In Ohio's Miami Valley, farmers wait for change

Development inches closer every year

April 07, 2002|By COX NEWS SERVICE

DAYTON, Ohio -- Telltale hydrants have yet to reach Karl Walker's stretch of Zoar Road, which meanders through a modest landscape of gently rolling cropland and woods tucked among close-knit fence rows.

"It's off a little ways," Walker said of the development transforming nearby Mason and Loveland and infusing rural Hamilton Township with water and sewer lines. "But it's close."

So close that, when night falls, the 68-year-old farmer can see street lights half a mile away on land his ancestors farmed in 1798, when they moved to southern Warren County from Pennsylvania.

"People don't buy this land here for farming," Walker said. "They buy it for development."

Farmland has traditionally fetched higher prices when sold as residential, commercial or industrial real estate. But the disparity has grown exponentially in recent years in many parts of Dayton's Miami Valley as city and town dwellers move into the countryside.

Growing incentives to develop farmland, fewer young farmers, a disconnection between absentee landlords who live elsewhere and the farms they inherited, a national farm economy recently beleaguered by some of the lowest crop and livestock prices in decades -- all contribute to the conversion of cropland to other uses throughout the Miami Valley.

Most Miami Valley counties lost cropland between 1987 and 1997.

In Warren County, cropland decreased 10.6 percent during that 10-year period; in Clark, 10 percent; Greene, 8.6 percent; Miami, 7.9 percent; Montgomery, 6.7 percent; Shelby, 6.4 percent; Preble, 6.2 percent; Darke, 3 percent. Champaign County reported a 0.9 percent increase in cropland during that 10-year period.

Plowing a gold mine

In Warren County, Ohio's second-fastest-growing county during the 1990s, landowners routinely command $7,500 to $15,000 an acre from developers instead of the $2,500 to $3,500 typically paid by farmers, said Mike Harper, executive director of the farm service agency in Lebanon.

Karl Walker said he sold 27 wooded acres on a farm he owns to a developer for $11,000 an acre.

While those higher prices are tempting some farmers to sell, they are keeping other farmers from expanding at a time when many farmers are trying to offset lower crop prices and small per-bushel profit margins with more acreage and volume.

"The price of land has gone up so much," Walker's wife, Elizabeth, said. "You can't pay what the ground's worth in this area and farm it and make a living."

Even in more rural areas, land prices have risen beyond the reach of many farmers. Ken Seger, 40, a fourth-generation farmer, said local companies such as Honda, Crown Equipment Corp. and Precision Strip provide incomes that often are invested in chunks of road frontage and homes. Investment in small lots contributes to higher land prices.

One 80-acre farm, for example, sold in October 2000 for $456,000, or $5,700 an acre. County records show two small parcels carved from the farm, one 2.58 acres and the other 2.13 acres, each sold for $25,500. Two more 2.1-acre tracts remain to be sold.

Aging farmers

Farmers sometimes sell land when in financial straits. But land often changes hands after a pivotal family moment -- the death of a land-holding parent, for example, or a decision to quit farming.

The most recent agriculture censuses, from 1987, 1992 and 1997, suggest such moments aren't far off for many Miami Valley farmers.

"There is a substantial amount of land that's being farmed by the pre-Baby Boomer generation," said Jeff Sharp, a rural sociologist with Ohio State University Extension.

Longer lives and agriculture's automation partly explain why 14.9 percent of Ohio farmers in 1997 were older than 70, up from 11.5 percent in 1987.

"People can work longer," said Fred Gale, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Farmwork is not as physically demanding as in past years."

But the percentage of older farmers also is rising because fewer children are taking over the family business. In Ohio, the number of principal farm operators younger than 35 declined 48.8 percent to 6,263 in 1997 from 12,228 in 1987.

Many adult children have found better paying and less risky careers off the farm.

"If you don't have a child who wants to take over the farm, then you're kind of stuck with it," Gale said.

Even in the Miami Valley's more rural areas, the fate of family farms is a concern.

"So many of the kids don't want to farm," said Father David Hoying, who serves rural parishes in Cranberry Prairie and Carthagena in Mercer County. "When the kids don't want to farm, who do you give it to?"

The percentage of farmers 70 or older in 1997 ranged between 16 and 18 percent in the Miami Valley's urbanized counties: Montgomery, Warren, Greene and Clark.

"Sorry to say, that means more of the land will likely transition out of farming," said Allan Lines, an agricultural economist with Ohio State University.

Absentee landlords

The fate of part of the Miami Valley's rural landscape rests with people who live elsewhere.

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