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American Farmland Trust Supports Family Farming

This article appeared in the April 4, 1998 issue of Lancaster Farming.
It is posted here with the kind permission of that newspaper
VERNON ACHENBACH JR.
Lancaster Farming Staff
BOILING SPRINGS (Cumberland Co.) - The general public appreciates and desires farmland preservation, but not necessarily for the same reasons cited by most farmers, according to Ralph Grossi, president of the national farmland preservation organization, American Farmland Trust.
On Tuesday, Grossi was the key speaker to a group of about 125 people representing a variety of farmland preservation programs in 20 states - from California to Pennsylvania - who attended a regional national convention of American Farmland Trust at the Allenberry Resort Inn and Playhouse in Boiling Springs.
The three-day convention emphasized technical.???ects of preservation programs - ranging from fundraising possibilities through directing a portion of real estate transfer taxes to local farmland preservation programs, to programs designed to inform potential residential urban home buyers that the property is located in a farming area and what that means.
Participants attended a series of workshops and seminars over the course of the convention with speakers representing various agencies and preservation programs in the various states with established farmland preservation programs.
The purpose of the convention was to bring together active preservation leaders from around the nation to share experiences, with the goal of better arming the entire group with ideas to use to further efforts back home.
Grossi was the key speaker during the final day of the convention.
He told the group that their presence at the convention indicated the growth of the farmland preservation movement in its short fife of 10 to 15 years.
"It's a very short time," he told them, citing a national effort to protection wilderness areas that took 35 years to accomplish legislative support.
He told them that the farmland preservation momentum has grown and it's almost to the point of becoming a household topic and concern.
"We're just about to the point where we can stop pushing the snowball and let it go," he said.
However, he also told them that while the various current programs used to preserve farmland need to be continued and made stronger, "We have to take it to another level."
That level, he said, is to link farmland preservation to the values that the general public places on high-risk farmland.
Preservationists need to look beyond the real, but often repeated arguments to preserve farmland in order to preserve local security of food and fiber.
He said that they need to discover new ways to negotiate new types of agreements between social and community needs and wants, and farmer and landowner needs.
He said that those involved with farmland preservation efforts need not be discouraged if the general public doesn't identify with the security that local farms provide in terms of availability of safe, healthy food and fiber.
Instead, he said that the general public needs to be educated to the other.???ects of farmland preservation that provide community well-being - watershed protection, recreation, wildlife protection, and aesthetic beauty (which could well be considered a poorly defined requirement for community mental health).
He said that while there is growing sentiment against the concept of "corporate farming," the general public continues to hold a high regard for the American family fanner.
So, while the reasons for preserving farmland may be different between farmers and nonfarmers, the goal is the same.
That should be recognized, he said, and used to every extent possible to help develop new and more creative strategies and solutions to the problems confronting the preservation of farmland.
He said that they should look to join efforts with some non-traditional areas and organizations to secure farmland protections.
He said the group has to consider that "farmland protection is a symptom of a larger problem."
That larger problem he said is increased competition for natural resources, not only caused by increases in population, but through less efficient uses of placing people on land.
Grossi said the problem is not going away. He supported his statement with population growth projections, as well as with examples of how urban sprawl, cluster developments, and large lot zoning restrictions have actually allowed some stagnant and shrinking populations to occupy up to 50 percent more land than previously occupied.
He said that generally he believes that farmers are environmentalists and desire to be good stewards, but that society at large in America tends to place the burden upon resource (land) owners to provide additional services beyond what the farming business supplies.
He said it has to be recognized that some farmers are reluctant to participate in any type of preservation program because of the restrictions being placed upon them to provide free services to the non-farming population, such as recreation, etc.
There are also fears that farmers have in doing some environmentally beneficial activities, he said, such as encouraging wildlife, which could potentially result in a farm becoming a host to an endangered species and then having further restrictions placed upon farming operations.
He said at the same time there are also efforts to pressure farmers to provide more at their own cost and the landowners are getting squeezed from both ends.
That is where the farmland preservation people need to explore new thinking and agreements. They need to have access to information of programs that can work in certain situations and be ready to provide negotiating services, and to educate and convince the public and legislators that farmers and landowners need to be compensated in some way for providing additional public services.
According to Grossi, the opportunity for bringing farmland preservation efforts to the national forefront seems to be tied into the next Farm Bill.
He said that at least a healthy portion of the $6 billion spent on farm support that is to be phased out according to the 1996 Farm Bill should be redirected back into agriculture, not for wasteful short term price manipulations, but to pay for all the additional services the public wants from landowners.
He said wetlands programs, stream buffer programs, stream bank fencing, and other such programs need to be funded to help protect the land from overdevelopment. The public can't expect landowners to foot the bill by themselves for the benefit of the public.
He urged the group to focus efforts on convincing legislators to take some action to redirect those funds for preservation-effective programs, not social welfare.
The entire farmland protection issue is hampered because it is attempting to become a common vision in an unfocused kaleidoscope of government and social programs, many at odds with each other.
The farmland preservation environment is complex.
While it is generally recognized by the agricultural community that the best way to preserve farmland is for farming to have substantial enough returns on investment to make it a competitive enterprise versus shorter term, high profit uses, such as residential and commercial development, that recognition means nothing if it can't be used to be more competitive with non-agricultural land uses.
Adding to the problem heavily is that agricultural enterprises around the world are competing with local low profit farms, producing the same crops under different circumstances.
While it is possible that the same investment/return ratios and regulatory concerns that rule agricultural production here may eventually even out around the world (as other communities around the world develop similar standards for production), it can be assumed that time will run out for farmland here before that happens.
There is no turning back.
Once deep-soiled lands currently used for farmland are converted for any other purpose, such as to site residential properties, it does not return to agricultural production.
The cost of creating land with the soil structure and characteristics suitable for farming is prohibitively expensive.
Also, those aware of the need to preserve farmland should be keenly aware that a purely capitalistic system of valuation gives little respect to common resources.
The simple capitalistic valuation principle is that only a commodity in short supply has the most value.
Cold War-inspired fear of the word "socialism" belies the fact that the only reason for a government is to provide communities with commonly shared necessities of life.
The trend has been that, as those necessities (real or imagined) increase, the demands upon landowners have been increased.
In other words, while democratically derived mandates have been placed upon landowners, those who desire those mandates haven't been willing to fund the changes necessary to achieve it.
That has to change, according to Grossi and others.
Allowing farmland uses to be on equal footing with non-necessary uses of land in open competition doesn't work. In naturally rich farmland regions, farming uses will always be least considered under strict supply-and-demand competition.
Restricting all land uses to current uses is not freedom for landowners, some of whom have purposefully purchased land years ago with the intent of farming or leasing the land until retirement, and then selling to the highest bidder.
Banks and lending institutions determine the highest bidder, because they too want to make the most money the fastest.
While local governments can require developers to post bonds for certain construction activities, such as road building (because roadways are usually conveyed to local governments for traffic enforcement, maintenance and repair and ultimately the local government is financially responsible for any allowed negligence), there are no similar requirements for those who want to destroy farmland for residential or commercial development to post bonds to cover the cost of returning the land to agricultural productivity, should the project fail.
The landscape is dotted with such failures. And they sit there.
For Pennsylvania, there is basically no backbone to zoning laws.
In fact, in Pennsylvania municipalities are required by law to forever allow other land uses, even beyond point when farming has been squeezed so hard it can longer be considered a viable concern.
Politically, the problem is exacerbated by the current political campaign fund/favoritism system, whereby political candidates and decisions can be influenced not by long-term benefits or soundness of logic and fairness to constituents, but by short-term goals of capturing power and controlling common resources.
Many involved in land preservation understand the problems. Many in politics (most should) understand the situation that causes the problems, but know they wouldn't be in elected office were it not for the campaign funds they attract.
The American Farmland Trust organization is the only national private, nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting agricultural resources, according to organization literature.
It was founded in 1980 with the mission to stop the loss of productive farmland and to promote farming practices that lead to a healthy environment. It has 50 staff members, and more than 30,000 members and donors nationally.

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