Farmer protects homestead with innovative plan

`This is the last of God's country left in Bucks County,' he says

August 04, 2002|By Peter Sigal | Peter Sigal,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHLADELPHIA - Through revolutions political, industrial and social, the descendants of Johann Trauger have turned the same soil on the same windswept knoll.

"This is the last of God's country left in Bucks County," said J. Howard Roth, looking across a valley to his white cluster of farm buildings amid a sea of tender young hay.

With his two children in other lines of work, Roth, 65, is likely to be the last of the Trauger line to work the approximately 150 acres in Nockamixon.

"I would have loved to see it go on for another generation," said Roth, a Trauger on his mother's side, with a touch of wistfulness.

Still, his family's homestead will remain intact. After resisting developers for years - and weathering accusations of favoritism because of his chairmanship of Nockamixon's Planning Commission - Roth in March completed a deal that will pay him $969,400 in state, county and township money for the property's agricultural easements.

While he retains ownership, the easements restrict the land to agricultural uses.

The deal came four years after a developer's lucrative offer forced him to examine his ambivalence about farming in the Upper Bucks township of 3,517.

Sell me your farm, the developer said, and I'll put a golf course on those hills with the million-dollar views. To a farmer with 45 years of summer sweat and cold winters behind him, it seemed like a good deal.

"Originally, I liked it. At least the land would be relatively open," Roth said.

But the deal didn't materialize. And Roth was not sorry.

"I thought about how hard I had worked to get the land the way it is," he said. "I thought about how hard my ancestors had worked. I was very happy when it fell through."

For years, Roth's enthusiasm for farming came and went. When he was 5, his parents moved off the homestead, leaving it to two bachelor uncles. After graduating from nearby Palisades High, Roth passed up a chance to attend college and started what would be 20 years of working on the farm.

"I thought if this farm ever became mine, I'm selling it and going fishing," he said. "I had to be about 50 years old before I realized what I had here."

In a time when Colonial artifacts are mostly confined to antiques shops, reminders of the farm's past are everywhere: chisel marks on 200-year-old barn beams, the heirloom grandfather clock watching over a living room with deep-silled windows, a cart path worn into the ridge with views across the Delaware River 8 miles away.

The early history of Roth's farm followed a pattern repeated by millions of immigrants to America. In the late 1740s, Johann Christian Dracker left his home in Hessen, Germany, for the New World. He could not write, and his ship captain did not speak German - so Dracker's name on his arrival in Philadelphia was recorded as Trauger.

By 1767, he had paid off his passage and then some, enough to buy the Nockamixon property from a speculator. According to a family history, he made his living supplying liquor to the surrounding area. When he died in 1811 at 84, Trauger was worth $184,320 - much of it in distilling equipment or notes owed for alcohol.

The farm was functioning as a small dairy, with a variety of crops in the fields, when Roth took it over in 1977.

"There was a time when you could make it work with 30 cows," he said. "Those days are gone. They're gone forever."

True family farms - there are about 600,000 nationwide and about 700 in Bucks County - find it increasingly difficult to compete against corporate farms with lower overhead and advanced technology, said Kathy Ozer, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition in Washington.

Farms in high-population areas, such as Bucks County, struggle in the face of rising land prices and property taxes, she said.

In 1980, Roth's son, Jim, a newly minted graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a degree in dairy science, approached him about expanding the dairy operation.

Father and son sat down and tried to work up a business plan. Reluctantly, they concluded it would not work.

Jim Roth is now a banker near State College.

The squawk of chickens and the rumble of cattle are long gone from the farm, but livestock of another sort has kept the business solvent.

"We're in the middle of horse country," said Roth, who sells 15,000 bales of hay for bedding and feed each year. "That's what kept us going."

The seed corn jammed into circular cribs is a different matter. Roth said he loses money on every acre but cannot bear to abandon a crop grown on his land for seven generations.

"I'm like a lady planting her flowers. I just like watching the corn grow."

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