Lawmakers Want to Save More Farms

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.

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 family-owned farms.

"Many family farms are struggling to make a profit," Waugh said.

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.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News