COLUMBUS — Ten years ago, a group of Ohioans concerned about the decline in farmland decided to hold an annual summit to address ways they could reverse the trend that was negatively impacting their state’s top economic driver.
On Nov. 5, a host of officials from the state department of agriculture, state government and Ohio State University helped congratulate the people involved with the Office of Farmland Preservation and its goal of preserving more land and increasing the ability of farmers to be sustainable.
“This summit’s greatest strength continues to be the fact that it is derived from grassroots efforts,” said Ohio Director of Agriculture Robert Boggs told the crowd of several hundred inside the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center on the OSU campus.
Last year, voters renewed the Clean Ohio bond issue, which generated an additional $400 million to continue efforts to preserve green space and farmland, improve outdoor recreation and clean up brownfields to encourage redevelopment and revitalize communities.
Thanks to the program, Ohio has gone from “zero preserved acres to more than 40,000 acres,” Boggs said.
Boggs commended the partnerships being formed between the state department of agriculture and OSU, and credited much of the success of the farmland program to Jill Clark, director of OSU’s Center for Farmland Policy Innovation.
OSU President Gordon Gee was the featured speaker and addressed the need to preserve Ohio’s identity and the things that attract people to the state.
“We have to be focussed on preserving who we are,” he said. “We cannot eradicate who we are by simply thinking the world is going to be instant gratification.”
He said there’s great opportunity in the state remaining as it is, in terms of farmland, greenspace and values. But there’s also opportunity for growth and leadership, amid major challenges.
“The economic issues that we face provide us a unique opportunity, the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and change and do things no one else can do,” he said.
In the afternoon, the crowd heard from U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, who took office in April.
“Communities can either react to the loss of the farmland or they can sit down and chart the future,” she said.
She commended Ohio for choosing to “chart its future” and set an example for other states. She did not speak against development and population growth, but instead encouraged responsible growth, especially near places already developed.
“Population increases close to the farm offer great marketing opportunities, for businesses and for farmers,” she said.
Although he admitted he doesn’t know much about farming and has only milked one cow — a cow in Darke County that he was more or less dared to milk, Ohio Treasurer Kevin Boyce said there is much his office is doing to help farmers financially, to make good decisions and to acquire reduced-rate loans when needed.
Boyce became the state’s 47th treasurer in January and has worked to fine-tune Ag-Link, which provides reduced interest rates to farmers borrowing money for operating costs.
By law, $125 million is allocated for the program annually.
This year’s annual report shows that as of July 31, 193 Ohio farms have been preserved, totaling around 40,000 acres.
In the past year, the Agricultural Easement Purchase Program purchased easements on 16 farms in Butler, Clark, Fairfield, Fulton, Portage, Preble, Seneca and Wayne counties, totaling nearly 1,500 total acres.
In his letter introducing the annual report, Boggs reported that the USDA’s 2007 Census shows the state lost more than 600,000 acres of farmland from 2002-2007, a “troubling trend” that needs attention.
The full annual report is available online at the Ohio Farmland Preservation’s Web site, www.agri.ohio.gov/farmland. A map of each Ohio county and the number of farms preserved also is available.