Farmland Preservation – The Economic Gift That Keeps On Growing

By David A. Atkinson

A recent program on WITF public radio celebrated the success of farmland preservation in Lancaster County, a cutting edge leader in securing the development rights to prime agricultural land. Over the past 33 years, the Lancaster Farmland Trust has made a substantial investment in ensuring agriculture is a staple way of life as far into the future as the eye can see. Their website is an excellent exposition on their promise and performance. Highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to see how private partnerships can solve very challenging problems.

All sorts of good news come wrapped in this package. The economic impact of agribusiness is huge, and the employment opportunities are meaningful and varied. Tourism, a significant economic contributor, would not be the same without the incredible vistas and the evocative pictures of traditional life playing out in modern times. With so many eateries in the county, locally-sourced food has been gaining in popularity. With the travel restrictions and supply chain disruptions imposed by pandemic control measures, that access to local produce became vital as well as desirable. As concerns continue to rise over food insecurity across our communities, local ag productivity plants the seeds of perennial solutions.

The radio show discussion reminded that another effort factors heavily into farmland preservation. Lancaster County continues to see healthy increases in population and in housing stock of every type. This raises the stakes on planning. Lancaster County seems to be better than most at comprehensive planning, always a controversial process no matter how carefully, capably, and openly done. Once done, planning is only as good as the resolve of the various players to implement it.

Allied WWII Commander Dwight Eisenhower was a master at planning military operations, but he also conceded the best battle plan would begin to unravel once the first bullet was fired. The capacity to implement, and then to improvise, is what distinguishes effective leaders. There are too many variables in play, too many contingencies to possibly anticipate, to stubbornly stick to a plan that is not working or proving deficient.

The same can be said for community planning and what Lancaster is experiencing. New development is not compact enough. Some builders have successfully returned to the town center concept, but there is still supply and demand for sprawling suburban lots. The influx of people into historic urban centers has been countered in part by the pandemic. For more than a few people social distancing is going to become the new reality way of life. These trends increase development pressure on larger swathes of land.

This proves costly for everyone. More paved surfaces and runoff contributes to the problems affecting the Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania already has been informed that our compliance has not proved sufficiently effective. That means higher standards and higher costs are on the way. When those costs are inevitably passed along, it prices more folks out of the home-buying market. This also involves installing more infrastructure, at top costs. Meanwhile, antiquated infrastructure in urban areas crumbles, adding to living costs. If the volume of priority projects bridges the political divide, and substantial federal and state infrastructure funding packages emerge, having projects concentrated in scope makes the money stretch. Even the most generously funded package will not come close to erasing the inventory of backlogged and anticipated needs.

Added together, these factors combine in a concerning irony. As preservation groups improve in skill, savvy, and resource base, the degree of difficulty in transactions rises. The reference is plural, because the Lancaster Conservancy is another impact player in fending off destructive development in environmentally sensitive tracts.

What are complementary assignments on the to-do list?

There is something to be said for the sustenance and maintenance of human infrastructure. The recent state budget featured a substantial increase in funding for hunger relief programs. The many religious groups and community organizations running feeding operations provide policymakers with confidence that funds will be well-spent.

Preservation of agricultural acreage is a monumental accomplishment. But as Churchill would put it, this is only the end of the beginning. We need a new generation of farm families to make this preserved land productive. Assistance can be provided in many ways. Tax incentives. Greater investment into the application of technology to better yields with less environmental impact. Changes in ordinances to allow for all the activities described as agri-tourism. The pandemic reminded how much residents treasure the county and local fairs that are a marvelous tradition in most corners of the state.

Everywhere a municipality has imposed a stormwater fee, often reviled as a rain tax, there is controversy. If we want to continue enjoying crops from the farm, fruits from the orchard, and seafood from the Chesapeake Bay, we must invest in the changes to make it possible. If farmers are forced to bear the brunt of the cost, more producers will be lost and consumers will see a drop in the quantity and diversity of their food purchases.

What has been done in the name of farmland preservation is thoroughly praiseworthy. What needs to be done still to stabilize, support, and invigorate agriculture is no mystery. Those involved in some aspect of the industry have made plain their legal and regulatory shopping list. It therefore requires policymakers to employ foresight and initiative comparable to what went into the launch of farmland preservation programs. No matter where agriculture ranks statistically in terms of economic contribution, it is an irreplaceable element of our economic climate and part of our Pennsylvania DNA. So agriculture merits a #1 ranking in practice as well as in pronouncement.

David A. Atkinson is an Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.