Farm funding may be threatened by effort to balance budget

Some fear a new idea to balance Pennsylvania's budget will put efforts to preserve the state's farmland in jeopardy.

Despite warehouse encroachment statewide, Pennsylvania has the country's most successful farmland preservation program.

"Bottom line, we can preserve more land in our township than otherwise because of getting a match from the state," said Ron Beitler, a Lower Macungie Township, Lehigh County, supervisor and the treasurer of Lehigh County's farmland preservation program.

Lehigh County has $2 million in its farmland preservation fund that the state can match, but that program may be in jeopardy.

Currently, the state House GOP caucus is touting a plan of balancing the budget without raising taxes.

"Right now, alarm bells are going off in the farmland preservation community," Beitler said.

Because GOP leaders want to take $27 million out of the $58-million state farmland preservation fund for what is being called a onetime transfer.

"Comes from an excess of funds that every single year is built up a surplus at state level. We've  proposed using as one-time transfer," said state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, adding it has happened before.

Mackenzie said he's not concerned there won't be as many farms preserved because of the action.

Beitler said the money isn't a surplus and has already has been earmarked to be spent on preserved farms, which can take more than a year from start to finish.

Right now, there are 13 farms, totaling 700 acres, that are holdover applicants from last year, including a 200-acre farm on Sauerkraut Lane that Lower Macungie Township is trying to save.

Beitler said if the fund is used, that and other farms may not be saved.

Mackenzie said the fund is still getting more than $20 million annually from cigarette taxes.

"I'm a strong supporter of Lehigh County preservation money for dedication of farmland, and in the future, it will still be there," he said.

The questions for farmers is will there be enough green to preserve their land.

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