McKeown's farm has doubled in size while many other farms in the county have shrunk or disappeared. Since the 1990s, state and local governments have spent more than $1 billion to keep farms like Maple Acres intact.
McKeown now has 30 acres of his own and rents plots on others' land for a total of 200 acres. About 90 percent of his fruits, vegetables, flowers, beef, pork, eggs, jams, and pies are sold directly to customers, he said.
Maple Acres is unlike other farms in the county. Cows are the county's No. 1 agricultural commodity; the most popular crops are corn, soybeans, and hay that get sold up the supply chain.
Maple Acres is also unusual in its location. Less than a mile from the Plymouth Meeting Mall, it's the only working farm left in the township and one of only a handful remaining in the eastern part of the county, where development is heaviest.
The farm has been in McKeown's family for 97 years, and he wants it to stay a farm forever. So he's looking into the Farmland Preservation Program, a county-run effort using local, state, and sometimes federal money to buy farmers' development rights.
Since 1991, Montgomery County has preserved 146 farms, for a total of 8,638 acres. Owners can sell or rent the land to other farmers, switch from crops to livestock, chickens to flowers, Christmas trees to horse stables - but it must be used for the commercial production of agriculture forever.
In 2012, four farms were preserved with $1.4 million in public money. This year, the county has about $2 million available and 26 farms on the waiting list - including 22 that didn't make the cut last year.
The county's comprehensive plan aims to have 225 farms and 17,000 acres preserved by 2025. The county is on track with the number of farms preserved, but it has fallen behind on total acreage - and catching up is getting increasingly difficult.
In 1950, more than half of county land was used for farming. By 2002, agricultural acreage had dropped by 70 percent, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. From 2002 to 2007, it dropped an additional 13 percent, bringing the grand total down to 13.4 percent.
By comparison, during the same five years, agricultural acreage declined just 7 percent in Lehigh County, 1 percent in Bucks and Chester Counties, and increased 3 percent in Berks County, census data show. The number of farms increased in Delaware County and Philadelphia, but acreage figures were not available.
The Montgomery County commissioners have said preserving farmland is a priority, and they continued to fund the program in a year of deep budget cuts. On Friday, all three commissioners attended a "Keep Farming in Montgomery County" conference and addressed the 130 participants.
Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary George Greig, who headlined the convention, said the need for preservation was more acute in Montgomery County because of development pressure.
"Montgomery County is the cutting edge of agriculture. You have population all around you," Greig said. The county, he said, "is within an eight-hour truck drive to 50 percent of the population of the United States and 60 percent of the Canadian population."
Commissioner Leslie Richards said the county farm board was doing a good job of maximizing state matching funds.
"Of course, we'd love to see more acres preserved because that not only helps the farmers, but also helps us with our storm-water issues, water quality, easing traffic congestion, preserving our landscape," she said. "I think we are preserving as much as we can within the requirements that we have."
Among the state requirements is a 35-acre minimum for single parcels. Maple Acres is only 30 acres, so McKeown would not qualify for state matching funds.
And because the easement price is based on development value, McKeown's land would cost more per acre than farms in less urban areas such as Douglass, Franconia, and Pottstown.
McKeown plans to apply for the program anyway in a couple of years.
In the meantime, he has other plans for keeping the farm afloat: hot bacon-and-egg sandwiches to lure winter customers; pick-your-own produce sales; and family-friendly weekend events. Last summer, he sold corn to the Whole Foods market around the corner.
In the spring, he will try a twist on the latest sustainability trend: Community Supported Agriculture, in which people pay a membership fee and receive monthly or weekly shipments from a local farm.
It worked with vegetables and fruit, McKeown said, "so I thought I'd try it with flowers."
Contact Jessica Parks
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