One of the charming things about living in central Ohio is its close proximity to the agricultural communities.
Drive 20 minutes in just about any direction from downtown Columbus and it is almost guaranteed that you will eventually come across a field of soybeans, corn or another crop.
But little by little, and very quietly, development is taking its toll on central Ohio’s farming community.
In fact, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio lost more than 6.9 million acres of farmland from 1950 to 2000. That represents nearly one-third of Ohio’s agricultural land and a size equivalent to 23 Ohio counties.
Ohio is losing farmland at a much faster rate than other states, ranking second in the nation for lost farmland.
Giving farmers options
Many of Ohio’s farmers are aching to protect their land, explained Kristen Jensen, executive director of Farmland Preservation with the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
“Their heart is in the land,” she said. “Many of them have worked it for generations with their families – and their ancestors before that.”
That’s why the Ohio Department of Agriculture has worked to provide options to farmers who want to preserve their land for future generations. Since 1999, the department’s easement programs have preserved nearly 200 farms, totaling more than 35,000 acres.
“It’s a great program that has actually had a lot of ripple effect,” she said. “Now we have little clusters of preserved farms, and we’re seeing its effects across the state.”
Jensen said these programs entail voluntary legal agreements between the landowner, the local community and the state - ensuring the farmland remains in agricultural use forever.
Under an agricultural easement, the land itself stays under private ownership, but the easement prohibits any future non-agricultural development by landowners.
“The land owner still manages, owns and can sell or give away the property,” Jensen explained. “They are still in charge of their land, but there is a permanent deed restriction on it. It stays with the land and says you can’t develop it for anything other than agricultural purposes.”
Some options available to Ohio farmers include:
• Clean Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program (AEPP) – The program purchases agricultural easements from interested Ohio farmland owners. Awards are issued for up to 75 percent of points-based appraised value of a farm’s development rights. A payment cap has been set at $2,000 per acre, with a maximum of $500,000 per farm. All easement transactions are recorded on the property deed and transfer with the land to successive owners.
• Ohio Agricultural Easement Donation Program (AEDP) – Since 1999, the department has accepted the donation of agricultural easements from land owners who wish to protect their farm and keep it in agricultural production. Donations are evaluated individually, because certain legal requirements must be met in order for an easement to be granted. More than 5,300 acres have been preserved through the donation program.
• Agricultural Security Area (ASA) – This program authorizes one or more land owners of at least 500 acres of contiguous farmland to request enrollment into an ASA for a 10-year period. This voluntary request is made through boards of township trustees and county commissioners. ASAs provide certain benefits to farmers that include protecting the land from non-agricultural development, maintaining a critical mass of land to keep farming viable, and possibly providing tax exemptions on new real property.
• Ohio Century Farm Program – The Ohio Department of Agriculture recognizes the social, economic and historic contributions of Ohio’s family farms through the Ohio Century Farm Program, which honors farms that have remained in the same family for at least 100 years.
AEPP’s demand exceeds supply
Since AEPP’s inception in 2002, the farmland preservation office has received more than 2,400 applications. The department has been able to preserve 172 of those farms, totaling nearly 35,000 acres in 33 counties.
Over that time in the central Ohio area, 10 farms in Fairfield County and five farms in Licking County have been awarded the AEPP designation, while two farms in Franklin County; four farms in Madison County; and six farms in Licking County have been awarded the AEDP designation.
It appears the interest in the AEPP program is growing. This year in the central Ohio area, there were 29 applications from Fairfield County; seven applications from Licking County; and seven applications from Madison County.
Funding for the AEPP is made available through the Clean Ohio Fund, which was renewed by voters in 2008 and will be up for renewal again in 2012, Jensen said.
The fund, which gets its revenue from the sale of state bonds, not only helps to preserve farmland but also preserves greenspace, develops recreational trails and cleans up brownfield sites.
Jensen said the AEPP application process is a lengthy one, with most farmers working closely with their local jurisdictions to complete the process.
“It’s a points-based application,” Jensen said, noting it uses a formula that takes into account various measurable characteristics of the land.
They are looking for prime soil; local comprehensive planning; best management practices; proximity to other preserved farmland; and intermediate development pressure.
“Obviously we don’t want to preserve a farm in downtown Columbus,” she said. “We’re looking for that in-between farm that may be receiving development pressure in the next 10 or so years.”
One farmer’s perspective
Preserving a slice of history is what led Howard and Dixie Smith of Fairfield County to apply for the AEPP designation. They are the sixth generation to operate their farm in the Lancaster area.
“We wanted to save our farmland, and that’s probably the surest way to do it,” Mr. Smith said. “A lot of the farms around us are getting sold to developers, and this way we don’t have to worry about it.”
The Smiths have a rich history on their property, which initially included 640 acres purchased by Frederick Harman of Westmoreland, Pa., following his service in the Revolutionary War.
“We live in the oldest house in Fairfield County,” Mr. Smith explained, noting the house was built in 1801. “The house is older than the state of Ohio.”
In addition, their property was part of Zane’s Trace.
“It goes through our property and I have preserved a section of it,” Mr. Smith said.
Over the years portions of the original land has been sold, with about 80 acres remaining today. The Smiths’ crops rotate from beans to corn, as well as hay to feed their 18 head of beef cattle.
Mr. Smith is a retired firefighter, while Mrs. Smith works for the post office.
“We’re fortunate that we don’t have to depend on farming to make a living,” he said. “We don’t get rich but we like it.”
Over the years Mr. Smith has witnessed many changes in the farming community in Fairfield County. He doesn’t blame the developers for wanting to build, nor does he blame the farmers for wanting to sell.
“Everyone wants a new home, and everyone – I know – wants to live out in the country,” he said. “In the last 20 years or so it’s just amazing how much farmland has been lost. Development’s slowed down a little bit with the economy, but I know it will come back.”
Likewise, Mr. Smith said he can understand why farmers make a business decision to sell their property to developers. One of his colleagues recently sold his farmland to a strip mall developer for more than $1.2 million, he noted.
“They probably made more money selling that farm than they probably did the whole time they had it,” he said. “They pay big bucks.”
However, that is not the vision the Smiths had for their farmland. Mr. Smith credits his local government with helping him to maneuver the AEPP application process, and helping make their dream a reality.
“The people here at Fairfield County Soil and Water, they are very good to us,” he said. “They took care of a lot of it for me.”
Smith said he believes that is why Fairfield County has such high participation in the AEPP.
“I truly think that’s what has made the difference,” he said.
Now that the Smiths know their land will forever remain farmland, they can relax knowing that their rich history in Fairfield County will remain. Mr. Smith recently finished remodeling the interior of the house, exposing the original logs for all to see on the interior.
“I guess this house is supposed to stay here awhile,” he reflected. “We’d like to keep it the way it is as long as we can.”