SALEM, Ohio — Ohio farmers can now apply to receive cash payouts in return for preserving their properties forever.
Farm landowners can work with their township trustees, county commissioners or land trust group through May 27 to apply for a share of $2.5 million to be awarded through USDA’s Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program.
Funds allocated for the program will be used to purchase conservation easements that will ensure productive farmland remains in agricultural use, according to NRCS state conservationist Terry Crosby.
Since the program’s inception in 2002, NRCS has spent just more than $18 million to protect more than 25,000 acres of Ohio farmland. Nearly all of that protected land is classified as prime soils.
This year’s funding will bring the overall total spent in the Buckeye State to just over $21 million and could potentially add another 25 farms to the list of 130 already preserved through the program, according to state program manager Julia Zehner.
The NRCS program is different from other farmland preservation tools available in the state in that farmers cannot apply directly to sell an easement. Instead, landowners must work with local government agencies or land trust groups to apply.
“By going through local groups, the federal government is not making land use decisions at the local level,” Zehner explained.
And by contacting local officials, landowners can learn what local farmland preservation efforts are already under way and how their property might fit into local initiatives, Zehner said.
The NRCS program is separate from the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Ag Easement Purchase Program, Zehner said, but the federal funds help extend the ODA program and give it more reach.
There is no per-acre cap set by the federal program, and Zehner said the easement payout is usually about $2,000 per acre. Pay is based on the difference between fair market value of the property for development and the agricultural value of the land, she said.
For applications selected for funding, NRCS will enter into an agreement to support efforts to protect soils and historical and archaeological sites. The agency provides up to 50 percent of the appraised fair market value of the conservation easement.
Funds will be awarded to the highest ranked eligible applications through a statewide, competitive process.
Any state or local government or nonprofit organization that has the capability to acquire easements may apply for funds.
Eligible entities must demonstrate a commitment to long-term conservation of agricultural lands, a capacity to acquire and manage easements, have pending offers on a farm, and available funding to match federal funds.
Eligible farmland must be privately owned, subject to a pending offer, and contain at least 50 percent prime, statewide, or locally important farmland soils.
In addition, the farm must include at least one-third cropland, grassland, and pastureland of the total acreage.
There is no minimum acreage requirement as long as the property is productive and profitable to an extent deemed passable by the state. For example, Zehner said one property that currently holds an easement is a 14-acre produce farm with Community Supported Agriculture operation.
The program is open on a rolling basis, so landowners can work with local entities to apply year-round.
However, ranking periods are only open at a certain time of the year, so applications submitted after the May 27 deadline will be held for fiscal year 2010 funding consideration, Zehner said.
Since 2006, the U.S. government coheld easements purchased through this program. However, under the new farm bill, the federal government will not have any ownership or interest in properties signed up through the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, Zehner said.
The federal government will retain a right of enforcement that allows them to protect the farm from development, she said.