YORK, Pa. - York County is one of the top counties in the nation in preserving farmland, according to Patty McCandless, director of the York County Agricultural Land Preservation Program.

And though a statewide bond issue that helped the county achieve that distinction has expired, McCandless said, she is determined to keep the preservation going by whatever means she can.

"Things have just changed," she said. "We're testing the waters."

McCandless' program provides money to farmers in exchange for their agreeing to maintain the land for agriculture in perpetuity. The rates depend on the property and the real estate market. Last year, they averaged about $2,600 an acre, McCandless said.

The farmers who take part might otherwise be under pressure to sell their land for development. McCandless said her program couldn't compete with the money developers could pay; the participants want to continue farming but need some incentive to stay in business.

It's part of a state program that has been around since 1988, which in turn was part of a national effort from the 1980s to preserve farmland.

The statewide efforts have two dedicated funding sources - a portion of the state cigarette tax, amounting to about $20.5 million a year, and about $4 million a year in tipping fees from garbage haulers, said Doug Wolfgang, director of the state Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Farmland Preservation.

And from 2005 to 2010, Pennsylvania got additional assistance from an $80 million bond issue called Growing Greener II, which went to a variety of environmental projects, including farmland preservation. Money from that bond issue helped preserve an additional 35,000 acres, Wolfgang said.

But as of last year, all the funding from that bond issue was either obligated or spent. And there are 2,000 farms on the state's waiting list for preservation funding.

McCandless said her agency would seek whatever county, state, and federal dollars were available. County Commissioner Chris Reilly said he believed that keeping the preservation effort going should be a high priority.

McCandless said the effort was about more than protecting agriculture in Pennsylvania or preserving the region's rural character.

When the national program started in the 1980s, it arose from growing concerns among federal lawmakers that farmland was being lost at an alarming rate, and that the country might not be able to produce enough food to feed its population if the trend continued.

"It's basically a national-security topic," McCandless said.

York County ranks third in the state and eighth in the nation in the number of farmland acres preserved, she said. Since 1989, her program has preserved 37,907 acres on 241 farms.