Lebanon County’s waiting list for the farmland preservation program has been nearly cut in half thanks to the generosity of Esther Martin. 

Her estate’s donation of just over $765,000 to farmland preservation last year combined with the state’s contribution of $1.83 million and monies from other funding sources means the county has nearly $3 million in its coffers to purchase agricultural easements in 2024. 

“We have enough funding to preserve 11 farms (of the 26 on the waiting list) in Lebanon County,” says Lebanon County Conservation District farmland preservation specialist Craig Zemetis. “That doesn’t mean they will all get completed this year.”

Lebanon County typically has about $1 million for the program and, on average, about four farms totaling around 400 acres are preserved annually. This year, however, thanks to Martin’s generosity, the total number of acres being preserved is tripling to 1,200 acres.

“The amount from that donation alone is around 700 acres, which is about twice as much as we normally do,” said Zemetis. “She single-handedly gave us two years worth of funds. That’s how influential it was, giving us two years of progress with that one donation.”

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Zemetis thanked the family. He noted that he had not been able to learn what exactly motivated the late Lebanon County resident to make the generous contribution to ag preservation. 

“I didn’t get to talk to anyone in the family particularly,” said Zemetis. “They worked with the attorneys and while I didn’t speak directly with anyone from the family, I did send them a thank-you letter. She also donated to 4-H and the (county) humane society, so it was a third of a third of a third of her estate for each of those (organizations).”

LebTown had requested through her attorneys an interview to highlight her gift and tell her story through her children but the family declined the offer. 

Life at Restful Acres isn’t all farm work as evidenced by the rides Frank Graybill Jr. is giving to these happy passengers. (Provided photo)

While the exact impetus for her donation may be unknown, Virginia and Frank Graybill Jr. have goals they are trying to achieve in preserving their 152.53-acre farm, which sits in both Lebanon and Dauphin counties in the southwestern portion of the Lebanon Valley. 

“Our children were not interested in taking over a dairy farm, but none of our three children wanted us to get rid of the farm either,” said Frank. “And I don’t like seeing all of these houses going up into housing developments. It seems the people who are most excited about this (preservation) are our neighbors. They do not want to see any housing developments going up, they don’t want houses being built and farms being taken.”  

The Graybills, who converted their farm from dairy to Wagyu beef cattle about a half-dozen years ago, say the farmer’s involvement in the preservation process is mostly a waiting game. (Wagyu is a Japanese breed that’s considered a delicacy in the United States, and the Graybills have about 100 head of cattle.) 

The wait happens because there’s a whole process that must occur before settlement, beginning with the farmers applying for the program and either showing proof that their farm has been entered into an Agricultural Security Area or will be by the time settlement is to occur. 

“You apply to the program with the deadline every year being September 30th for next year’s funding, So we get our ranking list finalized in November and in February is when I know how much the state is matching and I figure out my total funds and how much money we have to preserve,” said Zemetis.   

Not only is Frank Graybill Jr. a farmer but also a pilot. This photo from his plane provides an aerial view of Restful Acres farm. (Submitted photo)

One of the first steps is for the conservation district to rank the farm’s soils so that the farm can be placed on the farmland preservation waiting list. Zemitis said the waiting list exists because demand for the program outweighs available funds for those wanting to preserve their farms forever.

Read More: Saving the land forever: Lebanon County farmland preservation program explained

There’s a statewide formula for ranking farmland soils, according to Zemetis. 

The ranking formula is: 

  • 40 percent – soil-based 
  • 25 percent – clustering potential, meaning it is grouped near other ag easements
  • 25 percent – farming, farmland and pastureland potential 
  • 10 percent – non-agricultural uses 

Zemetis said a property must contain at least 50 percent of soils that are available for agricultural production and are of capability classes I-IV; contain 50 percent harvested cropland, pasture lands, or grazing lands; and be at least 50 contiguous acres in size unless a minimum of 10 acres is of a unique crop or adjoining an attached perpetual agricultural conservation easement.

Zemitis stated no one generally understands the soil designation ranking, adding soil maps must be consulted and tests taken to determine what are the “good” soils, which are ranked as I through IV, and not as desirable soils designated as V through VIII. 

There’s a general consensus that the best soils are south of Route 422 and the composition is less desirable the farther north you travel away from that highway.

“The biggest part of it is the soil ranking,” said Zemetis. “The land on the south side of the county is more fertile, so that’s a major part of the ranking.”

This scenic view of the pond at Restful Acres farm shows why the property is aptly named. (Submitted photo)

Zemetis says he’s sympathetic to landowners and farmers whose properties land lower on the waitlist since their soils rank lower than their counterparts in other areas of the county. 

“We’re trying to preserve the best farmland, not necessarily an individual farmer,” said Zemetis.  “It’s unfortunate and I completely understand how they feel, but our goal is to preserve the best farmland.”

After a score is obtained, Zemetis meets with the landowner to review it. The nine-member Lebanon County Farmland Preservation board approves in November the ranking list. By February, following a meeting of the statewide ag preservation board, Lebanon County knows its annual allocation and how many farms can be preserved that year.

“It doesn’t lock them into anything,” said Zemetis about the process up to the time a farm is settled. “Landowners can leave the waiting list at any time they want. There is no signing of paperwork to get on the list. Once I know I have funding, that’s when things start to become more concrete. A farmer will receive an update every year letting them know whether there is funding or not.”

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Once a landowner is notified that there is funding and the paperwork begins, they pay a $2,500 fee that is returned at closing to cover costs in case the farmer does not complete the preservation process.

Lebanon County landowners are compensated $2,500 per acre to preserve their land for what Zemetis says is “forever and a day” since their development rights are being sold to the program.

Zemetis said landowners are asked to get an assessment of their property so that when the assessed value exceeds $2,500 that individual can ask their accountant about the tax ramifications between the difference of the $2,500 payment amount and the assessed value of their land. 

He added that every farm that has been assessed over the past five years has gone above that threshold since he’s worked at LCCD, so he encouraged farmers to check with a tax expert to determine if their preserved farm qualifies.  

The sun sets on another day at Restful Acres farm. Although originally a log cabin, the farmhouse, which sits in Dauphin County while the farmland is in Lebanon County, received an addition over the years. The original log home was built in the 1840s. (Submitted photo)

The $2,500 per acre amount has been consistent for at least the past 10 years.

“It’s been discussed (raising it), but the board didn’t think we needed to because there’s still interest,” said Zemitis. “It doesn’t devalue the farm. According to the state, farms that are preserved are selling for the exact same amount as farms that aren’t preserved and, in some cases, they are selling for more. So it doesn’t devalue the ability to sell the property.”

There are currently 184 easements in Lebanon County totaling 20,526.21 acres preserved for perpetuity. Approximately another 22,300 total acres will be preserved once all 18 of the pending sales agreements of the 33 on the waiting list are finalized.

For Frank, who is 71, there’s more to the farm than the financial gains he could enjoy by selling his land to a developer. 

His parents purchased the farm when he was seven years old, Virginia and he assumed ownership when they got married 15 years later and he raised his children there while milking a dairy herd for nearly 50 years.  

“A farm is a great place to raise a family and that’s one appeal that agriculture has for families,” notes Frank. 

He said he knows other landowners look at their land differently from his family.

“Some want the farm to bring as much as they can, whether that will be used for houses or warehouses,” said Frank, who raises corn, soybeans and wheat on about 220 acres he owns and rents. “But when it is all said and done, we are not going to take our money with us when we die.” 

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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...


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