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'Hero' farmer honored for saving land

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 1:20 p.m.

Bob Ambrose's farm has been in his family for more than 200 years. But that's not the only reason he has served so long and faithfully as chairman of the Westmoreland County Farmland Preservation Board.

His service has more to do with his sense of the need for open spaces and the practical skills he brings to the task. "I can run a meeting," he said.

Ambrose, 73, operates Ridgeview Acres Farm, a 130-acre spread in Cook Township. With his wife, Sally, he grows flowers for weddings and other special occasions. He was honored this week by the American Farmland Trust with its Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Local Heroes Award.

The presentation was made at the 2011 Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Association Conference held on Monday and Tuesday in Donegal Township.

A former civil engineer who traveled the globe while working for Proctor and Gamble, Ambrose said the honor came as a surprise. "The real hero is Betty (Reefer)," the board's longtime executive director, he said. "She's the day-to-day person."

Reefer called Ambrose one of the most fascinating people she has ever met. "He's a real interesting guy," she said. "He's lived all over the world, even Paris. He has contributed so much to what we are trying to do."

Keeping farmland intact and out of the hands of developers "seems pretty important to him," Reefer said.

"I think it's a significant issue, and it's something that needs to be done," Ambrose said.

Ambrose said while it's not in the preservation group's charter, he feels it's important that community leaders help maintain open space near cities and towns.

Open spaces are important for their own sake, but also because more land could lower the cost of farm products. The cost of transportation is a significant factor in prices consumers pay for staples such as fruits and vegetables, he said, and with the state of the economy, the prospect of importing vegetables from California might prove challenging someday.

Since the late 1980s, the county's nine-member farmland preservation board has set aside some 10,960 acres for preservation in perpetuity. In 2010, the total investment in farmland preservation in Pennsylvania was $57.8 million. The county board gets about $1 million a year from the state, county and federal governments, according to Reefer.

Even so, Ambrose said, there is never enough money to meet the demand. There are always more farmers requesting to get into the program than funds allow, he noted.

"You can always preserve more," he said.

Ambrose is a past president of the popular Ligonier Country Market, operated Saturdays at the Lloyalhanna Watershed Farm. More than 100 vendors sell fresh produce, flowers and farm products such as beef, poultry, eggs, honey and maple syrup.

Ambrose raised beef cattle until 1984, when "people stopped eating red meat," he said. He switched to growing vegetables, and around 1995 he added flowers to his farm's output. Flowers proved so profitable that he eased out of the vegetable business, except for the 1,000 asparagus plants he and his wife grow every year.

His own farm is not in the preservation program, Ambrose said, mainly because Cook Township has not met the state's criteria for the program. "We're working on that," he said.

Ridgeview Acres Farm dates to 1786, when the land passed from the family to Arthur St. Clair, the Revolutionary War general who doubled as a land speculator. Ambrose said the family repurchased the land in 1817.

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