Three Lebanon County organizations will receive at least $550,000 each from the estate of a local resident. 

The Lebanon County Agricultural Preservation Board, Lebanon County 4-H, and the Humane Society of Lebanon County are equal beneficiaries of the generosity of Esther M. Martin, who died on March 12, 2022, at the age of 88. 

In her will, Martin, who lived on a 40-acre farm in the 200 block of Snitz Road, Lebanon, bequeathed an equal amount of money, or shares, to each of the three organizations after the payment of her debts and expenses. 

The Lebanon County Agricultural Preservation Board received its first payment of $100,000 earlier this year and a second payment of $450,000 in July, according to Craig Zemitis, agricultural preservation specialist for the Lebanon County Conservation District. LCCD administers the farmland preservation program in Lebanon County. 

Zemitis said the final amount to be received is believed to be between $600,000 and $700,000.

“We never got a finalized amount, but it is believed to be around there ($700,000),” said Zemitis. “The original estimation was around $600,000.” 

Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, who represents the commissioners on the farmland preservation board, said Martin’s generosity will live in perpetuity given the purpose of the farmland preservation program. Litz said the preservation board has been working on this project for over a year and believes the final amount will be between $650,000 and $700,000. 

“What a generous and graceful donation,” said Litz. “The thought she put into this and how this is going to benefit the future of Lebanon County. She has created a legacy for her family. We’re just so grateful and thankful for this because it will enable us to do that federal program and have money to front so we can get reimbursed. We need working capital, so this couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Litz added that the donation will go a long way to get all of the farmers off of the farmland preservation waiting list within the next five years. An added bonus, she noted, is the benefit the funding will provide through the federal ag preservation program.

“The funding comes back in and we get to keep 50 percent to reinvest – which is amazing,” said Litz. “By doing the federal program, we are going to make more money to preserve more farms, and they don’t have to go get a loan and pay interest on it to do that. We’ll have a pot of money that we can use to build and eventually use that money to preserve more farms.”   

Zemitis said Martin’s gift will have a major impact on the farmland preservation waiting list, which generally numbers between 25 to 30 farms annually. 

“Most years the monies are consistent with what we present to the state, so anytime we get a sizeable donation like this, it can be very impactful,” said Zemitis, who noted the county pays a maximum of $2,500 per acre to program participants. 

Although the state funding match is based on a complicated formula, Zemitis said Lebanon County usually receives $1.30 from the state for every $1 the county puts into the farmland preservation program. (To date, a total of 181 easements composed of 20,201 acres have been preserved in the county’s farmland preservation program.)  

Read More: Lebanon County reaches landmark: 20,000 acres preserved in perpetuity

Annual local funding is provided by the county, some local municipalities, a Marcellus Shale grant, the Clean and Green program and private donations like the one Martin’s estate made to farmland preservation, added Zemitis. 

Zemitis said the county and state matching grant in 2023 was $920,000 for farmland preservation with that amount set to rise in 2014 to at least $1.38 million – based on past funding formulas – thanks to just the Martin donation.

“The county was $252,000 last year, so imagine if we do that same amount plus the additional $600,000, so we’re going to have $852,000 and that will be matched by the state,” said Zemitis. “When you look at the county contribution, it will double, almost triple, so those are some interesting comparisons. That would get us in the neighborhood of $2 million.”

Zemitis added that while the county needs about $6.2 million to put all of the farms currently on the list into the program, having $2 million available would lower the waiting list by about one-third. (The $6.2 million figure does not include the farmers who have and can still apply for the 2024 budget year before 2023’s filing deadline arrives in September.)

“This would make quite a significant dent in the outstanding balance for those farms on the waiting list since this is like two years of funding,” added Zemitis. 

Martha Gregory, extension educator for 4-H Youth Development, Penn State Extension, said Martin has endowed “a wonderful gift to the county’s 4-H program.”

“We are still in the process of determining exactly how the funds will be spent,” said Gregory.  “Some of the things we have in mind are additional scholarship funds for the youths and we hope to set up an endowment through Penn State so that we can have a perpetual funding stream.” 

Gregory emphasized those are two potential uses for the funding the county’s 4-H program will receive. “There will be a strategic plan put in place for this thoughtful gift so 4-H can benefit from it for many years to come.”

“We are in the planning stages, so it is too early to predict answers to your questions at this point,” Gregory told LebTown. “What I can say is that this will benefit 4-H members for many, many years to come in a number of diverse ways and help provide program opportunities for our youth.” 

A message left with a humane society employee in Myerstown for an interview with the organization’s president was not returned nor was an email to the president answered. The Martin family also declined to be interviewed for this article.

It’s unclear why Martin chose these three charities to be her beneficiaries. Her obituary said that she “enjoyed coloring books, puzzles, sticker books, antiquing, yard sales, and nature.” It also notes that memorial contributions should be made to the local humane society.

One 4-H leader told LebTown they were uncertain why she targeted their organization since it is believed that none of Martin’s five children were ever involved in any of the county’s 4-H programs.

However, her video tribute as posted on Christman’s Funeral Home’s website indicates ties to agriculture during her lifetime and an affinity for the industry since one black-and-white photo shows her smiling while posing with a cow. Two other pictures show her working on farm equipment while another picture depicts her driving a farm tractor.  

Martin’s farm, which is located in North Cornwall Township, was sold to Jason and Walter Nolt, two of the owners of Nolt’s Garden Center, for $1.52 million in June 2023

Jason told LebTown that while his one brother will be moving into the house in the next couple of weeks, the land, which is zoned agricultural, is currently on lease to a farmer this year and next.

“We’re not quite 100 percent sure what the game plan is after that,” said Jason. “But that was the larger purpose (to remain ag-based) in buying it. It will remain in crop farmland for the next couple of years and even if we eventually add some greenhouses to the property, it will remain in agricultural production, which is definitely our plan.” 

No matter what happens to the farm, there’s little doubt that Martin’s legacy will live well into the future. 

“This is a wonderful benefit for all three organizations, and 4-H is very happy and blessed that we’ve been chosen as one of those beneficiaries,” added Gregory.

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...