The signing of House Bill 3 on July 26 by Gov. Bob Taft gives Ohio a new tool to help farmers keep their land in agricultural production.
The passage of a state ballot issue last November set the stage for the creation of the $400 million Clean Ohio Fund by House Bill 3. This legislation includes $25 million “to be spent over the next four years to help keep productive farmland available for agricultural production.” The rest of the funds are earmarked for the cleanup of abandoned industrial sites (known as brownfields) and other related projects.
Easement purchases. The mechanism by which farmland preservation will be accomplished will be agricultural easements. Also called “purchase of development rights,” (PDR) this type of agricultural easement pays the landowner to keep the land in agriculture by “purchasing” his rights to sell the land for development.
In many cases, farmland brings a higher price than its value for agricultural production. The difference is the “development value” of the land. PDR programs pay the landowner for this development value, but allow the owner, his heirs, or anyone who might purchase the land in the future to continue to farm the land. The easements prohibit the landowner and all future owners from developing the land or devoting it to other enterprises besides agriculture.
The farmer or landowner still owns the property, only the development rights have been sold. The development rights are now owned and controlled by a local entity such as a conservancy or farmland trust, usually a charitable organization created for the purpose of holding agricultural easements.
Who will get money? The criteria for funding of agricultural easements are now being drafted. The Ohio Department of Agriculture welcomes your input and over the next 60 days, ODA will host a series of stakeholder meetings with stakeholders to reach consensus.
ODA will also appoint a 12-member farmland preservation advisory board this fall, consisting of eight representatives of local governments, charitable organizations, farm organizations, developers, land use planners, and environmental protection interests plus one farmer from each of the four quadrants of the state.
The first round of grants are expected to be funded during the first half of 2002.
Who can apply for funds. Local governments and charitable organizations will be eligible to apply for state grants on behalf of willing farmers.
Grants will be issued for up to 75 percent of the appraised value of the easement. The applicant must provide matching funds for at least 25 percent of the remaining value of the easement or the landowner may choose to donate that portion of the easement.
The maximum state grant cannot exceed $1 million per agricultural easement.
Who will award funds. Ohio’s director of agriculture will select the applications to receive funds, based on recommendations from the advisory board.
Playing catch-up. The Clean Ohio Fund dollars represent an important development in the process of creating and implementing a farmland preservation program in Ohio. Several other states are well ahead of Ohio in this process. Farmland preservation activities in Pennsylvania, Maryland and other states have been studied as Ohio groups work to put programs in place.
This money is only a very modest start toward organization, procedure and funding of an important part of the process of preserving agriculture in Ohio. Clean Ohio funds will be put to use where there is maximum potential for public awareness and impact. This means that some counties will not receive funding.
The funds will only be put to use in counties or communities where there is already a farmland preservation plan in place and groups have been established to apply for the funds and care for the easements.
The $25 million of Clean Ohio Fund dollars represent but a small fraction of the funding needed to have true impact on the loss of Ohio Farmland. We have a huge amount of work to do to get ready to apply for grants, create organizations to administer the grants and raise the required matching funds.
The most important and challenging task we face in preserving Ohio agriculture is to maintain and improve the profitability of Ohio agriculture.
(The author is an agricultural extension agent in Columbiana County. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)