Environment and economics: Making the case for farmland preservation


(Editor’s note: This week, we begin a four-part look at Ohio’s farmland preservation efforts.)
Each year in the United States, more than 1 million acres of land are converted from agriculture to other uses – never to be reclaimed. Fortunately, the issue of preserving our farm and open lands is getting some overdue public attention.
Some consumers think because grocery store shelves are overflowing and it appears there are enough fields, farmland preservation is not a concern. Others feel it is up to each landowner to decide what to do with his property.
While personal property rights ring true, the implication of the public not being informed or not caring about the consequences of random development affects all of us and even the welfare of the earth itself.
Environmental impacts. With the world population increasing, there is less land available upon which to grow food. A recent Associated Press article reported the United Nations is concerned that one-third of the Earth’s surface is at risk for turning to dust, such as in China, which has lost 36,000 square miles to desert since the 1950s.
In our country, more paved roads, roofs, parking lots and other impervious surfaces interrupt the natural flow of water, leading to flooding. And the Environmental Protection Agency ranks urban runoff and storm sewer discharges as the second most prevalent source of impaired water quality in the nation’s estuaries, after industrial discharges.
The ecological imbalance also affects wildlife habitat.
Closer to home. According to the American Farmland Trust, Ohio is ranked 22nd in the nation for population growth but second for the loss of prime farmland.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture reports that in less than the lifetime of most of Farm and Dairy readers, Ohio lost one-third of its open lands, more than 7 million acres from 1950 to 2002. Farmers may be less than 2 percent of the population but the USDA reports the value of cash receipts from Ohio’s livestock, livestock products and crops totaled $5.18 billion in 2005.
Housing sprawl. Many counties in Ohio and surrounding states are facing what some consider a plague – development that is coming in faster than the emerald ash borer.
Even the term development is a misnomer, for in farming communities, the unplanned building of houses and businesses often creates impediments to agriculture and disruptions to nature.
The rate of new homes being built is accelerating in many areas. The statistics are disturbing.
Ashland County, Ohio, which has annual agricultural receipts of more than $66 million, has an average of almost 200 new house numbers assigned by the engineer just in the unincorporated areas every year. That totals 1,986 new residences in only 10 years.
Food sources. The loss of farm and open lands is a major concern for many reasons.
While it may seem that there is an abundance of green fields, our food supply is threatened. The Institute for Environmental Education, after much research with other conservation groups, predicts that our grandchildren will have to import food.
Economics. Other consequences of uncontrolled growth are economic.
Demand for ground typically pushes up real estate prices. Yes, this benefits farmers by increasing their assets and their ability to secure loans, but it also increases property taxes. This also means that farmers, especially those wishing to expand or for young adults to enter the occupation, cannot afford to buy or even rent land.
Some who already rent can’t maintain their acreage because landlords are finding it more lucrative to sell to a developer than rent out for agriculture.
Studies by the American Farmland Trust show that having more residential owners paying real estate taxes does not balance with the increased need for the public services such as roads, utilities and schools.
For example, recent “cost of community services” studies in Clark and Knox counties showed that farmland and open space generated more than three times the amount in tax revenue than they required in community services.
National cost of community services studies revealed that residential land required a median value of $1.15 in public services for every dollar of tax revenue, while agricultural and open land required only 36 cents per dollar in taxes.
Increased needs in services and infrastructure generally lead to raises in taxes.
‘Smart’ growth. Europeans realized long ago the importance of protecting agriculture since there is less land available there. New construction is limited to in or near the cities and villages.
The vast United States does not have unlimited land, water or resources, although it may seem so. Some states, counties and townships have recognized the problem and are planning future communities through “smart growth.”
In 1998, the American Planning Association published results of a 1999 study, Working Paper: A Smart Growth Agenda for Ohio.
Briefly, the concept is to save and revitalize urban areas, promote development in desirable areas (especially those with infrastructure already in place) and preserve rural lands. It means a coordinated effort on the part of community leaders, landowners and developers not to sacrifice limited resources for short-term goals.
State programs. Pennsylvania is a leader in the nation for recognizing and addressing the problem. The state-level easement purchase programs there have protected 3,223 farms and 360,620 acres since the program began in 1988.
Ohio is beginning to make some progress but funding is very limited.
State programs can only make a small dent in saving land. There are many possibilities for landowners, organizations and government agencies at all levels. The best results are when individual land owners learn about the many options, (private and/or in concert with public programs) and voluntarily implement a single option or combination of them that will work for their situation. There are limited protections and permanent preservation programs.
The first important step is to realize the loss of farm and open lands affects everyone. Then, everyone needs to become correctly informed, for there are many misconceptions about some of the programs available.
This is the first in a series of articles that will describe some of the options available to landowners who are interested in preserving open lands. While Ohio is the focus of these articles, other states have the same or similar programs.
The imperative for the protection of remaining open lands is universal.
(Next week, a look at Current Agricultural Use Valuation, ag districts and ag security areas.)
About the author: Judy Kocab is a writer and advocate for farmland preservation education. She and her husband have placed their 120-acre Ashland County farm in a permanent conservation easement with a land trust.

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