By Andrew Cummings | WESA
More Allegheny County farms are now eligible to be preserved — smaller ones and those growing area-unique crops as part of the Farmland Preservation Act.
Serakowski Farms, located in Plum Borough, is the first farm in Allegheny County to be preserved under the rule change. This 36-acre farm raises beef cattle, and produces a specialty crop called ‘spelt.’
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Greg Serakowski owns this farm. He’s growing about 16 acres of this ancient grain, which is a distant relative of wheat that has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years.
Serakowski only recently found out it was a unique crop that made his farm eligible to be conserved as part of the Farmland Preservation Act. For years he’s been grinding the spelt he grows for cow feed and using the stems for straw, which is used in winter bedding.
“They’re kind of having a really nice circular farming model there where they’re growing a lot of the food for their cows,” said Heather Manzo, the executive director of the Allegheny County Conservation District.
Serakowski’s farm now has a conservation easement, which means that Pennsylvania paid him roughly the market value of his land.
“What that means is that our farm will be a farm for basically perpetuity,” said Serakowski.
Serakowski still owns the land. The conservation easement is a voluntary, but legally binding agreement that suspends development rights so that land can’t be turned into a housing development or strip mall.
Research from Penn State indicates that Pennsylvania is ranked eighth in the U.S. for the rate of conversion from agricultural land to low-density housing — an estimated 70% of lost farmland between 2001 and 2016 was converted to low-density housing. The study describes how the number of farms in Pennsylvania has decreased by 10% from 2012 to 2017. Farm acreage has decreased by 6%. Even so, Pennsylvania remains a national leader when it comes to farmland preservation.
“This decision by the Allegheny County Farmland Preservation Board to take on the opportunity to preserve these smaller and different types of operations is really, really significant, specifically for where we live,” said Manzo.
Why the rule change?
Manzo explained the rule change was adopted in part because farms in Allegheny County are smaller on average. The size requirement dropped from 50 to only 10 acres. She said this reduction opens the door to preserving more farmland, which will not only help preserve a way of life, it also has important environmental effects.
“When you have land that’s unpaved, it can absorb rain, snow melts, and it acts as a natural filter. It replenishes the watershed and aquifers and replenishes the river. So our whole ecosystem here really depends on there being unpaved earth,” said Manzo.
Mim Seidel, an associate food studies professor at Chatham University, said farmland benefits the ecological footprint of the land, especially when compared to commercial development.
“If you farm sustainably, which many smaller and mid-sized farms do, compared to the huge farms…you’re not sending out as much pollution as, let’s say, if we put a factory on what had been a farm,” explained Seidel. “Or if we have a whole bunch of townhouses that need to use more water…making sewage, that type of thing.”
“Farm also provides habitat for all sorts of creatures from little micro invertebrates and insects and things all the way up to birds and large mammals,” said Manzo. “If you think about a farm, it’s going to provide food, habitat and those ecosystem services that our human communities rely on, as well as the natural environment.”
In addition to possible environmental benefits, Serakowski — a construction carpenter by trade — says the Farmland Preservation Program helps support his farm.
“What it does is it enables us to do what we want to do, where we can invest for the future,” said Serakowski. “We can upgrade our buildings and our equipment if we need to. We can develop our genetics better with our cows.”
Serakowski said he believes protecting farms in the region is important because he’s seen so many go away.
“They’re just disappearing. It’s either turning into housing developments or strip malls or something like that. There’s not a lot of farms around anymore,” said Serakowski.
The Farmland Preservation Program has preserved more than 6,000 farms and 600,000 acres across Pennsylvania since 1988.