Ohio’s farmland preservation program is complicated, but worth the effort

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Contributing Writer
The name of Ohio’s farmland preservation program, the Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program, is very misleading and often keeps farm families from even considering the benefits.
No, the land is not being taken over by the government. Privacy is not lost and the property will not be opened to the public unless the owners so wish.
While reasonable conservation practices are expected, the Ohio Department of Agriculture will not tell a landowner what to grow or how to do it.
Partnership. The state easement purchase program is a type of conservation easement that forms a partnership with the landowner, the Ohio Department of Agriculture and a land trust or government agency (i.e. county, township, soil and water conservation district).
The basic goals of an easement purchase program and conservation easement are the same: that the landowner will not take any development actions not in concert with agricultural purposes and the co-holders of the easement forever pledge to monitor and protect the land.
The “easement purchase” term indicates only that the “development rights” are purchased. This means that a farmer, by restricting uses of the land will be forsaking future dollars from a developer.
In a program such as this, those chosen are reimbursed partially for this potential financial sacrifice.
Clean Ohio Fund. Ohio voters approved the Clean Ohio Fund of $400 million in 2000, which was earmarked to help projects such as cleaning industrial sites and for public parks. The farmland preservation initiative was allocated 1/16th of that, or $25 million.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture has taken what was to be a four-year program and extended it to a sixth year by leveraging federal matching grants. There are now 20,385 acres under easement in partnership with the ODA because of this program.
Lengthy application. The recipients are chosen by a selection process that includes a lengthy application. The application considers and awards points based on such things as soil type, proximity to development pressure and the local government involvement in farmland preservation.
The applications must be submitted through a sponsoring agency, like a land trust, county, or township.
The application includes much input from the owners and the Soil and Water Conservation District offices so they can take weeks to complete.
An agricultural easement is different than a general conservation easement in that the owner further agrees to keep the land in agricultural production, either by their farming or renting the fields. With a general conservation easement, the land may stay or return to a natural state.
Values vary. The value of the easement is determined by subtracting the agricultural value from the development value. Because of limited funding, a finalist in the Ohio Agricultural Easement Purchase Program can only receive, at most, 75 percent of the easement value. The balance must come either from local donation such as a county that has a sales tax for that purpose, or the landowner can agree to donate the value of the difference (not any actual dollars).
The value the owner waives to receive can be used as an income tax deduction, as with a conservation easement.
Too late for ’07. The deadline for 2007 applications were due June 1. This year, 235 farm families from 31 counties applied for funding.
Farmers can file an application but not commit to anything until determined if they are on the list of top scores. They are then asked to sign a letter of intent but still nothing is final until the contract is signed.
The easement is then forever, in “perpetuity”, except in rare cases. Only in very rare cases can the contract be terminated by a court.
Ohioans are very interested in the program, as reflected by the 1,603 applications submitted since 2002. To date, there was funding for only 97 of those.
Though the odds of being successful are not great, it is still important for farmers to apply for it shows the local township trustees, the county commissioners, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the state legislature, the federal government and the general public, that there is a great need for programs such as this.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture expects to have the agricultural easement purchase program next year, but future funding is currently unknown.
Take first step. This series of articles has given basic information on some ways to protect farm and open lands. These options can be used individually or in different combinations.
An important first step is to realize the threat, then learn about the subject and options. At a minimum, landowners should consider estate planning today. This can be as simple as talking with the family and an attorney who understands these options.
Saving the land is only one aspect of protecting agriculture and our environment. The economics are a major complicated part of the situation. Voters need to back local and state issues as well as candidates that assist farmland preservation.
But without the land, there will be no agriculture. We must consider what we are leaving for future generations.

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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