Leasing land aims to attract a new breed of farmers

The Lundale farmhouse. Samuel and Eleanor Morris bought the South Coventry farm in 1946.
The Lundale farmhouse. Samuel and Eleanor Morris bought the South Coventry farm in 1946. (RON TARVER / Staff)
Posted: January 05, 2013

For now, the land lies fallow. On a gray day, a cold wind whips the trees and rattles the windows of the historic farmhouse where Samuel and Eleanor Morris raised eight children.

But come spring, as the first shoots push through the fertile soil, a Chester County farm that belonged to two of the region's conservation pioneers will emerge as a showcase in the nascent national movement to give conserved land new social and environmental purpose by using it for sustainable agriculture.

The family envisions five or six farmers leasing portions for vegetables and poultry. An orchard and beef cattle, perhaps.

In other words, "a bustling farm . . . producing food," said Laura Morris Siena, a daughter and president of the nonprofit Lundale Farm Inc., which now oversees the project.

To the family, it is important that the farm grow not such commodity crops as soybeans but food for humans. And that it be grown organically.

The plan coincides with a growing demand for locally grown food.

The leasing aspect is aimed at a new breed of farmer: urbanites turning to agriculture as an environmental and sustainable enterprise. But they lack the land, which is prohibitively expensive here.

Much of the 400-acre Morris property is in the state's farmland-preservation program and has been farmed traditionally for decades, but supporters say it will become a model for how to view open-space conservation.

Many land-conservation groups balk at farming. Some even prohibit it in easement agreements, in which landowners agree to forgo development in return for tax breaks.

They envision trees being felled, bird habitat plowed, the soil slathered with chemicals.

'An important thing'

Meanwhile, much conserved land simply sits, except for periodic mowing. With shrinking budgets, land-preservation groups nationwide are starting to think that properties have to serve multiple interests.

"Today, if you want to continue to save open space . . . the more you can combine it with other priorities of the community and society, the better," said State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester), a Morris family friend.

"There is a lot of preserved land, particularly in suburban Philadelphia, and the question is how to best use that land," said Liz Anderson, a founder of the Phoenixville Farmers' Market and the nearby Charlestown Farm. She's also on the Lundale board. "Growing food for people is an important thing."

Supporters say the six-acre Rushton Farm in Delaware County shows how conservation and farming can coexist.

A lone voice

There, on a preserve owned by the Willistown Conservation Trust, crops are interspersed with native shrubs and grasses. Research shows increases in birds and pollinators.

A few years ago, when Fred de Long, director of the trust's community farm program, started talking to national groups about Rushton Farm, his was a lone voice. This year, he'll take his story to a dozen conferences.

The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture has been giving presentations along the same lines - "Growing Is Better Than Mowing."

"We're saying to folks from the open-space world, if you're used to viewing agriculture as the enemy, we're asking you to rethink that," said Marilyn Anthony, PASA's eastern regional director. Sustainable practices "protect and enhance the health of the soil, water quality, and biodiversity."

A recent study for the GreenSpace Alliance, a Southeastern Pennsylvania open-space advocacy group, identified nearly 13,000 acres of public land, utility rights-of-way, and other areas in the five counties that could be sustainably farmed.

Molly Morrison, who heads the alliance's board, also is president of the Natural Lands Trust.

Its main mission is managing land to benefit nature, so "we're not going to plow up the warm-season meadows that we've spent a lot of energy restoring," she said.

But for many trusts, the view is "evolving," she said. They want to help "the sustainable agriculture movement succeed by making land available."

Samuel and Eleanor Morris purchased the South Coventry farm in 1946.

Two threats - a plan to flood nearby land and build a hydroelectric power plant, which did not happen, and a plan for a large power line, which did happen - prompted them to found the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust in 1967.

It was one of the earliest trusts in the United States to use easements to preserve open space and farmland.

In 1970, Samuel Morris was elected to Pennsylvania's House. One of his signature bills - which became nationally recognized - enabled the purchase of development rights on farms.

Pennsylvania remains a national leader, with 4,070 farms totaling more than 432,000 acres preserved with $1 billion in funding.

Samuel Morris died in 1995. Eleanor Morris stayed on the farm until she died in 2011, at age 92. Her will asks that the land be farmed sustainably.

Although a young local couple, Christine and TJ Costa, began leasing land in mid-2011, the Lundale plan was formalized weeks ago with the transfer of the land from the estate to the nonprofit.

Filled with activity

On a day when the wind riffled the surface of pristine French Creek, which runs through the property, two Morris sisters sat at the oak table in their mother's kitchen, which always seemed to be filled with activity - and, on occasion, a baby goose or lamb needing special care.

Siena, a Mount Airy activist, and Eleanor Morris Illoway, a Kimberton lawyer, recalled how farmers would come in at breakfast and plan the day. Later, as the Morrises got involved in politics and conservation, the table was the hub of strategizing.

This time, the two daughters sat and talked about Eleanor Morris' twin legacies of open space and sustainable agriculture.

Parts of the farm - the fringes of woods, the wetlands - will never be tilled. They will be managed naturally.

"It's just that there's a lot of land here," Siena said. "We believe we can grow a lot of food."

Contact Sandy Bauers

at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Her blog, "GreenSpace," is at www.philly.com/greenspace.

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