Farmland losses far outpace preservation

By Matt Reese

Ohio farmland is a long taken-for-granted resource providing the very basis for our society, economy and culture; and we continue to rapidly pave over it with dreams of improving our society, economy and culture. 

With this in mind, I may be the only person who thinks about farmland preservation every time I hear the classic song “Just my imagination (running away with me)”by The Temptations. Specifically, the second verse of the song shifts my imagination to, in my opinion, the biggest challenge facing Ohio agriculture:

Soon we’ll be married and raise a family (Oh yeah)
A cozy little home out in the country
With two children, maybe three. 

The Temptations beautifully croon about part of the challenge of preserving farmland very clearly. It seems almost foundational to the American Dream to leave the confines of the city to build a home for a better life in the country. The problem, of course, with this dream is that if everyone builds a house in the country, it turns into city (or at least suburban), and there is no country left to produce food.

Beyond this idyllic idea of a house in the country, economics favor the construction of warehouses, solar production, and new strip malls on open farm ground. For industrial-scale projects, it is generally cheaper to buy farmland and start construction from scratch than it is to tear down existing infrastructure and build on sites in urban centers. The large population, proximity to major markets and amount of prime agricultural soils make Ohio a top contender for farmland loss. Ultimately, our society continues to deem Ohio’s not-making-any-more-of-it farmland as more valuable for uses other than agricultural production. The challenging issue has no easy solutions.

One of the best existing tools we have to preserve farmland in Ohio is through the protection of donated or purchased easements in the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Office of Farmland Preservation. Since the Office of Farmland Preservation began in 1998, 712 farms totaling 106,064 acres have entered into agreements to preserve the land in agricultural production for perpetuity. This sounds significant (and it is), but the preserved acreage is a fraction of the acres of farmland Ohio has lost in roughly the same timeframe.

From 2002 to 2022, Ohio lost 931,089 acres of land in farms, according to a recent report from The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). Ani Katchova, professor and farm income enhancement chair, in the CFAES Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics (AEDE) and graduate students Xiaoyi Fang and Rae Ju, compiled and published the report “Ohio Farm Numbers, Land in Farms, and Agricultural Land Lost to Development” released in March.

“The 2022 Census of Agriculture data shows the number of farms in Ohio declined by 2.3% and in land in farms declined by 6.4% between 2002 and 2022,” Katchova said.

According to Katchova, the counties with the highest farm numbers in 2022 were Wayne, Darke, Holmes, Licking, and Putnam.

“While the statewide decline in farm numbers was 2.3% between 2002 and 2022, some counties experienced significantly larger decreases with the top five being Cuyahoga, Franklin, Lawrence, Lake, and Williams counties,” she said. “Conversely, counties such as Coshocton, Jefferson, Ross, Geauga, and Guernsey experienced increases in the number of farms during the same period.” 

Among Ohio’s 88 counties, 37 increased the number of farms, four counties had almost no change, and the remaining 47 counties experienced a decrease. Over this 20-year span, a general decrease in the number of farms was noted across many counties, with the southeast regions facing the most significant reductions.

The OSU researchers compiled their report using satellite imagery from the National Land Cover Database (NLCD) of the Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium. The database shows land of different categories and changes in land categories over time. 

The definition of agricultural land according to the NLCD includes cultivated crops and pasture/hay, which is narrower than the Census of Agriculture’s more general definition of land in farms (which also includes woodland, wasteland, and land in conservation programs). Counties located around Ohio’s largest metropolitan areas had among the largest percentages of agricultural land loss to development and the overall percentage of agricultural land lost to development in Ohio was 51% between 2001 and 2021. 

“Our report provides a helpful snapshot of Ohio’s agricultural land to county and state officials, Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio Farm Bureau, and the agricultural industry. Ag stakeholders have been very concerned about the declining farm numbers and farmland being developed,” Katchova said. “Using these statistics, the best estimate for the agricultural land lost to development in Ohio is 180,691 acres over the last 20 years compared to the loss of 931,089 acres of land in farms in Ohio farms during the same time period.”  

So, if you have noticed signs of the unsettling trend of farmland loss in your local rural community, it is definitely not just your imagination (running away with you).

Read the full report at go.osu.edu/CqBN.

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