The stated purpose of most farmland preservation programs is to protect farmland from development, but that doesn’t mean the farms must remain frozen in time. Preserving land with agricultural easements can help farmers move forward with agricultural developments that position their farms for success in the generations to come. For instance, Fred Voge, who farms near West Alexandria, has several farms protected with agricultural easements. Within the last couple of years he has built a new beef cattle finishing barn, installed new fencing and upgraded some older barns. He’s in his 60s and those improvements are likely to outlast him, he says, but they will help the farm remain a viable and sustainable enterprise for whoever follows him. “If you’re going to make that kind of investment in your farm, it makes sense to make sure it will remain a farm,” he explains.
Voge’s brother and father also farm in Preble County, and they have preserved land with conservation easements as well. So have several of their neighbors. In all, more than 4,000 acres in 24 farms have been protected in Preble County through the state’s ag easement purchase program. The program is administered in the area by the Three Valley Conservation Trust, which serves as the local sponsor. Once a few landowners in the area preserved land, others became interested, Voge says. “It snowballed.”
Jim Leedy, who has 700 acres under easement in Preble County, says he stayed on the sidelines for a few years after the state’s ag easement purchase program was introduced in 2002. Then his mother urged him to consider the idea because of the nonfarm development pushing into the area. Their land lies along a heavily traveled county road between Eaton and Interstate 70. That development pressure along with the proximity to previously preserved land helped Leedy’s land qualify for easement funding, he explains. “It really suited our situation.”
In all, Leedy farms about 1,000 acres and feeds out 900 beef cattle a year. His son, Scott, works on the farm with him and is gradually taking on management responsibility. Scott is the fifth generation of the Leedy family on the farm, and Jim is convinced his ancestors would be pleased to see the farm protected for future generations. “They put their blood, sweat and tears into putting it together,” he explains.
The Three Valley Conservation Trust has also helped piece together another cluster of preserved farms in Butler County. Carl Hesselbrock led efforts to preserve farmland in the area with his first easement in 2005. Since then, he and his family have preserved additional land totaling more than 2,500 acres. Other area landowners followed suit. Carl is now retired, and the farm is managed by his sons Larry and Joe, and his grandson, Gary. “I don’t ever want to see it developed,” stresses Carl. “I want my family to farm it.”
FAMILY TRADITION: Gary Hesselbrock and Larry Hesselbrock are carrying on the farming tradition on land preserved by Larry’s dad, Carl, who started the Butler County farm in 1950.
Besides helping farm owners secure their agricultural land, agricultural easements benefit the environment and protect the green space other area residents enjoy. Mark Boardman, chairman of the Three Valley Conservation Trust, explains that the organization’s goals include protecting water quality and wildlife habitat. “Farms can be the best buffers for our streams and wetlands,” he points out. For example, a cluster of preserved farms in Preble County helps maintain the quality of Twin Creek, one of the state’s most pristine streams. In Butler County, farmland preservation is part of the Ohio EPA’s efforts to mitigate environmental damage from the former Fernald nuclear plant. Federal funding from a natural resource damages settlement paid for agricultural easements in the Paddy’s Run watershed to protect the Great Miami Aquifer.
Boardman does not farm himself, but he says, “I live surrounded by farms and I do that on purpose.” Preserving land for farming will give his grandchildren and others in their generation the chance to see agriculture and learn to value its importance, he says. “I’m thinking of the future of our whole social fabric.”
Over the years, funding for purchase of agricultural easements in Ohio has come from a variety of sources, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the Local Agricultural Easement Purchase Program, as well as targeted programs such as the Paddy’s Run Project near the Fernald cleanup site. The programs are administered by local sponsoring organizations that help landowners manage applications, hold easements and monitor land use. In all, 63,000 acres on 380 farms in 55 counties have been preserved through easement programs in Ohio.
Currently, the largest source of funding is the Clean Ohio Conservation Fund, which was approved by voters in 2008. In 2017, $8 million in Clean Ohio funds will be available for purchase of development rights on agricultural land. Applications must be made through local sponsors such as land trusts, county governments, township governments or soil and water conservation districts. Landowners can also choose to donate easements.
Through agricultural easement purchase programs, landowners voluntarily sell easements on their land. The easements require the land to remain in agricultural production, but the specifics of the easements may vary depending on the funding program and the owner’s goals and preferences. Landowners need to look toward the future when setting up the conditions of an easement, advises Jim Leedy. “Make sure you have everything in writing that you ever want to do.”
Also, be sure to consider the tax implications of entering an easement agreement, advises Larry Hesselbrock. And understand that land trusts and other local sponsors have a different perspective than a landowner. For instance, a land trust might focus on environmental goals while the landowner is looking at agricultural goals. Those goals are likely to be compatible, but the landowner needs to have a clear understanding of the easement requirements, he explained.
For more information on farmland preservation in Ohio, go to agri.ohio.gov/divs/FarmLand.
Nature key to barn design
On a hot summer day, Fred Voge’s barn roof shades his cattle during the heat of the day, yet on the shortest day of winter, sunlight shines throughout the barn. The barn has a monoslope roof that is 30 feet high on the south side of the barn and 18 feet from the ground on the north. The design works with the changing angle of the sun to bring more sunlight into the building during the winter and offer more shade in summer, explains Voge. The design also enhances air flow through the building because air entering on the south side is compressed and increases in velocity as it exits to the north. The improved air flow not only helps dry bedding in the barn, but it also helps disperse ammonia and other gases, which improves the environment for the cattle and reduces odor outside the barn, Voge says. “That’s just Mother Nature and the system the Good Lord established for us.”
The open-sided barn keeps cattle comfortable, even in cold weather, Voge says. “Cattle love that sunshine,” he notes. “They can withstand about any amount of cold temperature as long as they can stay dry.”
The 15,000-square-foot barn holds about 300 beef cattle. It has feed troughs and watering tanks positioned on both sides so it can be divided into as many as eight pens. In addition to the monoslope barn, Voge used EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) funding to construct a dry stack barn that will hold a year’s worth of manure.
Manure is a critical part of Voge’s farming system. He generally applies it in the fall after harvesting corn for silage. Then he tills the ground lightly and plants a cover crop. In the spring, he plants corn again, relying on the manure for phosphorus and other nutrients. The combination of crops and livestock makes for an efficient production system, he says. “It’s the best-case scenario for sustaining agriculture.”