In the far reaches of Chester County, miles past the final stop on SEPTA’s Paoli-Thorndale train line, there are vast open fields, farm animals, and quiet. Around 3 p.m., Amish children can be seen walking home from school, trudging along the side of back country roads with lunch boxes in their hands.
As Gerald Rohrer watched a car drive by his family’s crop-and-grain farm on a recent afternoon, he chuckled.
“That’s two in half an hour,” he said. “That’s a traffic jam around here.”
This environment is vastly different than the kind found in other Chester County towns, such as Malvern or Downingtown or West Chester. But it is the only lifestyle that Gerald Rohrer, 49, a ninth-generation farmer, has ever known.
He grew up here, on a sprawling former dairy farm in Upper Oxford and West Fallowfield Townships that spans more than 100 acres. He met his wife, Cindy Rohrer, a 10th-generation farmer, during their high school years at Lancaster Mennonite, a private Christian school across the county line. They raised three children on the farm, where chores included helping with hay baling or corn farming, and teamwork was of the utmost importance.
Last month, the family became a part of Chester County history when their land became the county’s 500th preserved farm.
The preservation marked the latest chapter in Chester County’s three-decade effort to save open space, particularly farmland. In all, the county has preserved nearly 40,000 acres of farmland and nearly 136,000 acres of open space, which amounts to 28 percent of its land.
This designation ensures a family’s land will always be used for agricultural purposes, according to the county. Property owners are financially compensated based on an independent appraisal. The Rohrer family declined to comment on how much they received.
As parts of Chester County have been built up, and more and more people have moved to the area, the mission has become even more important, officials said.
“It’s symptomatic of what is good about Chester County,” said commissioner Terence Farrell, “that, as the fastest growing county in the commonwealth, we still value open space.”
While Chester County has preserved the most acreage and the highest percentage of farmland in Philadelphia’s collar counties, Delaware, Bucks, and Montgomery Counties also have made efforts to preserve open space. Bucks County, home to 934 farms, has preserved more than 200 properties, totaling more than 16,000 acres. Montgomery County has preserved more than 150, equaling nearly 10,000 acres. And Delaware County, a more condensed and built-up suburb, has preserved two farms — 80-acre Arasapha Farms and farmland of more than 100 acres at the Sleighton Farm School, according to the most recent county information.
In Chester County, the Rohrer family was interested in preserving their grain-and-crop farm, ensuring it never becomes a development like those popping up all over other parts of the county.
“It’s comforting," Gerald Rohrer said, looking out over the property “Even if we were to move away, this will stay."
“You don’t want to see that developed,” Cindy Rohrer added, motioning to rolling hills that in warmer months are full of corn. “This farm has really good soil, really good ground.”
This land has operated as a farm since at least the 1700s, said the couple, who many times have ventured to the county courthouse to look through old property records. In 1966, Gerald Rohrer’s parents, Elvin and Vera, bought the property, which they ran as a dairy farm.
In 1999, Gerald and Cindy Rohrer bought the farm and sold the dairy cows, they said.
Gerald Rohrer recalled thinking “I really want a farm, but I don’t think the cows are for me,” he said.
The life of a dairy farmer is more grueling, requiring less sleep and busy work year-round, said Gerald Rohrer, who farms full time.
In his current work farming corn and hay, his schedule and workload varies based on the time of year. Some days he’s up before sunrise, preparing trailers for deliveries (he sells his hay to horse farms primarily, he said).
Come spring and summer, Cindy Rohrer, 49, who also works as a registered nurse, will bale hay, driving the baler through the fields, compressing the crop with the large machine. In the spring, the family farms corn, too, in separate fields.
Their children Sonya, 22; Brock, 20; and Drake, 15, help out, the couple said. When they were younger, farm work earned them their allowance.
Cindy Rohrer said she wasn’t sure yet whether any of the children would be interested in taking over the farm in the future. If they didn’t want to, that would be OK with their parents, who never pressured their kids into following in their footsteps.
Growing up, Sonya Rohrer said her house was always the one classmates referred to as “in the middle of nowhere," she said. But she loved growing up there — and friends loved jumping on the trampoline, running around the fields, and sledding on their hills.
And her parents said they would not want to live in any area that was more congested. There’s a grocery store 10 to 20 minutes away, Cindy Rohrer said, and Amazon Prime can deliver most items they need.
“I don’t feel the need to have any more big things closer to us,” Cindy Rohrer said.
When the family travels to cities, they enjoy experiencing a different environment, the couple said, but they’re always ready to return home.
“We enjoy what we do,” Cindy Rohrer said. “I think it’s a great way for our family to work together. It’s fun.”