In 1998, Berks County residents were worried about protecting the farmland that is integral to the way they think about Berks County.
If you ask people what they love about Berks County, they’ll say, ‘You can be in the city and then 10 minutes later you can be driving around in the rolling farmlands and see the great vistas, and visit the farm stands. So there were a lot of groups trying to figure out how to preserve that land.
But the groups had different goals and priorities. One of the biggest hurdles was getting them to come up with cohesive objectives for farmland preservation.
Using a grant of about $4,000, the Community Foundation brought in a consultant who worked with the groups until they had developed one goal, which was to preserve 200,000 acres of farmland.
At that time, the county was spending about $1 million a year to buy conservation easements – guarantees from farmers that their land would never be developed.
One million a year was sort of like trying to bail out the ocean with a Dixie cup. It was woefully insignificant and there was not much chance that we were going to succeed in this before the developers had developed everything in sight.
The Community Foundation encouraged county officials to use the $1 million to borrow money so they could start buying more conservation easements before more land was developed. By the end of the year, the county commissioners floated a $35 million bond issue that, with matching grants from the state, led to about $50 million being spent on farmland conservation in Berks County over a five-year period. At the end of that period, the Community Foundation reconvened the interested parties. They re-evaluated their goals, and another $35 million bond was floated with matching state grants.
A $4,000 grant that ultimately triggered about $100 million in state and federal investment took us from a community that was in danger of losing its farmland to one that will always have it.