Saving farms, saving land

Farmland preservation initiatives blossom in Ohio

This article originally appeared in the September, 1996 edition of the EcoCity Cleveland Journal. Six years later, the same unsustainable growth policies continue to support urban sprawlcharacterized by large-lot subdivisions and strip malls located on paved-over small farms in rural counties such as Medina, Summit and Lorain. But, recent developments including the Ohio Department of Agriculture's $25 million Clean Ohio Fund Agricultural Easement Purchase Programare steps in the direction of farmland preservation on a statewide level.

Each week Medina County grows a new 40-acre crop of houses, businesses and roads. That's the amount of farmland being converted to other uses every week in Northeast Ohio's fastest growing county.

In the state as a whole, farmland losses have amounted to nine acres an hour in recent years. And the potential for continued losses is huge because nearly all of Ohio's prime farmland is near the developing edge of urban areas. According to a recent study by the American Farmland Trust, 41 percent of Ohio's 1987 agricultural sales came from counties in Metropolitan Statistical Areas and the other 59 percent of sales came from counties adjacent to MSAs and having a population density of at least 25 people per square mile.

Even though farming is the state's biggest industry, an ethic of farmland preservation has been slow to come to Ohio. We still have a lingering, rust-belt mentality that any development is good, no matter what the costs. There's a sense that farmland is idle land because it's "empty."

The particular tragedy in Ohio is that most development around urban areas is not growth but outmigration from existing cities. We are sprawling-paving farmland to house the same number of people and employ the same number of workers.

Governor's task force

Concern over the loss of Ohio's farms has finally reached the governor's office, however. On August 7, 1996 Governor George Voinovich ordered the creation of an Ohio Farmland Preservation Task Force. The charge: Examine the historical trends, causes and consequences of the conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural uses, and identify voluntary methods and incentives for preserving and maintaining land for agricultural production.

Farming on the edge

In its final report, the task force identified unplanned urban growth and "the loss of farmland on the edges of municipalities" as the greatest threat to Ohio's agricultural and economic vitality as well as the fabric of Ohio's small towns and rural communities.

The task force offered a number of solutions to preserve farmland, some of which have been implemented. ONe such program is the $25 million Clean Ohio Fund Agricultural Easement Purchase Program. The $6.25 million available in the first round of program funding, however, falls well short of the need. In May 2002, requests from 442 Ohio families who want to keep their land in farming forever sent a clear signal to Columbus that, to them, farmland preservation is a higher priority than a redundant retail center. The small farmers' requests represent an unexpectedly high response to the new Clean Ohio Fund Agricultural Easement Purchase Program, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

These 442 applications amount to about $127 million in requests. The Ohio Department of Agriculture plans to fill the gap by applying for matching funds available through the reauthorization of the USDA Farmland Protection Program.

The task force also identified a number of effective land use tools used across the nation which, if given sufficient citizen support and appropriate legislative initiative, might be effectively applied to the development patterns upon the (Ohio) landscape, maximizing the public's investment in infrastructure. These tools can include:

  • comprehensive land use plans
  • urban service areas
  • state cost sharing and technical assistance
  • prioritized capital investment strategies
  • model zoning codes
  • cost/benefit analysis
  • higher density cluster developments
  • local land banking
  • community reinvestment
  • cost sharing for agricultural planning
  • tax abatement revisions

Successfully establishing and implementing these tools in Ohio is dependent upon grass roots education and support.

"It is vitally important that we address these issues now, and not wait until we have a farmland crisis in 20 years that threatens our agricultural industry," then-Lt. Governor Nancy Hollister, one of the task force co-chairs, said in 1996. "For Ohio to remain a strong, vibrant state, we need to find a balance between the needs of our rural, urban and suburban areas."

The task force based its study on an assessment of the current situation with a "historic trends analysis study," drafted by researchers from the American Farmland Trust. The study attempts to assemble not only historical data on farmland acreage changes, but data on land use projections and the costs of expanding infrastructure into rural areas. In addition to gathering technical information, the task force held public hearings around the state.

"Our farmland includes a great diversity of soil types and micro-climates that have contributed so richly to generations of Ohio citizens," says Fred Dailey, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture and another task force co-chair. "Our farms will continue to play an integral part in our economy as we enter the next millennium, but only if we take steps to preserve them. It is incumbent upon this generation to develop public policies that will minimize the irretrievable loss of this precious resource."

Big question

One big question for the task force is whether it will tackle urban sprawl in a meaningful way. Doing so will force the task force to confront all the state development policies and infrastructure investments that now open up rural land for new development. And it will require not just a farmland preservation policy, but an urban policy geared toward promoting redevelopment of Ohio's cities.

Click here to read the findings and recommendations of Ohio Farmland Preservation Task Force or call 614-752-4505.


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Ohio totals:

  • Top Ohio industry: agriculture, which contributes over $56 billion a year to the economy.
  • Number of farms in Ohio in 1982: 86,934
  • Number of farms in 1992: 70,711.
  • Number of farms lost in year ending June 1, 1996: 2,000.
  • Loss of farm acreage between 1982 and 1992: 1.1 million acres, or 13 acres per hour.
  • Percent of Ohio agricultural sales from "urban-influenced" counties: 100%.

Loss of Ohio Farmland

County/#of farms, 1995/# farms, '97/ farmland acres, 1995/acres, '97/Change in land in farms (1982-92)/Change 1950-1997

Cuyahoga County/ 140/118/ 6,000/4,268/ -54%/-92%
Geauga County/ 660/661/ 71,000/59,238 -12%/-67%
Lake County/ 250/274/ 20,000/19,053 -18%/NA
Lorain County/ 910/778/ 141,000/130,631/ -4%/-44%
Medina County/ 950/851/ 114,000/104,060/ -19%/-53%
Portage County/ 770/719/ 100,000/87,453/ -15%/-61%
Summit County/ 260/251/ 20,000/17,235/ -13%/-84%

Sources: Ohio Department of Agriculture, 1992 U.S. Census of Agriculture and American Farmland Trust

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