Farming in the Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg has been a hub for agriculture even before it was on the map. Fertile soil and a temperate climate attracted hard-working settlers willing to live off the land. But the quiet rural life was suddenly jeopardized as soldiers marched into town in late June 1863. When it became clear that a bloody battle loomed, farmers fled town or hunkered down. Those who returned found their homes burned and their crops trampled.

Luckily, the story of farming in Gettysburg does not end there. As the land around Gettysburg transformed into a National Military Park, so too did the farms that suffered such an unfortunate fate. The National Park Service now ensures that visitors experience the well-known Spangler, Trostle, and Rose farms as they were at the time of the battle.

What is less known to many people is that about 2,000 acres in the battlefield still operate as active farms. The Park Service calls it the agriculture program, or “ag program” for short. This program allows farmers to rent land from the park to grow their crops or raise their cattle. The farmers save the Park Service time and money by maintaining the area as an open landscape. Without the farmers, the Park Service would dedicate more resources to mowing fields and setting prescribed fires. “It’s a continual struggle to keep it in an open condition,” says Zach Bolitho, Chief of Resource Management for Gettysburg National Military Park.

How It Works

Before each growing season, the Park Service publishes an advertisement indicating that land is available for rent. Interested candidates then complete an application for a special use permit. Park rangers review the applications to determine who would partner well with the park. There are 15 pre-determined parcels of land for rent each year, with returning permit holders and new candidates alike applying for them.

Once selected, the farmers pay their rental fees. Row crop and hay farmers pay a rate per acre while cattle and horse owners pay a rate per animal. All of the farmers must adhere to the park’s guidelines and restrictions. This includes asking permission to use certain herbicides and only mowing their property at designated times.

What the farmers do with their crops is their choice. The Gettysburg Foundation, which leases the apple orchard next to the Spangler Farm, turns their apples into hard cider. Its partner, Good Intent Cider Company, makes and sells the cider while giving a portion of the proceeds back to the Foundation. Leftover apples are donated to community organizations, such as South Central Community Action Programs (SCAAP).

Not all crops in the battlefield are part of the ag program. The Park Service currently manages 180 acres of orchards in the park, including the peach orchard. This might soon change, however, as the Park Service is looking to lease those parcels as well. While it is also true that there are private holdings in the park, they are small in size.

Conservation

Recreating history is not the only goal when it comes to land management in the park. “We could get really purist about things, but we’re not,” says Bolitho. The Park Service also views the battlefields as habitats worthy of conservation. Instead of abiding by old property blueprints, the Park Service evaluates what is sustainable for the landscape. For example, the Park Service grows soybeans because it puts nutrients into the soil, not because it was grown during the battle. Seasonal grasses grow to resemble crops but mainly serve as breeding grounds for grasslands nesting birds. This could be the last summer for cattle in the park due to water quality and sedimentation concerns.

Farming is just one method of conservation in the battlefields. The Park Service also manages forest monitoring plots to study the evolving composition of the forest. Rangers take monthly water samples for a water quality index as per National Park Service guidelines. A new habitat rehabilitation project will help reintroduce the regal fritillary butterfly to the area. All conservation projects follow the park’s General Management Plan.

It doesn’t take a public lands expert to appreciate the rural beauty of the battlefields. Still, knowing the intricacies of what goes on in the Park can help us appreciate it that much more.

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Molly Hoffman is a rising sophomore at Gettysburg College majoring in Environmental Studies, Public Policy, and Spanish. She is also minoring in Music and enjoys singing in choirs on campus. As the Climate Editor intern at Gettysburg Connection, she reports on local environmental stories. Her position as the Program Coordinator of the Sherfy Garden also reflects her passion for land conservation and management. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her parents, brother, and sister.

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Jennifer Koonce
Jennifer Koonce
10 months ago

This was great information & answered our questions. Thank you for what you all do

John Jenkins
John Jenkins
2 years ago

A nice article I’m sure people have wondered who plants crops on the battlefield. How about a follow up on the farmers re. Their thoughts on farming hallowed ground.

Winnie Milligan
Winnie Milligan
2 years ago

Good article

Patrick Gibson
Patrick Gibson
2 years ago

It’s was interesting.

Michael Hagre
Michael Hagre
2 years ago

The park is a sacred place forever. And should always be treated as such. We must hold it with honor.

David Wood
David Wood
2 years ago

Sounds like the National Battlefield Park is doing a good job.

Gil Gardner
Gil Gardner
2 years ago

Whay happens if any farmer uncovers artifacts while plowing or harvesting ?I am aware that relic hunting is banned, I’m sure it’s happened

L.D. Cairns
L.D. Cairns
2 years ago

It answered alot of questions we have had and appreciate your hard research and work to put this together. Thank you, Molly.

Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson
2 years ago

Informative and enjoyable article. Thank you

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