Disappearing farmland is a big topic of conversation these days, says one Berks County farmer.
“I think the older generation really cares about this,” said Perry Township farmer Roger Zweizig. “Anytime I go to a local diner for breakfast, you will hear the older retired people talking about it.”
Zweizig, 51, is referring to the influx of large warehouses that are gobbling up farmland at an alarming rate in and around the township.
The older folks remember what the land looked like when more farms were in existence, he said.
“And, really, everybody’s complaining about this; warehouses are popping up all over — it’s crazy — and it’s all on farmland, good farmland and one golf course in the area,” Zweizig said. “It makes you wonder why all these warehouses are needed.”
Zweizig is a crop farmer, with much of his 1,000 acre spread planted in corn, soybeans, wheat and hay.
Much of the corn and wheat goes to local feed processors, such as F.M. Brown’s, while the soybeans are transported to New Jersey seaports.
Some barley and rye are grown as forage for cattle.
The family raises and finishes feeder calves and has about a dozen beef cattle that roam pastureland.
By placing their farm in the Pennsylvania Agriculture Conservation Easement Purchase Program, the Zweizig family has made sure the land will remain in farming and not become a landing pad for a warehouse.
“My dad preserved it in the early ’80s, and he was one of the first farmers to preserve their land around here,” Zweizig said. “When there was land for sale that was adjacent to us, he would buy it and put it in preservation.”
Dad LeRoy would keep an eye out for land and buy a few hundred acres here and there until he had added at least 600 acres to the original farm.
In 2016, Zweizig bought another 88 acres that are now preserved. After his father’s passing, Zweizig’s mother preserved another 35 acres.
Then the family bought a 188-acre farm that had already been preserved. Of their 1,000-acre spread, only about 150 acres remain unpreserved, he said.
Grandfather Robert Zweizig started the family farm near Shoemakersville and ran it as a dairy farm.
As a young man, Robert started working for a farmer. After many years, he was able to purchase that farm. Zweizig’s dad continued dairy farming until his passing in 2017.
By putting his farm into preservation status, LeRoy Zweizig not only protected the land, he helped the family to continue farming.
“By preserving the land (and receiving the reimbursement) we had the money we needed to replace equipment,” Zweizig said. “That made it much easier for us, because my brother and I always wanted to farm and that was what was most important.”
Running the farm is a family commitment for the Zweizig family. Roger and his eldest son, Travis, 22, have a partnership, while son Trent, 19, works on the farm, as does Zweizig’s brother, Larry. Roger’s daughter, Kennedy, 15, helps with chores and is a member of Berks County 4-H. His wife, Kathy, does the bookkeeping.
Zweizig was in partnership with another brother, Richard, until his passing.
“I like the idea that it’s preserved,” Zweizig said. “There are warehouses going up at the end of my land. They are everywhere, but they’re not getting any of our land.”
“Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of farms and acres permanently preserved for agricultural production. The program guarantees a future food supply and contributes to a healthier economy. It also assures a way of life Pennsylvanian’s cherish will continue for generations to come. The program is a partnership between all levels of government and non-profit organizations — with a common goal of saving prime farmland,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s website, PDA.org.
The American Farmland Trust estimates nearly 1.7 billion tons of topsoil are lost each year. Preserved farms are managed by private landowners using sound soil and water conservation practices that protect the soil from erosion and local surface waters from contamination. By keeping soils healthy through conservation practices, the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change can be offset.
Crops will continue to cover their land, never to be replaced by warehouses, strip malls, or housing developments, Zweizig said.
“I could have got more money by selling, but I grew up here and I live here and they won’t be touching any of our land,” Zweizig said. “My children want to farm here, and they have the right to keep this land.”