The Nov. 30 meeting of the Ohio Farmland Preservation Advisory Board started out on a high note. The farmland preservation program had a record year in 2020, closing 79 easements and preserving more than 10,000 acres of land.
Then came the bad news. The program had overspent. Because of that, no new applications would be accepted for the Local Agricultural Easement Purchase Program in 2021.
There are more than 100 easements still pending, “all of which are funded by future bond sales previously authorized by the General Assembly,” the department said in a statement.
“Due to the amount already committed, and following careful examination of the office’s current finances, the department will not solicit a new round of applications for the coming year,” the statement reads.
It took some local sponsors, who tuned into the public meeting, by surprise. The news was announced to all local sponsors, Dec. 11.
“It seems like no one was watching the bottom line,” said Krista Magaw, executive director of Tecumseh Land Trust, which serves Greene and Clark counties. “You can’t get ahead of your funding cycle.”
Funding is expected to be available again in 2023, but the lack of money to purchase new easements for at least a year has some local sponsors concerned.
“There is sincere disappointment from some of our landowners who are in their 90s preparing their estate for transition,” said Jonathan Ferbrache, a resource specialist with Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District. He helps handle farmland preservation for the Fairfield County Commissioners, the local easement sponsor for Fairfield County.
“It’s hard to explain those opportunities simply do not exist,” Ferbrache said.
How it works
Ohio’s Farmland Preservation program is funded by Clean Ohio bond sales and receives $6.25 million annually. The Clean Ohio Fund was created by a ballot initiative in 2000 and now gets funded every two years through the capital budget.
Gov. Mike DeWine signed the capital budget, on Dec. 29, for fiscal years 2021-2022, which runs from Oct. 1, 2020-Sept. 30, 2022, giving the department of agriculture $12.5 million for the farmland preservation program. The funding came late this year. Usually, the capital budget gets signed in the spring, but the pandemic delayed it.
An analysis of the farmland preservation office’s financial situation, on Oct. 31, showed it had $20 million to spend from bond sales from 2020-2022. The analysis, shared during the Nov. 30 advisory board meeting, also showed that total easement commitments totaled about $17.3 million. Taking out operating costs, that left $1.5 million in the bank, so to speak.
How the farmland preservation office got ahead of its funding cycle isn’t clear.
In a statement explaining the decision not to accept applications in 2021, the ODA said this: “In funding years 2015 and 2019, the Ohio Department of Agriculture Office of Farmland Preservation awarded allocations to local sponsors that exceeded the $6.25 million funding available from Clean Ohio bond sales by $2.5 million. As a result, we were able to accept record numbers of applications into our farmland preservation program. In 2020 alone, the office closed 79 easements totaling over $11 million; this is more than the program closed from 2015 through 2017 combined and double those closed in 2018 and 2019.”
Steve Berk, director of public policy with Western Reserve Conservancy, said the conservancy also had to tell people that they wouldn’t be able to apply this year. The conservancy has a waiting list for the farmland preservation program in their 24 county coverage area in northeast Ohio.
“I think we recognize the difficult decision ODA had to make by suspending it this year,” he said. “But we understand the disappointment felt by farmers in our service area that were looking forward to applying this year.”
Closing easements and getting farmland to be officially preserved can take years, in some cases. During the Nov. 30 preservation advisory board meeting, an update of pending easements showed there were easements from 2015 still waiting to be closed.
The work to get farm families to the starting line to even apply to have their land preserved also takes time, Magaw said.
“It takes years to build these relationships with these landowners,” she said. “In two years, a whole lot can change.”
Magaw said it feels like the department of agriculture doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. She’s concerned some easements will be lost in this year without funding.
“There’s a disconnect that they maybe don’t understand this is year round work for local sponsors,” she said. “It takes so many talks with a local family about their farm before they even apply for the program.”
There are other ways for land to be preserved. Federal monies are available in some cases, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Program.
Farmers can also donate their land through the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Easement Donation Program and, in return, receive tax benefits. The office of farmland preservation had received 64 donated easements.
Ferbrache said the county commissioners have used federal funding in the past in Fairfield County, but has shied away from it recently because local land resources didn’t fit federal expectations.
Longtime land trusts are used to working with different funding sources to preserve land. It’s what they do. That may not be the case for newer local sponsors, like local soil and water conservation districts or county commissioners, who have only ever used the ODA to get funding to preserve farmland.
“Those local entities that have just gotten started with the ODA program in the last two or three years will be least capable of making that switch,” Magaw said. “A lot of the soil and water conservation districts already have so much on their plate.”
Sarah Huffman, executive director of the office of farmland preservation, said during the Nov. 30 advisory board meeting that it was time to regroup. The last major change to the program was in 2012.
She said the office is forming small groups to review programs, funding and communication.
“With the help of our local sponsors, the department will continue to modernize and improve the Farmland Preservation program, while looking for additional partnerships and sources of funding,” ODA said in a statement.
That’s why Berk is more optimistic about the situation. He sees this challenging year as an opportunity to improve on a program that’s done so much for farmland preservation in the state.
“If you’re in the one year window, it’s disappointing,” he said. “If you look at the 20 year picture of it, you’re still positive.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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