Northeastern Ohio farms rank in top 10 for chance at agricultural easements

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REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio – They waited at the ballot box in November 2000. They waited for Gov. Bob Taft to sign House Bill 3 into law a year ago, and they waded through a detailed application process.

Now landowners wait for the final word that might determine the fate of their farms.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture unveiled the ranked list of 442 farms that submitted applications for state funding under the Clean Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase program July 1.

Four northeastern Ohio farms ranked in the top 10.

The announcement of final easement purchases is still pending.

Next step. Top-ranked farms are now being checked for a number of legalities, including title searches, boundary reviews, subordination of third party interests and property appraisals before any purchases are made.

“We’re looking at all the applications to make sure everything is in order,” said Howard Wise, executive director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Office of Farmland Preservation.

“We’re making sure [the applicants] actually own the farm, that the acres reported are accurate. We’re getting down to the legality of the law,” he said.

The process includes subordination of third party interests, which means that banks are being asked to subordinate to the department for farms with mortgages. If the mortgage is not paid, the bank has the option to auction the property.

With subordination, however, if the farm is auctioned, the easement goes with it and the property may only be sold for agricultural uses, according to Wise.

The department will soon request proposals from independent appraisers across the state to help evaluate property values, Wise said.

No guarantees. The top scorers are not guaranteed funding. If farms are dropped from the top rankings during the current process or reject the department’s easement purchase offers, then the next highest scorer will be evaluated for an easement offer.

The purchase offers will start with the top-ranked properties and continue down the list until all funds are spent, Wise said.

Applications were received from 442 farm owners in 49 counties offering more than 63,000 acres for protection under the program’s first funding round, which began in April.

Each application was extensively reviewed by a 13-member board from across the state. The review used criteria prescribed by the Ohio General Assembly and adopted in administrative rules.

Area representation. A 162-acre farm owned by John “Jack” and Nancy Groselle of Portage County ranked second-highest in the state from combined first- and second-round scoring.

The Groselles are among a block of 11 Portage County farmers who applied for the program.

“We’ve got a good group here in the Hiram area,” Groselle said, noting he always had hopes that his farm would score highly but didn’t think it would get the high priority it did.

“What people should really realize is that farmers here are giving away over half the value of their land. They really have to be motivated to do this,” he said.

Groselle’s main motivation is his son, who wants to becoming the eighth generation to continue the grain and dairy farm.

Other northeastern Ohio farmers rounding out the top 10 scores are Nancy and Larry Kline, Ashland County; James and Deborah Morris, Wayne County; and Ralph Knippenberg, Portage County.

Just not enough. The $6.25 million allocated for funding the first round does not match the high demand for matching grants the program has generated.

At an estimated $2,000 per acre, more than $126 million would be required to purchase all the acreage submitted by the 442 applicants.

“I expected a good response, but nothing like this,” Wise said when the applications were first delivered to his desk in May.

“It’s evident Ohio’s farm families want to keep farming and save their prime farmland from development,” he said.

The agriculture department is pursuing federal matching dollars to help bridge the gap between the demand and the state’s four-year program budget of $25 million.

If the USDA approves additional federal funding of as much as $8 million for Ohio this year, the program would be able to buy easements for more of the top scoring farms, depending on farm size and per-acre appraisal value.

According to Wise, Ohio is only one of 34 states the USDA expects to apply for the federal funds.

“It just shows that across the nation there is as fierce a demand for farmland preservation as there is here in Ohio,” Wise said.

Another chance. The department encourages interested landowners not included in the current funding round to apply again. The second funding round is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2003.

From the $400 million Clean Ohio Fund, the initiative by Gov. Bob Taft to reclaim urban brownfields and protect rural greenfields, $25 million will be spent on this pilot program over the next four year to help keep productive farmland available for future generations of Ohioans.

This new tool will allow for the purchase of agricultural easement from volunteer landowners, also known as “purchase of development rights,” or PDRs. The easement are voluntary legal agreements restricting non-farm development on farmland in perpetuity.

Grants will be issued for up to 75 percent of the appraised value of the easement, and applicants must provide matching funds for at least 25 percent of the remaining value. The farmer may also donate that portion of the value of the easement. The maximum state grant cannot exceed $1 million per easement.

Remaining funds are earmarked for cleanup of abandoned industrial sites and related projects.

For more information contact the Office of Farmland Preservation, 614-728-6210, or the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s toll-free main desk, 1-800-282-1955.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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