ASHLAND, Ohio — No matter how you add it up, farmland in Ohio is disappearing at a rapid rate.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture reports the state lost more than 6.9 million acres of farmland from 1950-2000 — a land mass equivalent to 23 Ohio counties.
The state ranks second in the nation for lost farmland, with development pressure throughout, and especially near metropolitan areas.
Once developed, the land is unlikely to go back to agriculture.
That’s why volunteers in some counties have stepped up, to offer their support and help save a resource they cherish.
Few have devoted the time and resources as Ashland County’s Judy Kocab. A landowner herself, she and her husband placed their 120-acre farm in an agricultural easement with Killbuck Watershed Land Trust over the past few years.
The Kocabs retain ownership of their land, but by putting it in a trust, they guarantee it cannot be developed into shopping centers or other non-green uses.
“We did it to keep the land together and green,” she said, and the Kocabs also will realize certain tax benefits, in the form of income taxes, inheritance and estate taxes.
Since taking the first step herself, Kocab has become an advocate for farmland preservation in her county, and has helped lead Ashland County to the state’s highest number of Agricultural Security Areas this past year: seven acceptances, from roughly 10 applicants.
Her county also led the state with the highest number of ag easements, placing easements on five farms through Killbuck Watershed Land Trust.
An ASA is a designation given to landowners of 500 or more contiguous acres, who voluntarily agree to protect their land for 10 years against non-agricultural development. The designation receives certain agricultural benefits, including the potential for a real estate tax exemption on new or expanded farm buildings of at least $25,000.
Kocab is a non-paid volunteer who meets farmers in their homes, at the Ashland County Service Center near Hayesville, and just about anywhere else that’s convenient.
Her message is simple: If you want to protect your land, do something now.
“Everyone thinks there’s always a tomorrow,” she said, but as a volunteer with a local fire department, she knows that “tomorrow” is never a given.
Things change — people become ill and die and partnerships and relationships dissolve.
Because there are so many options available — conservation easements, the state’s Agricultural Easement Purchase Program, ASAs and Ag Districts — Kocab understands why landowners become confused, but said they shouldn’t be.
The Ag District is a designation that helps the farmer protect himself against non-agricultural development, but also against nuisance lawsuits stemming from complaints over accepted agricultural practices.
Ag Districts also provide incentives against eminent domain, and the potential to defer special assessments for utilities such as water lines, sewer and electric, as long as the land is farmed and kept in the district.
The Ag District is a requirement of the state’s other land protection and preservation programs, and can be viewed as a gateway program.
Maxine Swaisgood, administrative assistant with Ashland’s Soil and Water Conservation District, said Kocab has handled as many as 40 applications for farmland preservation in one year.
“Judy is very serious in her approach to farmland preservation,” Swaisgood said. “She worked very hard getting those farmers to combine their acres, talked to many people, attended all the township meetings.”
Kocab said one of her challenges is just getting farmers to understand the difference between the programs, and what they really mean. The ASA and Ag District are kind of the forerunner of the easement programs, but farmers can participate in both without ever entering a permanent easement program.
She reminds those who do apply for an easement, that their land is not being sold to the state, or any other entity. The farmer retains rights to his property and can mostly farm it however he wants, but agrees to certain specifications against non-farm development.
Kocab is not alone as a volunteer. In neighboring Wayne County, Maryanna Biggio, a conservation volunteer with the Wayne County Planning Department, helps with similar functions.
But in her county, Kocab basically is the department, when it comes to matters of farmland protection and preservation. Swaisgood said Kocab handles 99 percent of the legwork and applications.
Her ultimate goal is to let the landowners of her county know their options, and encourage them to do something for the future generations.
“I’m trying to reach the landowner and do something,” she said. “It’s just another option that I’m trying to get the landowner to see.”