By Matt Reese
I just drove by another cardboard sign duct-taped to a wooden stake with the words “No solar” scrawled out in black magic marker along the road. I wonder if the maker of the sign considered the implications of the sign’s request for local landowners.
Make no mistake, I have no great love for solar (nor do I own enough land to have a stake in the game). The battle for the preservation of farmland is a crucial issue, and Ohio is on the front lines. Houses, strip malls, solar panels, wind energy, landfills, industry, roadways, waste treatment — the list of potential demands for land could go on almost endlessly. There is a valid need for each use, but in reality, there is only so much land.
American Farmland Trust (AFT) recently released a new report, Farms Under Threat 2040: Choosing an Abundant Future, taking a look at the loss of farmland around the country. Ohio was at the top of the national list in terms of potential farmland loss.
According to the report, if trends continue 518,475 of Ohio’s farmland will be paved over, fragmented, or converted to uses that jeopardize agriculture by 2040. That represents an area more than three times the size of Columbus and equates to the loss of 3,976 farms and more than 8,138 farm jobs. AFT said in Ohio:
• Warren, Licking, and Delaware Counties will be the hardest hit.
• In the worst-case scenario of runaway sprawl, Ohio could lose as much as 696,802 acres of farmland. As one of the largest egg-farming states in the nation and a top producer of corn and soybean, this loss in OH would be far-reaching.
• By encouraging smart development, investing in farmland easements, and supporting the next generation of farmers, Ohioans can save 398,100 acres of farmland. That’s the equivalent of saving 2,928 agricultural jobs and $203 million in farm output.
• Protecting Ohio’s farmland from poorly planned development and residential sprawl is of both local and national importance given that 73% of farmland conversion will occur on some of the most productive and versatile land in the country.
AFT, in the report, offers some sound ideas for addressing these challenges, which certainly merit some ideas for consideration from Ohio’s local and state level leaders in future community planning efforts. From my perspective, at the heart of this issue, are the burdens placed on landowners of farm ground, and the complete disregard of those landowners by communities pushing for no new “fill-in-the-blank.”
To ask landowners to keep land in agriculture for the sake of the view, or the value of agriculture to the community or the vital role of food, fiber and fuel production for the world is legitimate. But simply asking (or threatening or bullying), places all the financial hardship of the decision on the landowner, and none on the rest of the community that has long benefitted from the agricultural land. The loss of farmland is a societal problem, but individual landowners are often expected to bear the full cost.
For example, if landowners are offered $1,500 an acre annually for a 30-year solar project that is opposed by the community, I have yet to see the community offer to pay those landowners $1,500 an acre annually for 30-years to keep that land in agriculture rather than solar panels. That would be $4.5 million per year for 30 years for a 3,000-acre solar project paid by the community to area landowners. If that would happen, there would be an immediate change in some of these issues. This sounds crazy, of course. This would put the entire financial burden of keeping the land in agriculture on the community, and none on the landowner. Yet by demanding “No solar,” or “No wind” or “No new houses,” those making the demands are out nothing (except the cost of their homemade sign), while huge lost financial opportunities are placed on the landowners.
With this in mind, there are proactive measures communities can take to share the costs between landowners and communities for preserving land for agricultural uses. On a statewide level, the Clean Ohio Local Agricultural Easement Purchase Program (LAEPP) provides funding to farmland owners to willing sell their development rights by placing an agricultural easement on their property. Funding is provided for up to 75% of the appraised value of a farm’s development rights. A payment cap has been set at $2,000 per acre, with a maximum of $500,000 per farm. All easement transactions are recorded on the property deed and transfer with the land to successive owners.
The resulting agricultural easement is a voluntary, perpetual agreement between a landowner and the Ohio Department of Agriculture to permanently preserve agricultural production. The farmland can be sold or passed along as a gift, but the restrictions prohibiting non-agricultural development remain with the land. From 2002 to 2022, 589 family farms in 61 counties have collectively preserved 91,507 acres in agricultural production. Permanent easements preserved under related programs (including donated easements) bring the total acres currently preserved in Ohio to over 102,000. It is not a perfect system, but it has been working in Ohio and other states to keep land in agriculture.
On a more local level, if communities were really serious about playing an active role in preserving farmland, there are surely ways (a levy?) all property owners in a township could pay into a pot of money to set up a similar easement purchase program, offering to buy a percentage of the potential development rights from landowners in a prioritized agricultural area of the township. This would spread the economics of these decisions out to the community benefitting from the farmland in the area and not place the financial drawbacks solely on the landowners.
The problem with this from the community standpoint is that big dollars are involved. It hurts to spend big dollars to preserve what is already there — but losing the opportunity for big dollars hurts landowners too and the bank accounts of their children and grandchildren.
Let’s proactively and aggressively work together to preserve farmland and its many benefits to our communities, rather than put all of the burden on the long under-appreciated owners of this long under-appreciated resource. There are ways to proactively and legitimately address farmland preservation, but they are not cheap or easy. If you want cheap and easy, you get what you’re paying for with the roadside signs.