land for housing
or shopping malls.
By paying property taxes over a number of years, the
state would need less upfront money than the current
program of giving a farmer a lump sum for land preservation.
That way, more farms could be included.
Other bills being considered:
Extending a pilot program in Philadelphia schools in
which farmers sell fruits and vegetables directly to
schools to promote a healthy alternative to soda and
candy in vending machines.
Reducing what Waugh called "a heavy burden"
on horse owners by limiting civil liability for injury
or death that occurs in connection with horse riding
or other "equine activity." He said Pennsylvania
is one of only six states that doesn't protect horse
owners in this way.
Doing more to ensure that farmers who have horses,
cows, chickens and other animals dispose of their manure
properly, so it doesn't get into streams that feed into
the Susquehanna River, which can cause organic pollution
and hurt fish in the Chesapeake Bay downstream in Maryland.
To see more of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, or to subscribe
to the newspaper, go to http://www.post-gazette.com.
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News