“They are not mutually exclusive – you absolutely need both,” said Kirk Stoner, director of the Cumberland County Planning Commission.
After all, agriculture is an important part of both the county’s economy and its quality of life.
But farms also are a source of land for new construction – and a source of conflict over whether they should be developed.
The Cumberland Valley School District recently hoped to build on the McCormick farm along Route 11 to support its skyrocketing enrollment. The farm, which dates to the 1700s, is preserved by the Delaware Valley-based Natural Lands Trust.
In June, however, the state legislature enacted a law that makes it more difficult to exercise eminent domain to take privately preserved farmland.
Once the law was passed, the district withdrew its request.
Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania State Grange, said the new law is a blessing: “Now they have to demonstrate an almost dire need to have and use the property they take.”
Cumberland County’s dance to balance development and preserve farmland is one that mirrors what is going on around Central Pennsylvania.
Steve Deck, executive director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, said southern Dauphin County is seeing similar pressures.
His organization prepares a regional growth-management plan so its three member counties can see the big picture when it comes to land that could be developed versus what should be preserved.
“It’s a good idea to coordinate, so we try to do that as best we can,” he said.
Michael Nixon, a national historic preservation lawyer and consultant in Pittsburgh, said the danger of not working together is that development can spread beyond original plans. “It’s a symptom of the way Pennsylvania has decided to manage the issue,” he said. “It’s very piecemeal and without any real coherence.”
Cumberland County’s most recent comprehensive plan identifies areas for both growth and conservation, with a goal to preserve 50 percent of land in prime agricultural areas.
Both public and private farmland preservation programs offer farmers monetary incentives to keep farming or to set it aside for green space. The idea is to offset financial pressures to sell open space.
Campbell said one way to continue developing while preserving farmland is to expand vertically rather than horizontally: “If you go to areas outside bigger cities, the shopping malls are two and three stories high.”
Nixon said that not everyone wants or needs a single-family, detached dwelling with a large yard and points to the success of mixed-use village-style neighborhood developments such as Walden and Arcona in Cumberland County.
“They are more dense and able to manage their impact better,” he said.
Sarah Doyle, an agribusiness attorney at Stock & Leader in York, said farms that apply for the state’s farmland preservation program are ranked based on soil quality, conservation practices, size and proximity to other preserved agricultural land.
“It’s pretty rigorous because tax dollars are being used and there is a lot of scrutiny,” she said. “They want to do a good job of making sure good farms are preserved.”
In Cumberland County, much of the growth has been east of Carlisle, while the western portion of the county remains more rural. It’s more difficult to preserve farms already in the path of development without easy access to supporting businesses such as feed mills and tractor-supply shops.
Doyle said clustering preserved farmland has the benefit of keeping ancillary agricultural businesses closer to the farms to reduce transportation costs and prevent conflicts with non-agricultural neighbors.
Everyone needs to eat, but some don’t want their backyards to smell like pigs or chickens.
“It’s a challenge because when the average person thinks about farmland preservation, they are thinking of soybeans and corn fields, but that’s not always the case,” Doyle said. “There’s more to agriculture than that.”
Stoner said concentrated animal feeding operations don’t always need to produce noise, smells or environmental contaminants.
“I live close to one and you wouldn’t even know it’s there,” he said. “A lot of it depends on how it’s run. The farmers we work with are great stewards of the land and have a commitment to agriculture.”
The money farmers get from preserving their land can also help them adapt to an ever-changing industry, giving them capital to expand or change direction if necessary.
“It’s becoming harder and harder to grow a product and get it where it needs to go,” Doyle said.