Group meets, discusses threats to local farmland

Group meets, discusses threats to local farmland

Image Credit: Dan Starcher

Approximately 25 members of the Agricultural Success Group and the Wayne County commissioners gathered recently at the administration building in Wooster to discuss the future of local farmland.

Fielding questions was Julia Freedgood from the American Farmland Trust in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t have a ouija board or anything to tell the future of farming in America, but there are two competing forces here,” Freedgood said. “One is that agriculture is becoming increasingly concentrated and consolidated. Bigger and bigger farms are commanding more of the wealth in agriculture. On the other side, there is a huge demand for differentiated agriculture.”

Freedgood said 90% of farms are considered small to medium. With the price of farmland at an all-time high, farmers have an economic incentive to sell their land — especially if the next generation isn’t interested in taking over the operation.

“When farmland becomes this expensive, it has a two-sided effect on agriculture,” she said. “It is tough to expand an existing farm, and it is tempting to sell out because you can make so much money.”

According to AFT statistics, from 2001-16, 11 million acres of farmland were converted to urban use. While there is no silver-bullet solution to protecting agricultural resources, the AFT recommends the following actions:

—Analyze and map agricultural land trends and conditions.

—Adopt a suite of coordinated policies to protect farmland.

—Support farm viability and access to land for future generations.

—Plan for agriculture, not around it.

—Save the best land but don’t forget the rest.

Freedgood said Wayne County farmland is 81% nationally significant — best suited to long-term, intensive crop production.

“When I tell others that Wayne County has some of the best farmland in the nation, this is what I am referring to,” county commissioner Sue Smail said. “We need to consider agriculture’s economic impact on the county.”

According to the AFT, the following applies to Wayne County:

—Agriculture accounts for 21% of the county economy or $1.2 billion.

—Agricultural-related industries employ 9,242 people or 15% of the workforce.

—There is a labor income of $580 million or 20% of the total.

—There are 3,700 farmers on more than 2,000 farms.

Wayne County also is number one in the state for the market value of dairy and third for the total value of agricultural programs sold.

“As you can see, these numbers are significant and contribute in a major way to Wayne County’s overall economy,” Smail said. “The ag success team intends to use the information provided by Ms. Freedgood and the American Farmland Trust to create action plans moving forward. It is inherent upon us to protect this land.”

While many factors affect the loss of farmland, the economic climate has a significant impact.

“It is very challenging to tell a farmer who is being offered $3 or $4 million for their land to keep living off of your Social Security check because we need farmland,” Frank Becker of the Ohio State University Extension said. “Once that farmland is gone, we won’t get that back; it is gone forever. I don’t know how to drive that point home to people outside of the agricultural community. They aren’t making new farmland.”

Becker said the situation is in its eleventh hour, and community awareness needs to be raised before it is too late.

Dan Starcher is a public communications specialist for the Wayne County government.