My evenings and weekends lately — well, the past few months — have largely been taken up by the annual rounds of food preservation as I dry, freeze, can, pickle, and otherwise put up as much produce from this year as possible. But when I took a day off work recently, I headed to a conference about another kind of preservation altogether.
The Ninth Annual Ohio Farmland Preservation Summit took place on the main campus of Ohio State University in downtown Columbus. We gathered in the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center, the first "green" building on OSU's campus (LEED-registered, not yet certified), to listen to speakers discussing not only the possibilities for preserving stretches of farmland across our state but also the potential for expanding the profitability (and thus the endurance) of agriculture. Attendees included farmers and other landowners, state and local government employees, conservancy and non-profit advocates, and concerned citizens, and the faces in the crowd covered the spectrum from college-age to retirees with only a slight majority of men.
Words of welcome from both Bobby Moser, Dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at OSU, and Jack Fisher, the Executive Vice President of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, set the tone for the day. Both men spoke about the great potential in farmland preservation: for collaborative efforts, for the development of knowledge and skills, and for spreading the word that "farmers no longer just feed us," they provide energy and goods as well as food. Both also acknowledged the importance of economics in preserving farmland: for farms to be preserved, farming must be profitable, and there must be money available to support those farms.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture's statistics indicate that from 1950 to 2000, the state lost more than 6.9 million acres of farmland. That's over one-third of Ohio’s agricultural land, according to a fact sheet available at the summit. To reverse the trend, and to counter the persistent pressure of development, the state has established two kinds of easement programs that have, to this point, preserved 167 farms totaling nearly 35,000 acres. The programs keep the farms under private ownership but prohibit any future non-agricultural development. Moser noted that at this time, the demand from the agricultural community for state-funded easements far exceeds the available funding, thus slowing down the rate of preservation.
Following the welcome, a panel of three gentlemen from Lancaster County, PA, talked about their collaborative efforts at the state, the municipal, and the non-profit levels to preserve farmland in one of Pennsylvania's prime agricultural areas. They explained that since the various programs have different funding levels, different guidelines, and different audiences, they have been able to share information and to encourage farm owners to explore the options that work best for them. To date, they have been able to preserve a combined area of approximately 60,000 acres as well as to encourage comprehensive land use planning across the county.
Before and after a lunch of local foods, summit attendees had a choice of two out of eight different breakout sessions on topics ranging from basics for landowners interested in preserving their land, funding options, legal strategies, and state policy to examples of economic trends and opportunities at the local level. The morning session I attended focused partly on the potential for developing renewable energy technologies as part of maintaining an agricultural base. Since Ohio ranks fifth in total energy usage nationwide and gets the vast majority of its energy from coal, there is a definite need to explore alternative technologies, and Governor Ted Strickland signed a state law just this spring to accelerate the shift to renewable energies. Of course, since Ohio has many large farms growing the big commodity crops of corn, soy, and wheat, there is a heavy emphasis on ethanol production, but biomass has found its advocates, too, especially among the multitude of dairy and beef farmers in the state. (Sadly, there was very little discussion of using energy-efficient equipment and appliances or even conservation of resources, let alone the drawbacks of ethanol production reliant on continued monocultures.)
The final portion of that morning session appealed more to my own interest in local foods. Amalie Lipstreu, Senior Program Manager in Sustainable Agriculture in the Ohio Department of Agriculture, talked about the governor's establishment of the Ohio Food Policy Advisory Council and the Council's work to explore the issues surrounding food and agriculture. It has been charged with assessing Ohio's food system, identifying opportunities and barriers, and developing new policies. The first ten recommendations, issued by the Council in August, include increasing the amount of local foods used in Ohio schools; expanding programs to provide citizens at or below 200% of the federal poverty level with fresh and wholesome Ohio-grown and –produced foods; expanding nutrition education and reducing barriers to food assistance programs; and directing more funding toward helping farmers and other food producers and toward marketing the local products. Lipstreu emphasized that roughly $35 billion a year is spent on food in Ohio, and less than 1% goes to Ohio farmers — many missed opportunities that need to be caught. Members of the Council will be heading out across the state in the next few months to talk to local delegates about establishing local and regional food policy councils and to bring back ideas to implement statewide.
The afternoon session on "innovative local efforts" featured a trio of county studies undertaken to determine the potential of local agriculture to grow and to contribute more to the county economy. In Clark County, the study has highlighted a number of opportunities to explore, including aquaculture, more organic farming, agri/eco-tourism, and renewable energy. And in Knox County, a food assessment revealed that local agriculture could be expanded to provide more food products to groceries and other retail businesses in the county, especially with additional consumer education about the advantages of buying local food. (The team that put together the study hopes to expand their assessment to other counties in the state to find other areas where agriculture can expand to meet existing need.)
The day ended with a keynote speech by David Kline, an Amish farmer, naturalist, and writer, and co-founder of Farming Magazine. I had heard Kline speak a couple of years ago on appropriate technology, so I was eager to hear what he had to say in the context of farmland preservation. From the start, he echoed Moser's initial assessment about profit: Kline declared that the best way to preserve farmland was, indeed, to make it profitable. Without profit, there could be little to draw young people into an economic field that is rapidly aging.
But Kline's idea of how to reach profitability reflects his Amish upbringing and community values. Though the Amish have long been seen as old-fashioned and too low-tech to be emulated widely, their methods work: from building soil fertility through the use of manure, to promoting advances in simple but efficient technologies (European-designed plows, horse power, small-scale operations). "There is no such thing as post-agricultural society," he warned, and farming can provide job security if we remember that the goal is "honest living" and to leave the land a better place for our children. "We're the last people to advocate you should do it our way," he noted, but with a twinkling, self-deprecating smile, he added, "But it works." He rounded out his comments with a call for diversity in farming — in ideas as well as in crops — and for an emphasis on community.
All in all, it was an enlightening day for me, having little understanding of the farmland preservation program before arriving at the summit, nor little practical experience of farming in general. And while I may question the emphasis of some areas of government involvement in agriculture, I was encouraged to hear the multiplicity of voices represented during the day and to realize that these officials, activists, and farmers are exploring myriad possibilities to sustain Ohio's largest economic sector in a way that will — I fervently hope — feed more people in a more wholesome and affordable way in the immediate future.