Why do we revere farmland?
The small farm has a special place in our national consciousness. For some, farming is a noble, even spiritual undertaking. The scrappy small farmer is a symbol of American perseverance.
But family farming has long been in decline. Most of us know agriculture in the abstract. I was not raised on a farm but like most people I appreciate rural life, at least on a superficial level. The beautiful views, the fresh country air.
We’re also vaguely aware that our grocery-store milk and bacon come from someplace both picturesque and ugly, on the occasions we stop to think about it.
Farms remain front-and-center in heavily-populated Lancaster County, though, where the issue of farm preservation flares up often. A Lancaster Online article describes conflict over a planned quarry expansion (linked on the Amish America Facebook page). The issue is on tap tonight at an Upper Leacock township meeting.
The Talmage-area quarry, at 92 years old, was founded in the early 1920s, a time when the area wasn’t nearly so thick with Plain farms. Local opponents, including Amish, want to block the expansion.
On the one hand, Lancaster farms are pretty important. There’s more economic value than just what can be grown on a Lancaster farm’s acres. I do not think the county would see 10% of the tourism if all the farms disappeared tomorrow and with them the Amish. Not to mention the effect on property values.
There is also emotional value. On the Amish America Facebook page, Beverly writes that Amish and their farms are seen as “national treasures” in her home state of Utah, a view that I think would get a lot of sympathy. Lancaster County, the oldest, best-known, most-visited, and perhaps most picturesque Amish settlement, is especially revered.
In approving the request, Lancaster planners wrote that expansion is “the most efficient use of land”, a statement whose logic seems cold by comparison. They also imply that a quarry might be opened elsewhere if this one is not expanded.
The owners also say that expanding the quarry would create 14 new jobs, and would only increase area traffic by 1%. They also claim it would enable the business to stay open another 100 years (it’s got about 5 years left under present conditions).
Making things even more interesting, four Amish farmers have agreed to sell the quarry the land they wish to use to expand. So we have Amish on both sides of the issue.
This issue brings to mind a lot of questions. Curious to hear what you think.
How much should be done to protect farmland?
Are the Amish who wish to sell betraying their community?
Are some farms more worth saving than others?
How much say should government or organizations have in how private land is used?
Photo credit: Mike of Primitive Christianity
Those are some really tough questions. I can see both sides to this. For me personally, if it were my land, I do not think I would sell. However, I can see those willing to sell as being generous just as they often are in their own businesses helping employees become future business owners of their own.
Perhaps they feel they are helping another business owner stay in business?
I personally would hate to sell any farm land, no matter where it is, even if I was no longer capable of farming it. We have eaten up way too much farm and country land for development and I would love to see the remaining preserved. Imagine if some day it was all developed. What all would this nation lose in the long run? No farmland, no “food basket of the world”. We would be reliant on food from other countries. And that is just for starters.
Yet sometimes it is necessary for development. I guess it is a fine line to tread.
Sorry for such a long comment Erik.
watched this story last night on the local news (WGAL), and its a subject that i extremely care about. As i researched a little more, i found this has been a back and forth issue dating back 20 years ago when the quarry wanted to expand. At that time the company was not given approval by Upper Leacock planners along with lots of opposition from Amish and non-Amish residents. All that changed when Upper Leacock planners recommended approval of a modified rezoning in feb,Which brings us to the present time .
The company said that they will run out of stone if the quarry is not expanded in 5 years, so this is important for their survival as the company has said. Incase some of you have never been to the Leacock area in Lancaster county, its a beautiful area of prime farmland where lots of Amish live. I’ve taken a lot of pictures there so I’ve seen it through admiring eyes since childhood really. My question is this, if the company is not given approval again will this “can” be kicked down the road to another area in Lancaster county?. Maybe to a town or borough where the residents are not as passionate about their area as Leacock’s, and it will get approved then. The state of Pennsylvania does have a farm preservation program, and its worked fairly well inspite of the states money issues (like most states now). The county of Lancaster does have the Lancaster farmland trust http://www.lancasterfarmlandtrust.org, and they have worked very hard in saving as much farmland as possible. Because i love farmland so much, maybe some are thinking that i will say ” Say no to the quarry”, well not so fast. As much as id love to say “no” to all developers who would be destroying any farmland anywhere, I’ve come to realize that they wont be stopping or giving up anytime soon. So i say lets work out a compromise not all the time mind you, but sometimes, and this situation might be one of those sometimes. Since it does not look like this company will be giving up anytime soon (its been 20 years now) maybe it might be best to work with them, at least try and see where it goes. Maybe its better sometimes to just stop kicking that “can” as hard as it may be, and just sit down with each other and have friendly debates with each other. Maybe something not great, but fair could come from it. If you live in Lancaster county the meeting will be tonight at 7.30 pm in the township office at 36 hillcrest ave, Leola.
Richard from Lebanon county’s Amish Community.
Erik ………..I became so passionate about this topic, i forgot to put in a little plug for my blog at the end,lol. Richard from Penn.
Same here Richard. No farmland should be turn into anything.
PA is a stone state, there is stone everywhere. Farmland becoming so rare and it’s being grabbed so often and treated as dirt but in the same time it is so precious. It is so wrong not to stop it.
There are some rich people in NY state, who buy farms for the sake of it. The farm stays as it is working as it is and they have a pleasure to go and take a look on it.
I wish i could afford something like that.
Properly managed natural farmland is a must save for this country more so than a quarry expansion but sometimes the owners of these farmlands can only see the 30 pieces of silver that is before them without thinking of the long term consequences…
America used to be a farming country and rather self-reliant. Certain events in our history have changed that and we have never gotten back to it. I have been saying for years that we need to go back to farming for the good of our country before those skills are lost and we have to rely on someone else for food.
My 86 year old neighbor, who still farms on a smaller scale than he used to, remarked the other day that we had better learn to eat houses, since they were covering up much of what was once farmland around here with them. Sadly, most young folks don’t see farming as a viable occupation anymore, and it’s getting so expensive to start farming from scratch that few people who didn’t grow up in it can afford to start. So I don’t know where we’ll end up…. I guess we’ll be buying most of our food from overseas where they still know how to produce it.
For myself and as i can see a few others, the topic of preserving fertile farmland is a very passionate one. And i don’t use the word passionate very much to be honest. This is one of the more really important topics that you will find on Amish America that sadly receives just a trickle of the comments that maybe it should receive. Until it happens in your own back yard only then do you sit-up and take notice sometimes. But sometimes you just have to post a topic based on the web site owners interest, and not on the amount of comments that are placed on it. Another very excellent topic Erik that will go quietly into the night, but it got my attention and some of the others who posted comments on it. I will look for an update on Friday morning and provide an update on my comment for fridays topic..(www.Amishstorys.com) Richard from Lebanon county’s Amish community)
This is a very relevant topic, Erik, and I hope that you will
write more posts about the topic of the Amish and their role in
the survival of small family farming in the U. S. I think of
Ky. poet/author/small farmer Wendell Berry who mentions quite
often his respect for Amish who keep alive the practice of small family farming. Maybe he would be willing to write a guest post!
My main question is — Does the ordung/ministry of the Amish
district(s) where the quarry/farming issue is located have
anything to say about it? Do the Amish who are willing to sell
and the Amish who are opposed all live in the same district?
Can Amish sell to whoever they want to or are their restrictions
according to their ordnung?
I don’t think those of us who are concerned about the preservation
of the small family farm and the benefits of having good quality,
locally produced food, have realized that there may be a much
more viable role that Amish farmers can play in these issues.
Case in point — In Louisville, Ky., there is a steadily growing
movement of households, schools, restaurants, etc. wanting to
use as much locally produced produce as possible. One of the main
problems is the lack of supply. Within a sixty mile radius of
Louisville, there are at least nine Amish settlements, and
dozens of Amish farmers who grow produce. I I have talked with
many of these Amish farmers who really want to grow more produce to
sell, but the main challenge is coordination of the purchase
and distribution of the produce. One practical thing each of
us can do if we live not too far from Amish settlements is to regulary buy as many farm products we can use from Amish and other small farmers.
Ordnung dictates who you sell to?
Al sorry I missed your questions the first go-through here. Wendell Berry does refer to the Amish, I was actually just reading about him in a book on technology.
Good question on the Ordnung and if that would affect who Amish sell to. I’ve never heard that there is anything like a prescription/prohibition about selling in the Ordnung or formal custom (outside of transacting business with individuals in the Bann) and frankly would be surprised were that the case. However there is social pressure and expectations.
The examples of other farmers who have sold out–where suddenly you have a hundred homes pop up, each on a half-acre of land, right next door where you once had the Stoltzfus dairy–is present all around the County. So especially in Lancaster it is something that people are aware of the implications of as they can see the results all around them.
I would feel pretty bad selling out to a developer and bringing 100 more cars to the neighborhood, unless my land was bordering existing development, in which case you can probably rationalize it (I’ve got to get away from all the suburbia encroaching around me).
a few questions
1) how much is the quarry offering to pay for the property?
2) are the “selling” amish planning to relocate?
We have plenty of farmland on the aggregate in the United States to feed ourselves many times over.
Farmland preservation is a more important issue on local / regional basis. “Working landscapes” need a certain minimum mass to remain viable — to support local feed & grain stores, to have folks who own horses to buy hay from local farmers who buy fertilizer from the coop, etc.
If you drop below a certain level, the support infrastructure quickly crumbles. This is part of the issue in CT/MA/RI right now — from small organic farms, to hobby farms, to commercial farms it’s a struggle to keep up enough of an industry to support all those who are needed to support working landscapes.
And there is great psychological value in the pastoral landscapes that go along with it in relatively densely populated sections of the country like the Washington — Boston corridor.
If they go, do we starve?
Not at all. Transportation is probably the lowest energy consumption part of modern agriculture. Far more energy is used to work the land and to fertilize the crops (most fertilizer is Nitrogen, and it’s almost exclusively obtained today by processing Natural Gas) to produce the food then to ship it.
We do lose the ability to produce food locally, and the improved flavor and often times nutrition that comes from these small, local farms.
Many of our good farmlands also have valuable products under their soil — gravel or in this case limestone — for the same geological reasons the top soil on top is productive. So it’s not simply a trade-off of a forested hill somewhere instead of a cultivated field.
60 acres is not, in the end, significant. It’s reasonable IMHO to let the expansion take place.
There are other legitimate reasons, with nothing to do with development, why we may need to scale back some of our farming even on the best of lands.
Areas like Lancaster probably need to have more land set aside — say 50′ to 100′ — as buffers between fields and streams. To capture run off of silt, farm chemicals, manure, and other nutrients before they enter water ways. The silt immediately impacts the waterways, reducing the clarity and impairing fish. The nutrients eventually end up in places like the Chesapeake Bay, causing pollution there.
One can also argue that New England with it preponderance of stone walls that cause lots of brush and tree interfaces with fields are provide a greater diversity of wildlife — especially for migratory birds — then the much more open expanses of Lancaster County.
The forces that threaten farmland are much more pernicious then a simple expansion of a modest size gravel bank.
The biggest single factor — beyond even development — has been a structural shift in who gets how much of the consumer’s dollar since the Nixon administration. Processors and stores today keep a larger share of the dollar then they did before the early 1970s; and at the same time American consumers spend the smallest portion of their income on food of any of the western Industrialized nations (and less then they did in early 70s). That means farmers get a smaller share of a smaller expenditure … THAT is what is squeezing farmers particularly in higher cost regions like the northeast.
This video from the 1950s is quaint in how it viewed the world — it encouraged farmers to produce a more standardized, leaner hog *on the theory that the profits would flow to the farmer.* What happened instead is the commodization benefited the processors and stores…and let them drive down the prices paid to the farmers.
Preserving farmland isn’t about stopping development; it’s about sending a larger share of the profits from food production to farmers.
I agree with everyone here and our need to appreciate and preserve our American farmland, and thank God for the Amish who are still trying to keep it alive, as well.
Preserve Amish Farmlands
I am in support of preserving the Amish Farmalands. I have been to Lancaster on several occasions and each visit I look foward to the rolling hills and farms. I find it to be peaceful and serene.
I think as a country, we have taken for granted how important farms are . I have seen farms being gobbled up by developers here in my own home state. It has placed these families in economic hardship and is also taking away the beautiful countryside.
There was a movement a while back ecouraging us to buy milk from our local farmers. And in the summertime, I always buy local produce.
I think something is lost in the industrialization of farming. It’s not tangible, but it’s there…perhaps for me, knowing that my food wasn’t cared for or treated with respect means that in turn, I as the consumer is not treated with care and respect.
Growing up my grandpa had a large garden and until he passed every summer we had tons of veggies…we never had to buy any. Perhaps it is nostalgia, but it tasted so much better than anything from the store. The tomatos and cucumbers had the wonderful earthy flavor to it that the hydroponic/hothouse veggies don’t have.
On the family farm, the farmer has a more direct relationship with the consumer and a vested interest in providing a good product. I see this in particular in the meat industry…I grew up in a town with a large meatpacking plant, and it has turned into an industry where everything from the animal to the labor force is treated with utter disrespect in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Life means nothing. Maybe a steak from a free range organic producer costs me twice as much as one from a large producer, but at least I know that the animal was treated with dignity.
I’m probably waxing romantic. But I’m a firm believer that we are what we eat. I feel when we start to care more about what we put in our mouths, we start to care more about our neighbors and nature. I personally feel that connection has been lost in the last several decades.
Gungadin, I do not know the price. If I recall it was around 60 acres from 4 sellers, so I wonder if this isn’t just a chunk of land carved out of 4 existing farms.
I’m somewhat familiar with the area but not to the point that I’d be able to recognize from the map included in the article what lies in the proposed expansion zone. A Lancaster local might be able to though.
It’s also possible that 4 separate farmette type homeowners are selling, but I didn’t see mention of homes being sold and I sort of doubt they would.
But I could be wrong, I imagine that any land that can keep a quarry running for 100 years is probably some highly valuable real estate.
Farms literally a part of us?
Lindsay, reading your comment I found myself wondering that perhaps one reason we feel so strongly about farmland is that in a sense the farms are literally a part of us–in that the food that springs from the farmer’s earth ultimately nourishes and creates our bodies.
There are of course other issues involved as well–family livelihoods, animal welfare, the symbolic power of the farm. But I hadn’t thought about it on this very base level before. Thanks for the food for thought.
Trade-offs a fact of life
I’ve enjoyed all these responses, but Matt, I wanted to say thanks in particular for your comment. I know you have farmer’s dirt between your fingernails so I appreciate your perspective.
Thanks for laying out some of the background here–I found the New England/Lancaster farming comparison interesting.
It seems to me that like anything else this is a question of trade-offs which is something we’ll never escape–every decision we make in our daily lives is in a sense a trade-off.
Deciding to expand is trading the value of the farm for something seen to be of greater worth. 14 jobs probably look pretty good right now to 14 unemployed people living in Lancaster County. Increased traffic and diminished views don’t look too good to residents and tourists.
Of course, not all costs/benefits are immediately visible but you estimate and predict as best as you can.
Lancaster (or at least east-central-north Lancaster) is already not really a rural county, as it says in the caption above, it’s really a “city of farms” (for which I should also give credit to Mike, who provided both the picture and description).
I guess that makes the value of each remaining rural acre greater, but given the great economic and population pressures, I’m skeptical about what it will look like 50 years from now. Manhattan island was once covered with farmland.
I’m not sure if even humans will be around in 50 years Erik, or farmland as we know it. If both disappears that would have been a tragedy especially if we didn’t at least try to stop destroying both while we still can. Richard. http://www.Amishstorys.com
And matt did post a few well written comments, but to me its not only about just growing food. Its about being able to live in some green spaces, when land is developed its all over. So again I say grow with a balance, put density where it makes sense and try to preserve the landscape as much as we can. if you think about it, we are just borrowing everything for a short time while we are here, lets not screw things up for those that will come after us. Richard from Lebanon county’s Amish community.
Farmland and population density
Richard I do agree with the idea that we are borrowing what we have here and stewardship of these resources is important.
I kind of feel both sides of this argument–I’m obviously partial to Amish and have farming friends who deal with the changes which have come as a result of development. I’d be sad to see Amish clear out of the county, so rich in history (both Amish and non-Amish) for somewhere else (however unlikely that scenario might be).
But at the same time it seems to me the density ‘wants’ to be in places like Lancaster County…being in the northeast near the cities of Philly and Lancaster City it’s in an area of the country that has long been settled, and with the population growth over time you would just think that the value of the land would rise so high that at some point using your acres to grow corn rather than plant McMansions would cease to make economic sense.
However the richness and productivity of the land is one thing that helps make farming continue to work, I suppose.
If the Amish ever began leaving Lancaster en masse, they would do pretty well in other areas of the country. Many of them could sell their farms and buy 2, 3, 4 times the land in a cheaper area. Lancaster has history and longevity and after all that is where people’s origins are.
This point was brought home to me by a woman in the Dover Delaware Amish community which is also under similar land pressures. She sort of wondered aloud as to why they stayed there, then sort of answered her question by saying this is where their roots are.
This is an interesting question and also makes me wonder what Lancaster would look like today had the Amish never settled there.
Interesting topic on land prices. I have talked to several Amish that have relocated from the North East and they site rising land prices as the reason. About a month ago I was talking to a Amish man who owns a greenhouse here (Central Kentucky) and he moved in from Delaware. He told me that land had become simply unaffordable. Now I believe he said land was 60 thousand an acre in Delaware. Compared to 1200-3000 here in Kentucky. At those prices a farmer could sell the land and relocate to a area were they could purchase farms for them and their children. Plus already have retirement put back. I also talked to the old order Mennonite community (horse and buggy/ no electricity in the home)that relocated to Casey County Kentucky from Lancaster PA. It was the same story due to land value. I believe the Amish will always be in Lancaster County but may have reached carrying capacity in the area. Which will create some interesting developments elsewhere in the country.
Amish maxed out in Lancaster?
You’re right that’s a lot of what you hear Tom. When I was in the Delaware Amish community you mention a couple months ago that was exactly the story. The farmland is used to build housing developments. The Delaware community (Dover) has really felt the pinch, with dozens of families leaving in the past year. I wrote a bit more about it here:
The question of whehter Amish have maxed out their capacity in Lancaster is an interesting one, but I am not so sure that’s the case. Amish have been moving to the western end of the county with a church district or two all the way out by Elizabethtown. When I was in Elizabethtown in February a friend showed me the new Amish school which had just been built right outside of town. That area is less heavily settled–and Lancaster is a huge county. The South is also not as heavily settled either.
But in the historic core of the settlement, that might be the case, unless farms are divided further and more businesses started on smaller plots of land.
Thanks for sharing the interesting info on KY. That land price difference with Delaware is huge!
Wow folks are still commenting on this topic, I’m enjoying this one a lot and I’m sorry that it has to end. I think with the depressed housing market and to some extent to employment situation has slowed development just a little. What happens when the home market picks up is anyone guess really, but I’m sure housing developers will come out from their sleep and start aggressively looking for land. I live in a town home that was former farmland, but even with that said i still would like to see farms preserved In Lebanon and Lancaster county. I’m not a tree hugger but i do want to keep Americas open spaces as much as possible. What will Lancaster look like in 50 years, I don’t know because i wont be here. I only hope there’s enough land for folks to see what I’m seeing now, and not in a museum or pictures. I hate the expression “well that’s progress for you”, in this case it would be just very sad. Richard from Lebanon county’s Amish settlement.
Thanks so much, Erik, for answering my question about the Ordnung
as it relates to sale of Amish farmland. I have really enjoyed
reading all of the reponses to your post. As I think more about
the issue, my basic thought is that in terms of Amish preserving
the small family farm, one area’s loss is another area’s gain.
Instead of resisting selling their land to persons or entities
willing to pay high prices in areas of urban and other development,
the Amish accept the high prices and move to another area.
This is easily seen in the rich farming area where I grew up in
southeastern Minnesota. When I lived there in the 50’s and 60’s,
there were no Amish or Plain Mennonites anywhere nearby. Now within
forty miles of my home there are settlements of three Old Order Amish, two Old Order Mennonite, and four other Plain Mennonite groups. I’m sure this accounts for over five hundred farms. If
these Plain groups had not bought this land and moved in, I’m
thinking these farms would mostly be part of much larger farms
in the area – and there would be many less people. Many of these
people moved from Ohio, Pa., etc, where land is much higher priced. So, the Amish and Plain Mennonites are doing their part
to preserve family farming, even though it may be in areas new