“Participating in this process were three generations of our family, all of whom share the love of the land.”
Author: James Holden
Location: Venango County
Land Trust: French Creek Valley Conservancy
In 1973 my young family purchased an old dairy farm, which for many years and through two previous owners, had bottled and delivered milk and cream to residents of Franklin, PA. The buildings were neglected but the land was part of the spectacular French Creek Watershed. Comprised partly of flat farmland, the land was mostly steep wooded hillside with numerous springs and small streams feeding into French Creek. Owning a farm was a lifelong dream of mine.
The Holden Farm is, and has been, basically an old-style homestead operation. We farm and garden organically, raising most of what we eat, heating with wood, and living close to the land. Freezer beef is the primary cash product, but pigs and chickens are part of the operation. Animals are fed organically grown corn, oats, wheat, and hay grown on the farm. Our oldest son John, wife Kelly, and children Ryan and Karyn live in a new house on the farm and are our partners.
Our farm is adjacent to the old County Farm, as most around here still know it. The county sold the land to the Visiting Nurses Association, which promptly initiated a plan to establish a “continuous care facility,” adding many new buildings to the existing structures and sprawling over much of the valley and hillside.
We vowed to fight the plan for a sprawling development. A lengthy and complex series of negotiations took over three years and involved the Holdens and the VNA, with assistance from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the French Creek Project, The Nature Conservancy, and ultimately the French Creek Valley Conservancy (FCVC).
We decided to offer to donate an easement on 122 acres of the farm to the FCVC to be used as a match for a grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) to purchase an easement from the VNA. In the end, only 40 acres of the VNA property was included, a disappointment, but the entire French Creek frontage was included.
Participating in this process were three generations of our family, all of whom share the love of the land. We do not believe we gave away anything that we value. We still farm the land organically using principles of sustainable agriculture, we manage the forest using Best Management Practices of sustainable forestry, we hunt and fish, and we construct and repair home and farm buildings on the 10 acres reserved from the easement. Last but not least, this easement was meant to be a model for conservation easements in the region. It was the first, and still is the only, easement in Venango County. But positive things are happening. My son, John, and I led in the formation of a new conservancy in 2003—the Allegheny Valley Conservancy.
We are collaborating with the FCVC to pursue a 700-acre easement donation and purchase just upstream on French Creek from Sugarcreek landing.