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State ‘Byway’ designation big for preservation
Dairy farming integral to rural landscape

Dairy farms are prominent on the west end of the 21st state-designated scenic byway. The newly named Conestoga Ridge Road Byway is seen in the distance here on a misty mid-October morning as the folks at Zimhaven Farms get in their last cutting of alfalfa from fields along the portion of Route 23 where the Byway begins, just east of the intersection with Route 322.
Photo by Sherry Bunting.

By SHERRY BUNTING
Special for Farmshine

CHURCHTOWN, PA -- At a time when folks are concerned about consolidation in agriculture and future sustainability of family farms, it is nice to remember that 96% of our nation’s farms are family-owned and operated, and 5462 of those farms are located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

For the scores of what are deemed “family-unit farms” -- many of them dairies -- dotting the landscape of the 8-mile stretch of Route 23 from Blue Ball to Morgantown, the future may be even more sustainable now that the road overlooking the panoramic vistas of East Earl and Caernarvon Townships was officially declared Pennsylvania’s 21st scenic byway on Wednesday, October 30.

Dubbed the Conestoga Ridge Road Byway, it is the 21st stretch of road to receive this designation by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation -- a huge step in preserving the “viewshed” and “foodshed” -- one could even say “milkshed” here.

The significance of the designation is more than skin-deep. Beyond the vistas and quaint towns, the area is also an economic driver for the local communities in both agricultural cash receipts and ag-related jobs as well as tourism linked to agriculture. Much of this agriculture centers on dairy and produce.

East Earl and Caernarvon Townships have worked for the designation since 2004, officials report. Last October, the Lancaster County Planning Commission designated the 8-mile stretch as the county’s second “Heritage Byway,” with the first being the 25-miles of Route 741 from Safe Harbor to Christiana. That area, too, has a heavy concentration of dairy production.

Taking the county’s “Heritage” designation to the next level now gives the eastern Lancaster County region some state perks, such as greater support for discouraging subdivision and commercialization. It also encourages municipalities along the Byway to apply for funding for Byway-related upgrades.

Located in eastern Lancaster County, the Conestoga Ridge Heritage Byway begins in East Earl and continues east through Caernarvon Township. The last four miles are practically my backyard, and is it ever beautiful.

The fertile ground and gently rolling hills of the Conestoga Ridge and Valley comprise a portion of the headlands of the Conestoga River -- bordered by the Welsh Mountains on the South end and by the Chestnut Ridge and Turkey Hill to the North. (We live on the north side of ‘Turkey Hill,’ not to be confused with the other and more famous Turkey Hill down where that delicious ice cream is made at the southern end of the county).

Settled by Welsh, Swiss and German agrarians, with a few Scots-Irish in the mix, many of the farms here are third, fourth, and fifth generation. It is, in fact, the continuation of cultural practices and abundance of historical landmarks that helped this stretch of road receive the “Heritage Byway” designation. But it is the agricultural views along this stretch of road that helped it gain its state designation as a Department of Transportation Scenic Byway. Both designations -- coming a year apart -- are viewed by township officials a huge step toward farmland preservation here.

The designation is also important to the sustainability of the farms along the Byway -- and beyond -- because just a few miles down the road is a Turnpike access at Morgantown, which brings continued development pressure from Philadelphia commuters wanting to relocate.

The primary goal of the designation is to “preserve the view,” but offshoots lead to protection and preservation of the land and the farms within the view.

Eastern Lancaster County is agriculturally and economically vital to Lancaster County, which is first in the state and 18th in the nation for agricultural production and first in the state and 10th in the nation for dairy production, as well as fourth in the nation for the sheer number of individual farms, according to Pennsylvania Agriculture Statistics Service 2007 Ag Census data. The 2012 Census of Agriculture Report will be released early next year. Lancaster County is home to nearly 100,000 dairy animals -- about 20% of the state’s total.