Does farming have a future
in Northeast Ohio?

Ohio farmers should reap what their Midwestern neighbors have sown in farmland preservation programs, according to Scott Everett, the American Farmland Trust's Great Lakes regional director. Everett addressed the topic, "Does farming have a future in Northeast Ohio," to about 50 attendees of a Northeast Ohio Regional Alliance meeting on June 21, 2002.

Everett affirmed lessons from his family farming and farm lobbying experiences in Michigan, where he worked on a $25 million farmland preservation program from 1998 to 2001. Similar to the $25 million program just created in Ohio, the Michigan program actually saved 13,000 acres of farmland from development through purchase of development rights.

The program surmounted the same shortfalls in money that Ohio now faces in its Clean Ohio Program, in which 447 applicants are competing for $6 million in first round funding. In Michigan, 768 farmers applied in the first round to preserve their farmland through conservation easements, but the state only had enough money to save nine farms. "As a result, applications reduced by half in the second round and the legislature said 'see, there's a lack of interest,'" Everett said. "In fact, it was a money issue."

Farmer-to-farmer demonstrations were crucial to maintaining interest in the program. Farmer-advocates demonstrated that future productivity of the land and preserving retirements for farmers are essential to the program, Everett said.

Programs must also address the largest threat to the future of farming in states such as Michigan and Ohio land fragmentation. Land fragmentation is where farmers in rural counties at the edge of metropolitan areas such as Geauga, Medina and Lorain counties sell off five to ten-acre parcels of their property to developers. Farmers are cashing in because there's a higher demand for smaller parcels.

Development costs, however, are paid for by the community. Developed land costs an average of $1.35 per acre for community services compared to $0.25 average for farmland, Everett said.

Land fragmentation is the greatest threat because much of the best farmland in Ohio is at the urban edge. "The 10 million acres being farmed is where most people settled. So, the best land is adjacent to metropolitan areas," Everett said.

Another problem is the lack of a good connection between the farmers and urban people. Everett said in order to build that connection, we need to strengthen these common denominators between urban and rural areas:

  • Urban redevelopment and strong central cities.
  • Sustainable, smart growth for new development.
  • Farmland protection through legislation.

It can happen in Ohio, if it can happen to our neighbors. States such as Maryland and Pennsylvaniarealizing the long-reaching implications of protecting farmlandadopted policies such as transfer of development rights and Priority Funding Areas in the 1990s. The latter, Maryland's urban growth areas, played a part in preserving 49,000 acres of productive farmland by designating (and maintaining) discrete development and farmland zones. Counties then invest in infrastructure only in the designated development zones, and use revenue savings from not developing out every corner of the hinterland to purchase development rights from farmers. Farmers do not pay propery taxes on the sale of development rights and farming continues to serve regional needs.

This Town and Country planning approach allows developers to build higher densities in designated areas, and gives farmers financial assurance to continue farming. The program has been a boon to developers and citizens as well. One Maryland developer made $22 million and protected 3,500 acres through the state's conservation development program, Everett said. The state also awards $3,000 grants to individuals developing in the PFA.

"Affordability leads to sustainability," Everett says. "So, if a developer puts in five percent low-income housing or 10 percent moderate-income housing, they also earn more development rights."

In Ohio, farmland preservation efforts do not rest solely on the state's $25 million program. While Medina, Lorain and Wayne counties failed to pass ballot initiatives for farmland preservation tax increases in recent years, officials in Geauga County have considered mounting an effort to raise $10 million to purchase farmland through a five-year, 0.25 percent sales tax increase. [The tax proposal originally was to have been placed on the November 2002 ballot, but proponents decided to wait until a broader public discussion occurs.]

The initiative has bipartisan support in the mostly rural eastern and central areas of the county. However, the more populous and exurban western areas, where numerous private developers and individuals favor lowering their taxes with more developments, generally oppose it. If roughly one-quarter of western Geauga residents vote against the initiative and all of the eastern half votes in favor, the tax increase will fail because of the population difference, said Munson county trustee Mary Samide.

That has Cuyahoga County residents like James Rokakis very concerned. "We need an urban-rural alliance with people in city government that respects that (urbanites) are the outsiders," said Rokakis, Cuyahoga County Treasurer, who wrote a personal check toward that effort. "If you (Geauga County) folks don't win, I fear this land is gone."

Interest in the Geauga County sales tax initiative was running high among audience members, including a handful of trustees from townships throughout the county. Samide, a Republican who supports the initiative for reasons that include preserving rural character and quality of life, remarked that property tax levies for mental health, children's services, and schools failed recently, but a Geauga Park commission levy to purchase land for open space passed. "We believe that the people of Geauga want a rural county."

The agricultural economy is not as much a top-of-mind concern for people in the western townships as quality of life. "We need to appeal to folks who are fairly suburban to be aware of the costs of sprawl, such as longer commute times," said Russel Township trustee, Gene McUwen. Russell's trustees are "dealing with corporate pressures all interested in the bottom line," including a developer who challenged the township's zoning in an unsuccessful bid to build a 500-home subdivision.

In a meeting after the public event, the trustees discussed strategy on the campaign to attract more of county's 20,000 registered Republicansmany of whom live in Auburn and Russeland the 9,000 independent (but conservative) voters of the 55,000 registered county voters.

Causing the greatest concern is the perception that preserving open space increases property taxes. Those ideas have been exacerbated by Geauga County commissioners' denial of funds for the campaign, despite their support getting it on the ballot.

"A lot of people are behind it," McUwen said. "But (the commissioners) will sit on the fence until they know they have the numbers for it to pass."

Unlike initiatives in Wayne and Medina counties, Geauga has "a strong land preservation ethic," Samide added.

Even so, the campaign will require an organized grassroots effort, said NORA's Dave Meeker, and that requires funds. Wayne County proponents spent $27,000 on their sales tax ballot initiative, and it wasn't nearly enough to spread the message that paving over farmlands impacts travel time and rural character, said Jennifer Smyser of the Center for Farmland Preservation in Northeast Ohio.

A successful campaign will also reach farmers who want to continue to farm, answer corporate interests telling farmers that conservation easements limit them, and offer developers an incentive such as transfer of development rights (which allows higher-than-normal development densities in some parts of a community in exchange for preserving land in other parts).

"You need a tool to increase development densities that doesn't involve purchasing," Everett concludes. "Transfer of development rights would work here because you have a hot property market."


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