Is Ohio running out of room? Report calls urban sprawl a myth

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SALEM, Ohio – For years, Ohio has been inundated with information about housing developments and shopping malls settling into the rural landscape and suffocating farmers.
Researchers use bar graphs and pie charts and exhaustive studies to prove Ohio is losing not only its farmers, but also its farmland.
But a recent report calls this the “propaganda” that fuels the urban sprawl “myth.”
No, Ohio is not running out of room for farming, according to the Ohio Environment-Growth Alliance’s Room to Roam report.
In fact, the group says, farmland preservationists exaggerate the loss of cropland and their efforts have already saved more than enough land in Ohio.
Conversion. Just 4 percent of Ohio’s recent cropland loss is due to urban demand, according to the report, which cites another study done by Buckeye Institute in 2001. The rest of that land was converted to pasture and forest, said Ohio Environment-Growth Alliance spokesman Kevin Jones.
The alliance, a group funded by home builders, engineers and the construction industry, released the report earlier this month, Jones said.
If all this land is being converted to pastures and forests, why aren’t we seeing more trees and fewer Wal-Marts, asks Mike Bailey, assistant manager to Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Office of Farmland Preservation.
The USDA found Ohio lost 7 million acres of farmland between 1950-2002, which is the equivalent to 23 Ohio counties, he said. Most of that land was converted to nonagricultural uses, primarily because of urban pressure, he said.
‘Prime’ land. American Farmland Trust’s Ohio director Sara Nikolic is also skeptical about the Ohio Environment-Growth Alliance’s report.
“They’re using their numbers, their methods. We have our numbers. We think ours are better,” Nikolic said. “Ours are based on national data.”
The major issue, Nikolic said, is that Ohio is losing its prime farmland and ranks second in the nation for that loss.
“Prime” means the land doesn’t need a lot of inputs, such as irrigation and fertilizer. And Ohio is just one of four states with almost half of its land considered prime, she said.
But Jones says with today’s technology, prime land doesn’t play as big of a role. Inputs can turn most ground into prime land, he said.
Ohio State University’s Exurban project manager Jill Clark says this argument won’t work.
“You can’t say, ‘Well, there’s enough land in Arizona so we don’t need Ohio’s land,'” she said. “Tell that to the people in those communities and the people who depend on it in Ohio.
“The soil base is amazing in Ohio. Arizona doesn’t have that. Inputs would be astronomical to get it to the quality of [Ohio’s soil].”
‘Misguided’ efforts. Ohio Environment-Growth Alliance calls farmland preservation efforts “misguided.”
“Preservationists are falsely portraying that developers are eating up chunks of land without any concern for the environment and wrongly influencing the public,” Jones said.
The group says the 10,000 acres already protected by the state’s farmland preservation program are “more than sufficient for Ohio.”
“The truth is that many farmers are voluntarily getting out of the business or pursuing other opportunities and are selling their land for the highest price, not because they are forced to,” Jones said.
Preservation. Bailey, however, said not all farmers are just looking at their land in terms of money.
Since the farmland preservation program began three years ago, more than 1,000 farmers have applied to preserve 160,000 acres, Bailey said.
“Farmers realize it’s about more than just dollars,” he said.
Some farmers have even donated property, more than 3,000 acres, to a voluntary easement donation program, he said.
And compare the 10,000 acres Ohio has preserved to the 200,000 Maryland has preserved, Nikolic said.
To say that 10,000 acres in Ohio is enough, isn’t accurate, she said.
A balance. Not every farm needs preserved, but some areas are better suited for growth and some are better suited for farmland, she said.
Farmland offers balance, Nikolic said, citing a study done by American Farmland Trust in Knox and Clark counties.
For example, if 200 homes are built on 100 acres, they will need a lot of services, she said. There may be 300 new children in the community and therefore a new school may be needed. Ambulance and police services will need increased. Roads will need improved for the increased traffic.
Taxpayers will have to pay for that, she said. Yes, these people will generate more in property taxes than if that 100 acres was sitting as farmland, but the residents will require a lot more services.
For every dollar generated by residential land use, that use requires $1.08 back in services, Nikolic said, noting that $1.08 in the Knox and Clark example is less than the national average.
On the other hand, for every dollar farmland contributes to the tax base, it’s only using 30 cents in services.
By balancing open space with development, Nikolic said the ag sector creates a surplus in the budget.
Dominant use. The Ohio Environment-Growth Alliance report says despite what environmentalists say, urban sprawl is not consuming Ohio and farmland loss has decreased since the 1950s.
Nikolic said, however, low-density residential development is the dominant land use across the state, and it’s fragmenting farmland.
“Let’s have growth, but let’s have it in areas that are more appropriate,” Nikolic said. “Let the community decide rather than developers.”
Dwindling industry. Turning its focus away from urban sprawl, the Ohio Environment-Growth Alliance goes on to say agriculture is a dwindling industry in Ohio.
Jobs in agriculture make up less than 1 percent of the state’s total workforce, and agriculture accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, according to the report.
“Compare that to growing industries such as retail and service, and it appears that agriculture’s economic value to the state will continue to decline,” the report says.
“Farmers are doing more with less, which frees up more land for other purposes, such as housing and business, which are driving Ohio’s economy,” Jones said.
“Protecting land to sit there with no significant purpose is useless.”
If this land was instead used to increase other sectors like manufacturing, it would offer millions more in tax revenues and provide thousands more jobs in Ohio, the report says.
As a group. But another study, Ohio Food, by Ohio State ag economist Tom Sporleder indicates looking at just production agriculture is too narrow.
It’s not that looking at it this way is incorrect, Sporleder said, but there’s more to the agriculture sector than just commodities.
Sporleder instead looks at a food and agriculture “cluster,” which includes the processing of agricultural goods, transportation of this food to the stores, and services like veterinary medicine.
All of these should be considered when you look at agriculture’s economic impact, he said.
By looking at it this way, agriculture contributed $36.5 billion to the economy in 2000, which is 10 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, Sporleder said.
And the agriculture cluster provides 15 percent of Ohio’s employment.
Not many clusters are as important to Ohio as agriculture, Sporleder said.
Choices. The Ohio Environment-Growth Alliance’s Kevin Jones emphasizes farmers should choose for themselves if they want to participate in farmland preservation and those efforts shouldn’t be forced on them.
If they don’t want their farmland developed, they can make that choice by not selling their property, he said.
“We understand the deep roots that agriculture has in Ohio, but times are changing,” the report says.
Read the report

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