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 Natural Awakenings Lancaster-Berks

Saluting Lancaster County Agriculture for 300 Years of Innovation

Feb 28, 2013 11:18PM ● By By Bill Simpson


Lancaster County is growing and diversifying, but the county’s core is the same today as it has been since the first European settlers arrived. Agriculture is still the dominant industry, and while the look of local agriculture is changing in many ways, the basics remain the same. Most of the county’s acreage is farmland, and thousands of farmers work hard to bring bountiful crops from the fertile soil.

Modern agriculture had its local beginnings in 1711, when a party of Swiss Mennonites began to clear land for farming near Willow Street, which became the first recorded settlement. Lancaster County came into existence in 1729, and it was around that time when the first Amish settlers arrived in Pennsylvania. They came for the religious freedom that William Penn promised, and they chose to settle in Lancaster County because of its rich limestone soil.

By the last decades of the 18th century, that soil and the industriousness of those early settlers had enabled Lancaster County to grow into an agricultural powerhouse. In order to get their goods to Philadelphia, farmers needed a good road, which led to the construction of the country’s first engineered road, the Lancaster/Philadelphia Turnpike.

In 1925, the county reached its peak number of farms, about 12,000. That number has dropped by more than half since then, but because the average size of a farm has increased, the number of acres under cultivation is roughly the same now as it was in 1925.

Today, Lancaster County leads the state in agricultural production, with more than one billion dollars in annual revenues. Chester County is second, with about $550 million, and Berks County is third, at $367 million. Chester County’s numbers are a little different from that of the others, however, because mushrooms, which grow in dark buildings where no one can see them, comprise about two-thirds of Chester County’s production.

Producing more than one billion dollars’ worth of agricultural commodities requires a large quantity of land, and county records reveal that while suburban growth has certainly taken land out of farming, Lancaster County still uses more than two-thirds of its land for farming, that’s 420,000 acres, or 650 square miles. In fact, one indication of the county’s dedication to agriculture is that Lancaster County has preserved more than 100,000 acres, or 156 square miles, of farmland, an area larger than the entire city of Philadelphia.

However, none of those numbers means that farming today is the same as it was 100 or even 10 years ago. Many significant changes have come to both farmed commodities and to farming methods. For example, one crop that was once so popular that several Lancaster County municipalities took their names from it has completely disappeared. Christopher Columbus sailed to America on ships rigged with hemp, and colonial farmers including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it. At one time, more than 100 mills in Lancaster County processed hemp fiber, but the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made the growing of hemp illegal in the United States. As a result, the residents of East Hempfield and West Hempfield townships now live in municipalities named for an illegal substance.

Changes in farming methods include a rise in the popularity of no-till planting, a method that eliminates plowing and the loss of soil and nutrients that plowing causes. Area farmer Steve Groff, owner of Cedar Meadow Farm, in Holtwood, is a nationally recognized leader in the no-till movement. Thanks in part to his influence, farmers in Lancaster County now use no-till methods on almost 50 percent of the county’s local cropland. Groff is a strong believer in the practice of building healthy soil through cover crops, and he has worked for more than 12 years to develop the Tillage Radish, produced by Cover Crop Solutions, in Robesonia. This new crop has proven so beneficial that it recently won the award for No-Till Product of the Year at the National No-Tillage Conference.

Seed saving and genetic diversity have also become hot topics. The Landis Valley Heirloom Seed Project began in the 1980s as a way to preserve some of the plants that German settlers grew in Lancaster County from 1750 to 1940. The organization has developed a loyal following as farmers realized that many varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers were beginning to be replaced by modern, hybrid seeds. Heirlooms are nature's original plants and have been preserved and passed down for generations, while hybrids result from breeding techniques designed to improve the plants in ways ranging from better disease resistance to longer shelf life, typically for commercial, monoculture (single crop) farming. Proponents of heirloom varieties want to retain the area’s agricultural history and diversity by continuing to pass down heirloom seeds.

Over the years, the ways that local farmers get their products to consumers has also changed. The Leola Produce Auction provides a place for farmers and buyers to connect. On a summer morning, the auction is packed with horse-drawn wagons filled with everything from corn to watermelons. Buyers come from Lancaster County and far beyond, and millions of dollars worth of produce move through the auction every year.

Consumers also are reestablishing direct connections to farmers with community-supported agriculture (CSA). Through membership in a CSA farm, a consumer receives either weekly or bi-weekly shares of the farm’s bounty. Most CSAs involve just one farm, but the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative is a large one that serves about 75 organic farmers and distributes their crops in Lancaster County and from Washington to New York.

Lancaster County agriculture is always evolving, but the basics remain the same. Farmers work hard to provide us with excellent and abundant food, and for that we thank them.

Bill Simpson is a Lancaster writer and natural living enthusiast who helped bring community gardens to East Hempfield Townshi