The Landis family farm in Lancaster County will remain open. No houses will ever sprout here; only crops, just like they have for more than 100 years.
Loren Landis would have liked that.
Selling the land was never an option for Loren, who had many opportunities to make a good dollar in growing East Lampeter Township, said Carolyn Jean Benner, the eldest Landis daughter.
“Over the years people would drive by and say, ‘Oh this is such a beautiful spot. Would you sell me a few acres so I can build a house here,'” Benner said. “He would never entertain the possibility.”
The farmstead has been in the Landis family for more than 100 years. Loren and wife Mary set up house there in the 1950s, sharing the home with Loren’s parents.
When Loren died at 81 in 1999, the Landis family knew passing the farm to the next generation was not feasible. Loren and Mary’s four children grew up working the farm but chose other paths in their adult lives.
“None of us could muster the desire or the abilities to take over the farm,” Carolyn said. “But we wanted to honor his wishes.”
Loren gave Don, his only son, one last chance to take over the farm at a Father’s Day celebration in the early ’90s. It was the day Loren admitted to himself and his family that he was too ill to keep working. “They went into that living room,” said Mary, pointing the way. “They were in there a long time. When they came out Loren said, ‘Mary we are selling the cows tomorrow.’ He wasn’t the same after he stopped farming. It was his life.”
A few weeks after Loren’s death, a real estate agent representing a local farmer, approached Mary. The agent suggested subdividing the land at one point, keeping some in farming and selling the rest.
That got Mary thinking: Even if she sold to a farmer today, would the land still be green and open 100 years from now?
“The farm will remain intact,” she said, giving a pound to her ’50s-era farm table. “Why must they build on good farmland? They can build somewhere else.”
Mary and her children sat down at the table with Heidi Schellenger, now executive director of the Lancaster Farmland Trust. After reviewing their options, the family chose to donate a conservation easement on the property. The conservation easement would prohibit the Landis family and future holders of the land from developing the farm.
“I met every one of her four children and they told me personally that this is what they wanted,” Schellenger said.
“We could be on easy street if we sold it for development,” explained son Don. “We were brought up to know that money isn’t everything. I would rather sleep at night.”
In accepting the conservation easement donation, the Lancaster Farmland Trust committed to enforce its development restrictions per the family’s wishes — regardless of who owns the land. The easement was recorded at the County Recorder of Deeds office, ensuring that all future buyers of the property are fully informed that development restrictions are in place on the land.
In removing the farm’s development potential, the easement reduced the property’s value by about $200,000. For donating the easement, Mary received a charitable deduction on her federal income taxes.
The easement allows the land to be used for what it is best suited: crops. “Between the soils and the climate in Lancaster County, we have the most productive non-irrigated farmland in the country,” Schellenger said “It’s cliché around here but is also true.”
This rich farmland is being converted into housing developments, malls, parking lots and roads at an alarming rate. About 4,800 acres of the county’s fertile soil have been developed in the past five years alone, said Jeffery Swinehart, director of land preservation for the Trust.
Conservation organizations like the Lancaster Farmland Trust recognize the public benefit of preserving community open space and character, the security of growing food locally and the urgency of protecting the resource base of Pennsylvania’s agricultural economy. Land trusts also recognize the needs and concerns of farm families. The work of these organizations focuses on finding conservation solutions that both provide significant public benefit and meet the needs of the landowner.
The Lancaster Farmland Trust’s Land Preservation Fund helps limited-income landowners to preserve their land. The mechanics of completing a conservation easement transaction cost the Trust about $10,000. Easement donors who can are asked to contribute to cover these costs and to an endowment that helps to enforce the easement restrictions in the future. For the Landis family and others who can’t, the Land Preservation Fund is there to help. The Fund is generously replenished by gifts from individuals, farm businesses and foundations.
Mary is comfortable knowing that the farm easement has simplified her children’s future and helped the whole family to honor Loren’s wishes.
“I don’t know what I would do if it weren’t for the land trust,” Mary said. “My children said they couldn’t stand it if they drove by and saw it developed. Our blood, sweat and tears are in this land.”
Memories of her late husband and her children surround Mary as she sits in her kitchen. She still cooks on the circa 1950 battleship-size stove — the first modern appliance that she and Loren bought as a married couple. Although the room was repainted in recent years — a gift from the children — the designs that daughter Janet painted years ago on an old sink and cupboard cabinet remain.
The chair where Loren died in his sleep still sits by the doorway to the room where father and son made the final decision to sell the cows.
Now, Mary can sell the farm.
The seasons on at least 83 acres bordering Hartman Station Road will always be marked by the fragrance of cut hay in the summer and by freshly plowed fields in the spring.
Loren would have liked that, too.