By Matt Reese
The concern around keeping Ohio’s best farmland in agricultural production is not a new one. Our state has a long history of paving over productive soils in favor of “progress” in the form of parking lots, strip malls and whatever other whims developers dream up. Certainly, some of this (or maybe even most) development has real value and benefits to the state and local communities. Each acre of productive farmland lost, though, erodes our society’s future ability to produce food, fuel and fiber, along with the agrarian heritage of the community.
Agricultural lands sequester carbon, produce oxygen, allow for water infiltration, provide wildlife habitat, have aesthetic appeal, and offer value to communities in ways which rooftops, concrete and asphalt cannot. Farms generate tax revenue with low costs to the community. Development brings additional burdens to existing infrastructure such as roads, schools and water systems.
While this has been an issue for many generations, the topic of farmland preservations seems to have gained some urgency in ag circles in the last couple of years. The issue of farmland loss is also gaining some attention with environmental groups and community development groups who are starting to realize how vital farm ground is to Ohio’s environmental and economic well-being. Farmland is a very limited resource which should not be taken for granted. When it is gone, it will be missed.
Farmland preservation has been elevated to a top, if not the top issue for Ohio Farm Bureau as members from around the state met with lawmakers in February at Ag Day at the Capital. Among those farmer members was John Hummel. Maybe even more than the difficulties with weather and agronomics, Hummel sees the loss of farmland as the greatest obstacle to his operation in Franklin and Fairfield counties.
“I don’t know where or how you slow the development down,” Hummel said. “It is happening a lot of places. At what point do we put the emphasis back on farm ground. The more we develop the more we jeopardize food security.”
Around 30 miles north of Hummel’s farm, Intel’s $20 billion semiconductor plant announced last year in Licking County is the largest private economic development in Ohio’s history. The 926-acre campus near Johnstown will eventually produce microchips vital to smartphones, medical equipment, cloud technology, and military equipment, among other things. The facility will create 3,000 high paying tech jobs and 7,000 construction jobs, along with countless more support-industry jobs as this new “Silicon Valley” springs up in central Ohio.
The promise of those high paying tech jobs will bring many houses with it — big houses on several acres. Thousands of them. The project also is driving the need for additional highway infrastructure, which will take wide swaths of Ohio farm fields and homes.
The project was noteworthy enough on a national scale to get mentioned in President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address last year.
“If you travel 20 miles east of Columbus, Ohio, you’ll find 1,000 empty acres of land. It won’t look like much, but if you stop and look closely, you’ll see a ‘Field of dreams,’ the ground on which America’s future will be built. This is where Intel, the American company that helped build Silicon Valley, is going to build its $20 billion semiconductor ‘mega site,’” Biden said March 1 of 2022.
Any Ohio agriculturalist knows those acres currently under construction have never been “empty” — they have long been home to dreams of fruitful crops, family memories and the ongoing struggle to produce crops and livestock despite the challenges offered by Mother Nature. Since the announcement, houses have been razed and construction has begun for the Intel project, displacing residents and farmers.
Similarly, the folly of solar continues to wipe out large swaths of farm ground around Ohio, sometimes with the potential to be returned to farmland, sometimes not. People seem to generally be very supportive of solar energy as long as it is not marring the fields and pastures of the agricultural areas around them (which have already been harnessing solar energy for productive uses). Each acre of solar promises a bright future and dreams of its own, leaving locals with some money in their pockets, but many issues to sort out and, once again, pulling ground out of agricultural production.
Making these development issues even more frustrating are the decaying, abandoned industrial fields in urban centers in desperate need of revitalization and the massive influx of dollars being poured into developing “empty” farm ground. Why can’t we use those unproductive urban areas instead of already productive farm ground?
The answer is as simple as dollars and cents. Developing farm ground costs less, every time. And, until this economic reality changes, whether through a fair market system or manipulation of some sort, the future of our society’s food security will be eroded away an acre (or 1,000 acres) at a time. Farmers like John Hummel will have little choice but to adapt and watch as their fields of dreams are bulldozed to build the dreams of others.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provided an additional $19.5 billion over five years for climate smart agriculture through several of the conservation programs that USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) implements. NRCS is making available $850 million in fiscal year 2023 for its oversubscribed conservation programs: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The IRA funding includes an additional $8.45 billion for EQIP, $4.95 billion for RCPP, $3.25 billion for CSP, and $1.4 billion for ACEP. The increased funding levels begin in fiscal year 2023 and rapidly build over four years. These additional investments are estimated to help hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers apply conservation to millions of acres of land. Additionally, the IRA provides $300 million to quantify carbon sequestration and greenhouse gases (GHG) through the collection and use of field-based data to assess conservation outcomes