Forty years and 20 miles separate Don Cowden and Drew Manko. Yet they share an inextricable bond: a heritage of blood, sweat and tears.
“You have to love this or you don’t do it,” said Cowden, who, like Manko, belongs to the fraternity known as Washington County farmers. All of them are plying a grueling trade that is diminishing in their region – nationwide, actually – yet always has been and always will be vital to society’s well-being.
But the kinship of Cowden, 64, and Manko, 24, is even more exclusive than that. They are part of an elite subset in the Keystone State.
Each is operating a Century Farm, as designated by the state Department of Agriculture. The department created the Century and Bicentennial programs to celebrate families who have continuously operated a farm for at least 100 years (Century) or 200 years (Bicentennial).
To qualify, a Pennsylvania farm must have a family member living there permanently, and either include 10 acres of the original farm or gross more than $1,000 in sales of farm products.
Families of eligible farms must complete applications, have them notarized and mail them to the department for review. Certificates then are presented or mailed to those whose farms are selected.
Shannon Powers, press secretary for the Agriculture Department, has lofty praise for families who achieve this longevity and said her department strives to keep these farms going.
“These people are very dedicated to serving their communities,” she said. “We have a transition plan to encourage farmers to keep their farm a farm, and not make the tough decision to sell.”
Cowden’s Hornhead Valley Farm, which straddles Mt. Pleasant and Chartiers townships, would have made the Century cut long ago – if the Agriculture Department had the program in force then. Manko operates Ross Farm, owned by his mother, Amy Ross Manko, in North Bethlehem Township. It qualified nine years ago.
They are among 65 Century Farms in Washington County, according to a voluminous list provided by the Agriculture Department. A county-by-county breakdown indicates Greene has 35, Fayette 24, Westmoreland 39 and Allegheny eight.
Statewide, there are about 2,000 Century farms on the list, which seems like a significant figure. It isn’t, considering the prevalence of Pennsylvania farming a generation ago – and even more so 40 years ago.
But while these statistics are illuminating, they are somewhat dubious. Farms that are sold outside the family aren’t always removed from the Century and Bicentennial rolls. The Johnston farm in Monroeville, for example, closed down more than a decade ago, but is still listed. A farm in the Charleroi area, one that was established in 1760, likewise shuttered long ago, according to an individual who answered a telephone call to that residence.
Farm sales have been commonplace in recent times, for various reasons. In many instances, owners reach typical retirement age, realize younger family members don’t want to take over the properties, and find the allure of selling their land to a real estate developer or their mineral rights to an oil and gas company too appealing.
Washington and Greene counties have lost a significant number of farms and farm acreage over the past decade or so. From 2007 to 2017, census figures show that Washington County lost 13% of its farms (from 2,023 to 1,760) and 46% of its acreage (from 211,053 to 114,089). Greene, over the same period, experienced a 42% decline in farms (1,245 to 722) and 24% of its farmland (150,203 acres to 114,089).
A total of 10,006 farms shut down across Pennsylvania over that decade, a 16% drop from 63,163 to 53,157.
The numbers certainly aren’t increasing, yet agriculture maintains a formidable presence locally and across the commonwealth. And for some families, the tradition goes on.
Don Cowden’s family has resided in Pennsylvania since the late 1720s, and has been farming a tract that straddles Mt. Pleasant and Chartiers townships for more than 200 years. Hornhead Valley Farm is a Century Farm that should be a Bicentennial Farm, except ...
“I didn’t do the paperwork,” said Cowden, who isn’t upset about that. He raises beef cattle on 150 acres, a few miles from Westland and the MarkWest plant. “But we’d qualify.”
Washington County has eight certified Bicentennial Farms. Greene has three.
Cowden is dedicated to his vocation. He has 60 cows and calves, shorthorns, which he shows and sells. Cowden and his wife, Darla, reside in a comfortable home on the property that was built in 1907 as a wedding gift for one set of his grandparents.
He doesn’t expect any of his three children to take over his operation someday, but speculated that it could happen. Son Drew has a farm in West Middletown that the father helped him purchase.
“Drew helps here and his wife, Kim, helps a lot,” Cowden said inside his farmhouse last week. “He wanted more cows and more land, so I don’t know.”
To the southeast, another Drew likewise refuses to follow the generational trend. Drew Manko is but six years removed from Washington High School, yet he embraces the agrarian lifestyle.
His 179-acre farm, straddling Route 519 near the Pennsylvania State Police barracks, has a lot of livestock – and more. Ross Farm raises and sells lamb, beef and pork, plus chicken and quail eggs. It has 175 sheep, 24 cows, one bull and two sows.
Ross Farm’s customers include the Washington County Food Bank and Heritage Craft Butchers.
Manko’s farm participates in the Main Street Farmers Market in Washington on Thursday, but no other such market.
“That’s the first place we sold meat,” Manko said. “We really want to see Washington prosper, so we go to that farmers market. But retail sales are not what we do. Our focus is on retail business meat.”
He understands why many in his age range resist agricultural work, yet he embraces it – and said a number of millennials in the area do, as well. Manko is a District 16 representative with the state Farm Bureau and is involved with the Young Agricultural Professional Network, for those 18 to 35.
“The key for me is this is my passion,” Manko said. “My generation has grown up seeing their mother and father work two jobs to support a farm. They don’t want to struggle like that. They see higher education or an oil and gas job as the way to go, and farms eventually cease operations.
“This work is not easy and it’s hard to make a dollar. But we’re lucky we can market product to a niche market.”
In the meantime, Manko, Cowden and a still-generous number of others with farming heritages keep going.