Committed to the land: Preserving farmland in Berks

Originally Published: 9/23/2012

A local family is one of many that have stayed in farming with help from a preservation program that is losing ground

By Ford Turner
Reading Eagle

Note: This is the first in a four-part series. Read part two here; read part three here; read part four here.

On the day his mom turned down a million dollars, David Brown knew the secret to her thinking.

It was all around them.

It was in the scent of fresh-cut alfalfa on the hillsides and in the morning mist that pooled in the hollows. And, more than anything, it was in the decades of work the family had put into its 94 acres in Maidencreek Township.

The Browns had been married to their land in ways that could not be explained to a developer who, one day early in the 1990s, offered cash for the farm.

And Berks County farmers like the Browns had a new, practical consideration to think about.

The county and state had started paying to preserve farmland. The new program paid a certain price per acre for a formal commitment to lock the land up in agriculture.

The Browns had been among the first to apply. They still hoped to be accepted, even though they would get far less than $1 million.

When the man from Virginia walked into their 150-year-old brick farmhouse, sat at the kitchen table that David Brown’s father had made from cherry trees downed on the farm and showed the Browns aerial photographs of their own farm, Mary Brown refused his offer.

The developer would have to look elsewhere.

The Browns would keep farming.

And, though it could not have been predicted at the time, the county and its farmers would embrace the new Agricultural Land Preservation program in a way that would make Berks a national leader in saving farmland.

Now, the strongest days of that program appear to be over.

Flow of money threatened

Since 1990, nearly $140 million in county and state money has been paid to Berks farmers in exchange for the placement of agricultural conservation easements on more than 600 farms.

Essentially the public has bought development rights to about 64,000 acres of farmland.

Across the country, only Lancaster County and Montgomery County, Md., have preserved more.

“It speaks to our understanding of how important agriculture is to our economy and our community,” said state Sen. Judy Schwank of Ruscombmanor Township. “It is a point of pride for us.”

But the Great Recession has threatened the flow of public money that makes the program work.

In his proposal for the current budget, Gov. Tom Corbett had proposed replacing a steady and annual stream of $20 million-plus in cigarette taxes to farmland preservation with what critics said would be a less dependable revenue source.

Ultimately the flow of revenue was kept intact. But Schwank expects it to be threatened in the next budget process.

At the county level, two big rounds of borrowing that pumped money into preservation – a $33 million bond issue in 1999 and a $24 million line of credit in 2006 – are not going to be repeated.

Support for preservation has been strong but not unanimous.

Walter Greth and Christian Malesic, both prominent figures in the Berks building industry, said the government-run preservation program has interfered with market forces that lead to balanced development.

Greth, whose companies have built nearly 2,000 homes in the county over a 40-year span, said there is little pressure to develop farmland now, because the home-building industry remains in a post-recession, ravaged state.

When the housing market rebounds, though, the fact that so much land has been locked up for agriculture will put pressure on prices elsewhere.
“It is a very short-sighted way to look to the future,” Greth said.

For Berks to be ranked third in the nation is ridiculous, he said.
“It is not a goal that politicians in government should have,” he said.

Malesic, executive officer at the Home Builders Association of Berks County, said the word “sprawl,” applied frequently to the suburban-expansion phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, is used to stigmatize development.

Partly because of that stigma, he said, government put money into farmland preservation.

“The government has come in and made a decision, no different than them saying you have to have a car that gets this kind of gas mileage, or that you have to drive on this side of the street,” Malesic said. “From our point of view, it has been detrimental.”

Many farmers see it differently.

Tami S. Hildebrand, executive director of the Berks County Agricultural Land Preservation Board, the agency that oversees the program, said the commitment of many farmers to keeping their land in agriculture is tied to work, family and emotion.

“It makes you cry, sometimes, when you hear the passion in their voices,” she said.

Musician turns farmer

The saxophone, not the tractor, was the tool originally favored by David Brown’s father.

Carl N. Brown played the sax with bands in nightclubs around Reading during the Depression, earning money to keep his family going. In the process, he met Mary Hafer, a singer for an all-girls group who had grown up on a produce farm in Oley.

She was a single mother of two children. She and Carl married, and he worked at American Chain and Cable Co. in Reading. In the years after World War II, the company experienced a slowdown in business. Carl and Mary decided to buy a farm.

One attraction of the 94 acres in Maidencreek Township was that the old farmhouse had an indoor bathroom. All the other farms the couple looked at had outhouses.

The land was not perfect. It had dips and rumples. Some of it had been poorly used by the tenant farmer who had worked it previously.

The biggest challenge faced by the Browns, though, may have been Carl Brown’s background.

He had never been a farmer.

But he was a reader and a learner. He absorbed agricultural practices described in the writings of Penn State University scientists.

“He tried a lot of things to make this work,” David Brown said.

Born in 1953, David worked the land with his father and other family members. They did not get rich, even though they got opportunities at big money when the era of suburban sprawl arrived.

The farm had lots of the road frontage coveted by developers. It had high ground with spectacular views.

David Brown said, “We had lots of offers from developers.”

Voters endorse preservation

Suburban sprawl gave birth to the muscular preservation program in Berks.

In the 1970s and 1980s, developments began to consume open land around Philadelphia, Reading and Lancaster.

“You had sort of a perfect storm,” said Bob Wagner, a senior staffer at American Farmland Trust in Massachusetts who was involved in the start of preservation in Pennsylvania. “You had the best farmland, the best agricultural areas in the state, being threatened by development.”

Voters got a chance to act in 1987.

A proposal for a $100 million bond issue that would fund the purchase of development rights to farms across the state appeared on the ballot. It passed easily.

The following year, legislators established the Pennsylvania program. It was structured so county-level entities would work closely with a state-level board.

Other states, such as Massachusetts, chose a state-dominated approach, according to Jennifer Dempsey, director of the Farmland Information Center in Massachusetts. In the long run, the county-state model worked better.

“There is flexibility to reflect local conditions on the ground,” Dempsey said. “Having that county partnership is very effective.”

Berks commissioners gave preservation the go-ahead in 1989. The following year, about $725,000 in county and state funds was spent for easements on three farms.

Citizens, politicians and farmers gravitated to the concept. At its peak, in the years leading up to the nation’s 2008 economic freefall, between $6 million and $14 million a year of public money was being spent to preserve as many as 73 Berks farm tracts a year.

Including privately funded preservation efforts, Berks has 69,227 preserved acres. The online Farmland Preservation Report, published by Maryland resident Deborah Bowers, ranks Berks third in the nation.

Bowers said preservation thrived in Berks because of strong public and political support, a close relationship with Pennsylvania’s strong program and the people who worked the land.

“You have got to have farmers who are serious about farming,” Bowers said.

Rejecting an offer

Mary Brown was a widow when the million-dollar offer arrived.

Carl, her husband of 50 years, had died a few years earlier.

Their choice of farming had stemmed from her childhood. Eight Hafer girls and one Hafer boy had grown up on their parents’ produce farm in Oley – though Mary’s only brother, Adam Hafer Jr., had died in a B-17 bomber shot down over Berlin in 1944.

It was the lifetime in agriculture that made Mary turn down the developer’s offer.

David Brown watched her do it.

“My mother wasn’t rich in finances,” he said. “None of us were. None of us are. But it is not the only indicator of wealth. That’s where people go wrong. I have experiences, here on the farm, you just can’t buy.”

Mary Brown died at the age of 91 on Oct. 17, 2004.

By then, the farmland preservation program was booming. Still, the Brown farm had not been preserved. It had not done well enough in the county-state ranking system that was based on things such as soil quality, proximity to previously preserved farms and threat of development.

Finally, in 2009, an easement was purchased on the Brown farm for about $230,000.

Hildebrand, the county preservation board director, recently looked up the Brown file. It bore docket number 89-01.

The Brown land had been the very first considered for farmland preservation in Berks County.

Creating farm communities

The most recent easement purchase, number 639 in the program records, occurred Aug. 22 in Brecknock Township.

Maps show the effects of the program.

Most of the preserved farms are in clusters. Giant, contiguous swaths of townships such as Oley, Richmond, Perry, Windsor, Marion and Heidelberg have legal restrictions on them that preclude any use but agriculture.

The landscape is all crops, animals, barns and equipment. No housing developments, no shopping centers.

They are, to farmers, true farming communities. Fewer impatient motorists lining up behind their tractors on the roads, fewer phone calls complaining of smells or noise.

Jeff Sicher, president of the Reading-Berks Association of Realtors, said preserved farms boost the county’s economy and make it a more desirable place.

“It is a long-term view,” he said. “What do we want Berks County to look like?”

A future in grapes

The next generation of farming is already under way on the Brown farm.

Amid the acres of soybeans, canola and hay are 2 acres of something new: grapes.

David Brown’s son, 32-year-old Dan Brown, writes business-to-business Java software for a living. He lives in Lancaster.

But he is learning winemaking on the side. He has plans to move into the early 19th century farmhouse in Maidencreek with his wife, Jaime, expand the amount of land devoted to grapes and create a winery.

Like his father and grandmother, he grew up in agriculture.

He said, “I love it. It is part of me. I want to share that with people.”