High price of Lancaster County’s agricultural land shapes how farmers start up, expand | Local News
Four farmers – from an owner whose operation has been in the family for about 90 years to a couple who moved out of the county in search of affordable land – shared their challenges.
Here are their stories of renting, saving, moving and growing.
FIFTH MONTH FARM, Rapho Township
Lancaster County native Devin Barto returned to the county in the late 2010s after participating in mentorship programs, working on and running farms in Maryland and eastern Pennsylvania. Back home, his plan was to start his own farm with his wife, Kristi. They spent 18 months looking for property.
“We thought, delusionally and naively, that we would be able to buy something, but we quickly realized that was not going to be possible,” he said, explaining price was “certainly” the obstacle.
They were hunting for good soil for their vegetable operation, preferably five to 15 acres. For plots that size, the couple found that asking prices often were upward of $40,000 an acre, Devin said. Smaller plots often are more costly, local experts on land value have noted.
As it became clear that local land ownership wasn’t feasible, Devin said, he and his wife, both in their 30s, began the months-long process of looking for land to rent.
Though federal agriculture officials did not list exact current farmland rent prices for Lancaster County, anecdotally, local experts and farmers said those costs are not excessively high when compared to statewide and national figures.
“I had already ran two farms on rented land, so I was well aware of the challenges of the landowner-to-lessee relationship,” he said. “I had a pretty good understanding of what to look for. This is my life’s work, so I wasn’t going to rush it.”
The long search, he said, could be attributed to a lack of quality in some available land and high competition for the rest. Many of his competitors, he said, benefited from existing connections within the farming community.
“It’s just such an intricate relationship,” Devin said. “There is so much good faith required, and to meet a stranger who wants to rent land from you on your … private property is such a complex situation.”
Luckily Devin, whose grandfather was a local farmer, had some connections of his own. That led him to a property in Rapho Township, renting from an owner he’s known since childhood.
The couple is in their fifth season running Fifth Month Farm on about 4.5 acres, and they’ve found success through direct sales to consumers and to restaurants — enough success to purchase a home in Landisville.
The entire experience, however, has changed the couple’s expectations about farmland ownership in Lancaster County, Devin said.
“We would like to,” he said. “But we don’t really care if we own the farm. … It’s just the way it is. In Lancaster County, if you don’t have a ton of money, you can’t buy land. Maybe in, like, my 40s or 50s, I’ll be able to buy something because we are growing our business. It’s not off the table.”
HORSE SHOE RANCH, formerly of Willow Street, now in Montgomery County
Bryan Donovan said he and his wife, Brittany, discovered the challenge of land values the hard way, while working to establish their farm, Horse Shoe Ranch, in the county in the mid-2010s.
Neither of them had a background in agriculture when they started out on rented land in Willow Street. Bryan used to work as a contractor/maintenance person, he said, and his wife was a hair stylist.
Most of their farm-related knowledge and interest grew out of admiration for other farmers who actively posted about their work on social media, said Bryan, originally of Cumberland County. His wife is a Lancaster County native.
“I think we kind of fell in love with farming on Instagram,” he said.“We accidentally became farmers.”
They started with a small vegetable garden, which gave them produce to sell at farmers markets, Bryan said. And eventually, the couple got a few laying hens and began collecting their eggs.
“We just kept growing,” he said.
Their current operation includes more than 3,000 pasture-raised laying hens, as well as meat birds, Bryan said. But the Donovans are no longer in Lancaster County – not because they don’t want to be, he said, but because they could not find affordable, suitable space available to support their farming model.
It’s a situation that Bryan said he wouldn’t have anticipated when first entering the industry, guessing that within five years he’d be able to find semi-permanent land to work from.
Instead, the couple chose to leave, for a short time working on rented space in neighboring York and Lebanon counties. That was before ultimately settling in Pottstown, Montgomery County, where they rent land through Lundale Farm, a nonprofit that offers affordable farm leases. Before that, he said, they considered leaving the state.
“I fell out of love pretty quick with Lancaster,” Bryan said, his frustration showing. “It’s pretty infuriating when you are trying to grow your business and you are like, ‘I can’t find anything. I’m stuck.’ The only way you can keep growing is if you find an acre here, an acre there. You are farming all over the place.”
Even finding land to rent was difficult, he said, highlighting the competitive market.
The experience was a blow to the young couple’s aspirations of, one day, becoming Lancaster County farmland owners, he said.
“We’d love to. I don’t know if it can happen,” he said. “With what we do, we are looking at a 100-acre farm, and if we want to stay in this area or close to it, that’s $3 million-plus. How does a farm like us afford a mortgage like that?”
MIRROR IMAGE FARMS, Bainbridge
Direct sales, both to consumers and restaurants, is a model that also launched Tyler and Joella Neff to success, enough to justify their purchase of 20 acres in Bainbridge, which serves as the base of of their beef, poultry and pork operation
But while walking their property in mid-March, the couple, also in their 30s, made sure to point out that those profits weren’t enough to do it alone.
The Neffs are Lancaster County natives who grew up in agricultural families before leaving behind conventional farming for their more-niche, pasture-raised operation.
Like others, they started out on rented land, and they pursued additional revenue streams. Joella said she still had a day job, and her husband worked odd jobs whenever he had the chance.
Eventually, they found more land to rent within the county, continuing to farm multiple plots as they grew, the couple said. They also purchased at least one residential home, which they now use as a rental to bring in revenue.
All of that patience and planning went a long way toward getting the pair into a position to buy their 20 acres, which they admit also was the product of some luck and existing community ties that helped discover the affordable, available land.
“Other sources of income are important,” Tyler said. “It has allowed us to grow quickly in ways that we wouldn’t [otherwise] be able to do.”
Their footprint is now about 80 acres across both their owned and rented space, and there are still opportunities for growth, possibly in the near future, they said.
At first, high local farmland prices forced them to question their choices to remain within the county, Joella Neff said.
“Land prices in Lancaster County are really expensive, so does that mean moving away?” she asked rhetorically, adding that a move would mean finding an entirely new customer base and support system — a tall task after spending years already doing the same locally.
“It takes a long time to set something like that up,” she said, explaining it made more economic sense to stay.
STAR ROCK FARMS, Manor Township
Rob Barley is co-owner and chief financial officer at Star Rock Farms, a dairy, livestock and crop operation based in Manor Township. The farm, which has been within the family since the 1930s, includes thousands of acres of owned and rented land in Lancaster and York counties.
And in the farm’s nine decades, family owners haven’t been afraid to grow, purchasing land whenever it seemed right, Barley said.
However, the direction of that expansion shifted over time, Barley said.
“We generally expanded to York, mainly because of the cost,” he said, referring to Lancaster County’s sometimes prohibitive farmland values.
At the same time, Barley said, he gets it. Farmers in Lancaster County aren’t only paying for the land, but also a desirable location within a community that’s steeped in agriculture — one made up of feed and fertilizer dealers, equipment manufacturers, repair shops, markets and many other businesses that have long existed to support farmers. That’s true for both modern farmers and the Plain sect, he said.
“The infrastructure is here, and the quality of the ground, of course, is great,” he said.
Like the others, Barley also estimated that Lancaster County land is, on average, more expensive than $30,000 per acre.
“That’s not necessarily a price that’s affordable to farm,” he said, thinking specifically of newcomers.
For them, Barley said he’d recommend getting a job on an established operation, learning skills and taking advantage of mentorship opportunities while building a savings that could lead to a farmland purchase down the line.
“It’s very difficult for somebody to come in and buy any significant amount of real estate for farming without some kind of significant nest egg or backing,” he said.