OSI and Lancaster Farmland Trust team up to protect Amish farms in Pennsylvania

NEW YORK, NY – May 24, 2013 – To date, OSI’s Bayshore-Highlands Land Protection Fund has helped conservation organizations protect more than 2,000 acres throughout the New Jersey Bayshore and the Pennsylvania Highlands. One of the most fertile pockets within the 900-square-mile Highlands region sits along the eastern half of Lancaster County, PA, where OSI has developed a relationship with the Lancaster Farmland Trust (LFT), a uniquely positioned force for conservation in the Highlands.

LFT is a 25-year-old accredited land trust whose involvement in farmland preservation in Lancaster County is essential due to the heavy concentration of Amish farmers in the county. Of the 412 farms in Lancaster County that have been permanently preserved by LFT, approximately 80 percent of them are Amish, which accounts for some 25,500 acres.

For religious and cultural reasons, the Amish typically choose not to work with government agencies or to accept funding from government programs such as a county-sponsored agricultural preservation program. Therefore, LFT was founded in 1988 as a private complement designed to serve constituencies that the county could not reach. 

“The Amish lifestyle presents some interesting challenges in terms of (the lack of) internet and phones, but other than that the biggest challenge has simply been to develop the relationships,” said Karen Martynick, LFT’s executive director. “It took quite a bit of time before the community embraced us, and it really was a result of the early Amish farmers going out in the community and helping us with outreach. With their help it’s been remarkably successful.”

Working hand in hand, LFT and the county’s Agricultural Preserve Board are expected to total 100,000 acres of protected farmland by the end of 2013. When they reach the mark, Lancaster will be the first county in the country to have protected that much farmland.

“It’s a great partnership, and I really think it’s a model for how other organizations can partner with government agencies,” Martynick said.

OSI’s work with the Lancaster Farmland Trust began with the Bayshore-Highlands Fund, which was launched with the generous support of the William Penn Foundation in 2011. Since then, OSI, which itself has a long history of preserving agricultural lands, has focused on helping LFT protect 11 farms in the Pennsylvania Highlands.

An initial cluster of five protected farms were part of a unique loan/grant agreement with OSI that ultimately afforded LFT and other local organizations greater access to county conservation funds. The Pennsylvania Association of Land Trusts is showcasing the agreement, which leveraged OSI’s dollars and matched them with additional funding from other sources, as a case study in an upcoming guide entitled Land Trust Bridge Loans: Loan Financing for Conservation Transactions.

“We were able to help increase momentum in the region,” said Bill Rawlyk, OSI’s Middle Atlantic field coordinator, “and our support allowed other conservation groups to devote the scarce county funds that they acquired to other farms. They were able to protect more land in a shorter time.”

LFT also works in an area with tremendous historic watershed pollution issues arising from agriculture and stormwater. This is especially important now because the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency have begun mandating increased nutrient and sediment runoff control from farms to keep pollutants from entering the Chesapeake Bay. Although the Highlands represent a relatively small part of Lancaster County, much of it drains into the Conewago watershed, which flows into the Susquehanna River and on into the Chesapeake Bay.

“Most of the Lancaster County is flat farmland, but the Highlands are mixed with forested areas, significant natural resources and farmlands,” Martynick said. “The interaction between these ecosystems is extremely important. Although the area is small and doesn’t contain a tremendous amount of farmland, protecting the farmland in the stream headwater areas and the forests at the top of the watershed is extremely important for the overall ecosystem.”

It is that aggregation of scenic values, good conservation practices and watershed protection that the William Penn Foundation envisioned when it selected OSI to administer the Bayshore-Highlands Fund. By OSI establishing its relationship with LFT, the organizations have been able to target the farms most important for water quality—in Lancaster County and beyond—and to enable conservation to continue in the traditional Amish communities where existing government farmland programs are not being utilized

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