Montgomery County plans to spend almost $1.2 million in taxpayer money this year for farmland preservation efforts.
The county commissioners approved the spending last week after Planning Manager Anne Leavitt-Gruberger said the Pennsylvania government would match, and possibly exceed, the county’s contribution.
“In 2023, we certified $1.3 million, which then leveraged $2.8 million additional dollars for this program,” she said. The state funding comes from cigarette taxes, the Environmental Stewardship Fund, and what county documents call “other sources.”
The state requires counties to certify the farm preservation funds by January 31 each year.
The cash was initially approved last year during the budgeting process. Four thousand dollars will be used by the Montgomery County Conservation Districts to help with “required annual inspections” of preserved farms. The rest will be used to buy agricultural preservation easements.
Farm preservation is a major part of the “Montco 2040: A Shared Vision” comprehensive plan for the county. Officials hope to preserve a total of 15,400 farm acres by 2040. The county encouraged landowners to make “a long-term commitment to agriculture” through land use security and financial incentives. That included cash for development rights to prevent any sort of non-agricultural buildings.
Leavitt-Gruberger praised the farmland preservation program for saving 186 farms covering about 10,500 acres since its inception in 1990. She said that by buying the development rights on the farms, the county can keep the agricultural landscape of the region forever.
“[Development is] restricted by these easement purchases to be farms,” Leavitt-Gruberger told the commissioners. “We’re helping people preserve not just their family’s properties and their histories on these farms but also a rural way of life in a lot of these communities.”
Program requirements vary – specifically between large and small farms. Small farms have to be at least 10 acres and not next to “an existing agricultural conservation easement,” according to Montco Farmland Preservation Program documents. County-funded easement purchases are only available for those land parcels.
State money is used for farms of at least 500 acres. Program documents say other eligibility conditions include being located between two different local governmental units in the county, and/or between Montco and another county. At least 500 acres of that land have to be in Montco, though. Half of the soil on the farm must be “available for agricultural production” or horse activity and have at least 10 acres of “harvested cropland, pasture, or grazing land.”
Most of the preserved farms are on the northwestern edge of the county. Other farms have been preserved in Hanover, Upper Frederick, Lower Frederick, and Upper Salford.
“I’ve taken some time to get to know this program, you’ve walked me through it,” said Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Jamila Winder. “It’s super impressive. The work that you and the team are doing to partner with our area farmers to preserve farmland.”
Landowners have until February 1 to turn in applications for the Farmland Preservation Program. They’ll have to include crop production and income information for the last three years. A livestock report will also have to be submitted to the county.
From there, Montco will perform farm evaluations and rankings, appraisals, and farm tours before the Farmland Preservation Board votes on whether to make an offer. If the landowner accepts the offer, it will then be sent to the Pennsylvania Agricultural Land Preservation Board for another vote.
The entire process takes up to two years.