AUGUSTA, Ohio — As Robert and Bernice McClester celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on the first day of the new millennium, they also celebrated the legacy they will leave through their 254-acre historic Carroll County farm.
The McClesters are the first landowners to donate an agricultural easement to the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), ensuring their farm will not be converted to a non-agricultural use.
The rolling hills of rural Carroll County are home to different farmland pressures than those witnessed around the state’s metropolitan centers, but the pressures exist nonetheless.
“We knew if we didn’t do this, it would be hard to keep it as a farm,” said Bernice McClester, a retired teacher. “Now we know that if it’s sold, it won’t be sold for development.”
“There’s a lot of history related to this farm,” added Robert McClester, who still maintains a closed herd of 38 Shorthorn cattle that trace to the original herd his father, John, brought to the farm in 1920.
Mr. McClester, a graduate of The Ohio State University, also worked off the farm, retiring after 30 years with USDA’s Farmers Home Administration and the former Soil Conservation Service.
The McClesters learned of the farmland preservation option at a local OSU Extension meeting several years ago. Since then, they’ve explored how to establish an easement on their farm.
The couple discussed the idea with their four children: daughter Jean McClester Swartz, co-owner of Swartz Potato Farm in Richland County; and sons John Reid, controller with a dairy cooperative in Texas; Scott, an actuary with Prudential International Life Insurance in New Jersey; and Neil, partner in Mills Insurance Agency, Lisbon, Ohio.
“They’re all for it,” said Bernice McClester. “We wouldn’t have done it without their support.”
Son Neil McClester admits that the farm’s resale value wasn’t a primary concern for him or his siblings. “It’s important for them (his parents) to see the farm stay intact. And what’s important to them is important to us.
“Some children would be looking at it differently,” he said. “As a family, it’s a matter of knowing what you want to do.”
Working with the ODA’s Office of Farmland Preservation, the McClesters plowed new ground with the easement concept. “There was so much when we actually started working on it that they (ODA) didn’t know what to do,” Robert McClester said.
“Our guidelines are still being developed,” admitted Joe Daubenmire, assistant manager for the Office of Farmland Preservation. Ohio’s legislation, Senate Bill 223, allowing the state of Ohio or local governments to acquire ag easements became law last January.
But others are quickly following the McClesters’ footsteps. Daubenmire said his office is talking with landowners in six counties who are also interested in donating agricultural easements.
Because there is no current funding from the state for the purchase of ag easements, Daubenmire said the Office of Farmland Preservation can only accept donated easements at this time.
An agricultural easement restricts only development on the land; the farm remains on the tax rolls and under private ownership and management.
The ODA cannot relinquish the easement, but can authorize another party to “manage” the easement, Daubenmire said. “Managing” the easement means the party is responsible for walking the property once a year and filing a status report with ODA.
A baseline report, complete with photographs and descriptions of the farm in its present condition, is part of the agreement.
Landowners can still undertake normal agricultural practices, but must seek pre-approval on major construction or mineral extraction, for example. Major logging projects must be part of an overall approved forestry plan.
The McClester farm was one of the first in Carroll County to use contour strips to prevent soil erosion and the McClesters have been planting no-till corn since 1970. In 1999, the McClesters received the Carroll County Soil and Water Conservation District’s Goodyear Outstanding Conservation Farmer award for their conservation practices.
Currently, the McClesters raise primarily hay, a small amount of corn, and manage 75 acres of pasture for their cattle. They also have 74 acres of managed woodlands. For the past six years, the McClester farm has been one of the host farms for the annual OSU Extension Country Living Field Day, which draws more than 4,000 visitors.
The McClesters’ historic Greek Revival style farmhouse, built in 1858, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The farm also houses a former rock quarry where foundation stones for the farm’s barn and houses were mined, and remnants of a former brick-making operation.