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Farmland series part 2: state efforts to preserve farmland

Ohio is losing farmland at a rate of nearly 100 acres a day and much of the most rapid urban expansion is happening in Central Ohio. One state pilot program is working to stem the trend by encouraging farmers to sell the developments rights to their land, keeping it in agriculture indefinitely. But, the preservation program is heavily over subscribed.

Darrell Meyers is preparing to repair an old barn on his family's farm. This project is made possible in part because Meyers' farm was recently accepted into the Clean Ohio Fund Agricultural Easement Purchase Program. In exchange for giving up development rights on some 400 acres of farmland, the Meyers family received several hundred thousand dollars. The money is put into a trust and a little of it will pay for fixing the historic barn.

The price paid for the development rights is based on a series of calculations related to the quality of soil and other factors. The average payout is fewer than $2,000 per acre, far less than farmers could get if they sold their land.

The easements program was created 4 years ago as part of a voter approved bond measure, called the Clean Ohio Fund. The $25-million program was created as a pilot project to gauge interest among farmers. Howard Wise, Executive Director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture's office of farmland preservation says the verdict is in.

"In the last 3 years we have received over 1000 applications and we are able to fund maybe 60 farms," says Wise. "In terms of dollar amounts, the demand for money has exceeded the supply of dollars, maybe 16 to 1"

Despite all the rejections, Wise says people keep applying for the funds, year after year.

The easements program is expected to run out of money in the next couple of years and supporters would like to see it renewed or even expanded.

Fairfield county farmers Howard and Dixie Smith are particularly interested in the program's fate. The Smith's have applied to the easements program every year for the past 3 years. And they've been rejected each time. It's a very competitive process and they simply haven't scored high enough. The farm has been in Dixie's family for 6 generations.

The first clue of the program's future comes after the election when the governor is scheduled to roll out his proposal for the next 2-year budget period. Advocates say in the future the easements could be funded in ways that won't require another public bond issue.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.