When the American Farmland Trust recently assessed threats to farmland in Pennsylvania, it was surprised to find that urban sprawl and anemic profit margins for milk and crops didn’t top the list.

The biggest problem? The growth of large-lot subdivisions leapfrogging urban areas and popping up in farm country.

New homes next to farmland

A housing development sprouts amid farmland in Manheim Township in Lancaster County, PA, the state’s most heavily farmed county. 

In its nationwide study, Farms Under Threat: The State of the States, the trust found that Pennsylvania ranked eighth in the nation for the rate of conversion from ag land to low-density housing. In fact, 70% of the 347,000 acres of farmland lost in the state between 2001 and 2016 was because of such pop-up neighborhoods.

Fragmenting of the agrarian landscape and the disruption of ag economies often leads to a slow but inexorable domino effect. While being amidst new neighborhoods may benefit some farmers in the near term with direct-market sales, it’s more likely that over time the critical mass needed for a viable farm community is lost.

Farmers have trouble moving equipment between their fields, and new residents complain about odors. Grain and equipment retailers that farmers depend on move out and land prices go up, making it harder for farmers to buy property.

Low-density residential development is 23 times more likely to make surrounding ag land urbanized than other agricultural land, according to the report, which the trust bills as “the most comprehensive assessment ever undertaken of U.S. agricultural land use.”

“While urban sprawl is still a threat to farmland, low-density residential land use is as much of a threat to farmland as urbanization,” said Jamie Mierau, American Farmland Trust’s mid-Atlantic regional director. “Unlike urban highly developed development, conversion to low-density residential is not closely tied to population growth.”

Such housing developments often fragment working landscapes into residential farmettes, she said.

The findings back up the urgent warnings sounded recently by the head planner in Lancaster County, the state’s most intensively farmed county.

“When we saw the report, it just confirmed what we’ve been saying. It was like, wow, now they’re talking about it on the national level, too,” said Scott Standish, executive director of the county’s Planning Commission. “Our concern is that all these other uses fragment opportunities to have these large blocks of farmland. It changes the quality of life, creates traffic issues and has a cultural impact.”

The trend exasperates Standish, whose agency has been pleading for the county’s many municipalities to set urban growth boundaries and stick to them. But not all have. For example, about 17,000 acres are now zoned for large-lot suburban development outside of the urban growth areas set by local officials. Yet only about 8,400 acres are needed to accommodate the county’s projected population growth through 2040.

Moreover, calls for denser development to save land from being gobbled up are lagging.

“We have too much large-lot residential development within our rural areas,” agreed Jeff Swinehart of Lancaster Farmland Trust, a private nonprofit group that buys conservation easements, mainly from Plain Sect farmers. “You have some fairly extreme variations within communities and [officials’] philosophies on how they manage the land within their communities.”

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau shares that concern. “We agree that residential development growth is an increasing challenge for Pennsylvania agriculture as it puts additional pressure on the availability of farmland,” said Liam Migdail, communications director with the Farm Bureau.

Both Migdail and Swinehart think one solution is to expand farm preservation efforts, not just by the well-established state program and groups such as Lancaster Farmland Trust, but at the local level.

The future of farmland is at a critical point, Swinehart said, because many older farm owners will be dying or retiring in the next 15–20 years and, unlike in the past, there are fewer family members willing to continue farming.

“It’s really going to be imperative for local communities to make the decision that protecting their farms is important to them for quality of life,” Swinehart said.

Current or aspiring new farmers don’t know about farm sales or can’t afford to buy them because development has made the land more valuable. “Access to land remains one of the greatest challenges we hear about from beginning farmers,” Migdail noted.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau succeeded in getting the state legislature to create a Pennsylvania Beginning Farmer Tax Credit program which gives farmers a tax break if they sell or lease land to new farmers. And the Pennsylvania Farm Bill was changed to waive realty transfer taxes for preserved farmland sold to beginning farmers.

Outward sprawl from urban areas also remains a pressing threat to Pennsylvania’s farmland. Hotspots for development were Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

Still, the trust’s report ranked Pennsylvania as the fourth-best state in efforts to protect farmland. It was ranked fourth for land protection, fourth for purchase of ag conservation easements, 10th for land use planning, fifth for property tax relief, sixth for creating ag districts and 12th for farmland leasing programs.

Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of farms and acres permanently protected. Since 1988, state and county conservation easement programs have protected 5,675 farms. Its comprehensive planning policies, a preferential tax program known as “Clean and Green,” recognized agricultural security areas and state leasing programs all ranked among the highest efforts in a scorecard that the trust prepared for all states.

“Pennsylvania is well-recognized across the country for its leadership in agricultural land protection,” Mierau said. “Innovative, coordinated and well-balanced against the threat. But unfortunately, development

pressure continues unabated.”

Ad Crable is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Pennsylvania. Contact him at 717-341-7270 or acrable@bayjournal.com.

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