'Houses everywhere': Saving farmland in York County for a new generation

Anthony Maenza
York Dispatch

Lydia Manifold loves the solitude of living in a home surrounded by farmland.

For 70 of her 87 years, Manifold lived in the farmhouse on property her late husband's family has owned for two centuries.

She didn't know a lot about farming when she married Eugene right out of high school back in 1954. But she learned how to drive a tractor and take care of the pigs, and she helped plant and harvest the potatoes, corn, wheat and soybeans they grew on their land during the time they were together.

"It's important to save the farm ground so we all have something to eat 50 years later," Manifold said.

Lydia Manifold, 87, is shown at her home in East Hopewell Township, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. Manifold’s farm, that has been in her late husband’s family for more than 200 years, is part of Pennsylvania's Farmland Preservation Program which protects the property for farming and prohibits future development. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

And that's just what she's doing.

Manifold recently had 84 acres of farmland on High Rock Road in the Airville area placed in the Pennsylvania Farm Preservation Program, which keeps farmland available from planting and away from developers for other purposes.

"There's houses going up on every farm. Look at Stewartstown," she said. "Take a ride. Come down to High Rock. Come down to Muddy Creek and look around. There are houses everywhere."

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York County is particularly vulnerable to developers buying up farmland because of its close proximity to a metropolitan area like Baltimore, said Shannon Powers, of the state Department of Agriculture.

"There are so many Baltimore commuters in the southern part of the county," she said, "so there is a lot of pressure from developers. Some of those farmers are being offered high-dollar amounts for their farms."

Pennsylvania leads the nation in terms of the number of acres preserved through the program. Pennsylvania has now protected 6,118 farms and 616,713 acres in 58 counties from future commercial, industrial or residential development.

Pennsylvania's Farmland Preservation Program recently secured a $7.85 million grant from the USDA's Regional Conservation Partnership Program to support climate-smart conservation on preserved Pennsylvania farms. That enables the state's continued funding for the program, which totaled $54.8 million in 2021.

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For people like Manifold, Power said, the farm is "a part of their being." The farms were part of their livelihood — and, indeed, part of their daily lives.

"It was started back when farms were suffering and public entities were trying to formulate public policy to protect that resource," Powers said. "Without farms, we don't eat. They were working very hard to figure out ways to keep farms farms."

The Manifold farm is shown on Veach Road, at left, in East Hopewell Township, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Legal protections that come with being part of an Agricultural Security Area can shield normal agricultural activity from nuisance lawsuits.

Each county in the state is allotted a certain amount of funds each year for farm preservation, Powers said.

The program, which is supported across party lines, is so popular that there's a waiting list to be a part of it. Powers said there are currently about 1,200 farms on that list.

The program started in 1988 and purchased its first easement in 1989. Manifold's late husband entered the farmland along Veach Road, where she lives now, into the program long ago. Eugene Manifold died 25 years ago. During their marriage, he bought six parcels of farmland. Two parcels went to the children, two others were sold, and the final two are now in the preservation program

Farms are prioritized for preservation based on their value, soil quality. and location, and each receives a ranking, Powers said. The intent is to protect prime farmland. The funds from the program are used to purchase a conservation easement, which is paid to the farm owner in a lump sum or over a period of time.

"The conservation easement is attached to the property. When the property changes hands, the development rights go with the property," Powers said. "That's how it preserves the farm forever."

The Manifold farm is shown on Veach Road in East Hopewell Township, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

The land Manifold had preserved was part of more than 2,000 acres preserved in Pennsylvania on this go-round. Other York County farmland preserved this time around includes 104 acres owned by Robert B. and Judy K. Burchett in Chanceford Township and 149 acres owned by John W. Marstellar in Hopewell Township.

"They are very self sacrificing in the decisions that they are making," Powers said. "Not just in the way they live their lives on the farm, but in the way they are deciding to protect that land for future generations and ensure they preserve their legacy as well as preserving the farm."

For Manifold, it's also about preserving the solitude and quiet living she has on her piece of Pennsylvania.

"I like to preserve farmland," Manifold said. "And the houses are going up everywhere and I don't want no one around me."