It's the land where food comes from.But across Pennsylvania - including Luzerne County - farmland may be the most endangered type of landscape, endangered because it's already been cleared and is thus more easily built on. When the Luzerne commissioners presented a check to Beverly Ochs of Butler Township April 22, the county passed the 500-acre threshold for the number of acres of farmland preserved through a program in which the landowner sells development rights.
"The Ochs' farm conservation easement brings the total number of farms preserved in the county since 2000 to five," noted Nancy Snee, manager of Luzerne's agricultural preservation program.
"These five farms consist of approximately 500 acres, including the 89-acre Stanley and Lucille Stempien farm" in Hunlock Township, which was preserved in February, Snee said.
It's unknown just how many acres of farmland are still extant in Luzerne.
"I don't know if anybody keeps track of that anyway," Snee said. No one office or individual, she said, "has a handle on how much farmland is being eaten up by development."
But Duane Dellecker, who runs the farmland preservation program in neighboring Carbon County, estimates his county still has 18,500 acres of open, productive farmland.
Luzerne has considerably more acreage in agricultural use, Dellecker said.
Interest in Luzerne's preservation program has been growing steadily since its inception in 2000, Snee said.
In that year, the county Agricultural Preservation Board received three applications. In 2001, the board received four, three of which were eligible to be processed. In 2002, the number jumped to 12 applications, Snee said.
While 500 acres is impressive, many more acres of productive land were lost to development, principally suburban subdivisions.
Luzerne and Carbon could preserve many more acres of farmland if more property owners applied for conservation easements and, more importantly, there was enough money on hand, Snee and Dellecker said.
Luzerne received $589,108 in funds from the state Department of Agriculture to preserve farmland in 2002.
"This total, plus the $166,701 balance of funds from the 2001 round, will give the board approximately $756,000 to work with" for the 2002 applicants, Snee said.
"Of the 12 applications received, the board will only be able to work with the top three applicants based on the amount of available funds and the potential acres to be preserved," Snee said.
The money "doesn't really go all that far," Snee noted.
The other nine applicants will be placed on a waiting list and will be ranked against the new batch of applicants received in the 2003 round. Applications for the 2003 round can be submitted to Snee's office in Wilkes-Barre "from now until Feb. 1, 2003," she said.
"Urban sprawl is chewing up American farmland at a rate of 1.2 million acres a year," Paul Lumia, a member of the board of directors of the Trucksville-based North Branch Land Trust wrote recently for the organization's newsletter.
"If you add to this forest and other undeveloped land, the total goes up to a staggering 2 million-plus acres annually," he wrote.
In 1997, Pennsylvania had 45,457 farms, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. That was a decrease of approximately 10,000 farms since 1982.
Concurrently, Pennsylvania's agricultural land base dropped over the same 15 years. The state had 8,297,713 acres of farmland in 1982; in 1997 the acreage total stood at 7,167,906, according to USDA data.
Farmland preservation strategies vary from state to state, but have many similarities with those used to keep other types of land, like forests, from being developed.
Pennsylvania and 20 other states "have authorized 'purchase of agricultural conservation easement' (PACE) programs that offer farmers compensation for giving up the right to develop their land," the American Farmland Trust notes on its Web site.
"Sixteen states allow farmers to form special agricultural districts where commercial agriculture is encouraged and protected."
In Pennsylvania, farmland can only be preserved if it is located within an agricultural security zone.
Richard Thomas, the Butler Township farmer whose land was the first to be preserved through Luzerne's program, was instrumental in lobbying the Butler government to create such in the township.
The latest Luzerne farm to be preserved - the Ochs crop-and-livestock farm - was approved for a conservation easement on Feb. 21.
And the easement purchase will become official on Monday when Mrs. Ochs receives a check from the state government for $270,000. That's how much it cost to purchase the development rights to her family's farm.
Some farmland protection tools rely on regulations, which cost local governments little to implement.
But development advocates cite the controversial nature of many land-use regulations, especially those protecting threatened or endangered wildlife or plants.
What drives the loss of farmland?
Many farms across the nation are converted to housing or other forms of development when children of farmers assume ownership of the land.
The children of long-time farmers, however, often don't want to stay in the business themselves and end up selling their family land to developers and then walking away from it, the Farmland Trust notes.
And as more land is developed with roads and subdivisions, the pressure grows to move outward from there, said Alene N. Case, also a board member at the North Branch Land Trust.
Every day, more than 3,000 acres of productive farmland are given up to sprawl development, according to the Farmland Trust.
"Today, more than more than 75 percent of our fruits and vegetables are produced near urban areas, directly in the path of relentless development. Every single year, we lose an area of productive farmland the size of Delaware.
"We count on our best farmland to feed America and the world. And we rely on farm and ranch land for much more as well," the Farmland Trust notes.
o Farmland provides more than 70 percent of the habitat for America's animals.
"As we lose farmland, our wildlife is in danger."
o Farmland contributes far more to the state and local tax base than it requires in public services.
"As scattered development squeezes rural communities, we'll continue to feel growing negative pressures on taxes and services."
o America's unique cultural, educational and political institutions arose from its agrarian heritage.
"As our nation loses its farmland, American traditions are fading away."
On the Net:
American Farmland Trust:
North Branch Land Trust: