Agricultural lands are essential to our economy and quality of life, but they are increasingly pressured by population growth and accelerating urban development. Too often, farmland is divided and developed without a full understanding of the value lost. The value of these lands goes far beyond just the agricultural products they provide, encompassing values such as cultural heritage, a way of life, carbon sequestration, and flood risk reduction. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, these values are helping to guide current discussions about how to manage the county’s farmlands.

In 2015, the Lancaster County Agriculture Council commissioned Earth Economics to complete an ecosystem services valuation of the county’s natural capital, including its roughly 400,000 acres of agricultural land. In its entirety, the county’s natural capital provides an estimated $676 million in economic benefits annually. When valued as a renewable, long-lived natural asset using a zero percent discount rate over a 100-year period, the land’s total natural capital asset value could be as high as $114 billion.

Agricultural lands make up over 65% of Lancaster County’s natural capital, and these lands are critical to the regional economy. Not only does much of the county’s population rely on agricultural land for their livelihoods, but these lands also provide a host of essential ecosystem services, including climate regulation, pollination, water supply, habitat, and more. Our 2015 report estimated the total value of ecosystem services on agricultural lands at $483 million in annual ecosystem service benefits.

Recently, these results have been under discussion in the Lancaster community. In mid-December, the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry sponsored an Ag Issues Forum at the Lancaster Farm and Home Center. Attended mainly by professionals who support farmers, the forum was moderated by Scott Sheely, a special assistant for workforce development from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. A number of other local conservation and planning leaders, including representatives from the Stroud Water Research Center, the Lancaster County Planning Commission, and the Lancaster County Conservation District were also in attendance.

Earth Economics’ report is proving valuable for supporting farmland preservation efforts. In fact, the Lancaster County Planning Commission is in the process of drafting a new plan to guide growth through 2040. As Dean Severson, Principal Agricultural and Rural Planning Analyst for the Commission, stated, the documentation of agricultural land’s value underscores the need to prioritize farmland protection.

A number of other local leaders spoke up for ecosystem services at the forum. Chris Thompson, district manager of the Lancaster County Conservation District, urged attendees to incorporate ecosystem services values in business decisions. Insurance brokers could lower risk ratings for compliant farmers, or bankers could offer discounted loan rates to farmers who practice management strategies that support ecosystem services.  

Incorporating ecosystem services in planning and decision making is an important step. When nature’s value is fully taken into account, the decisions become clear – natural capital should be carefully stewarded to support the health and well-being of our communities.