July 24, 2003


Photo by Lauren Heaton

South River Road couple John and Bonnie Rife at their family farm. With the help of the Tecumseh Land Trust, they were able to secure an easement from the Ohio Department of Agriculture.


Tecumseh Land Trust helps out—
Farm couple wins easement to keep their land always green

From the front porch of the Rife farmstead, where John and Bonnie Rife sit drinking iced tea, as far as the eye can see there is nothing but big blue sky and a sea of tall corn reaching up to meet it. Just three weeks ago the Rifes decided to retire because the Ohio Department of Agriculture made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

At the beginning of the month the State of Ohio proposed to pay the Rifes $223,261 for the development rights to their 136-acre property along South River Road in Clark County, ensuring the land their family worked for 60 years would never become a block of asphalt ripe for strip malls, McDonald’s, and suburban housing complexes.

The Rifes could have gotten a lot more money from the sale of their land rich with good soil, gentle hills and a stream running along the north side of the property. They might have gotten as much as nine times more if they had sold their land to a developer, John Rife said. And since they stopped farming their own land in 1991 for economic reasons, they’ve had many offers.

But the freshly mulched flower beds and flawless, grassy green lawn speak volumes about how they care for their land. In the morning they like to sit outside and listen to the birds, and in the evenings they watch the sun set over the hill out back. The things they would have had to give up for the extra cash were too precious, they said.

“I feel in my heart we did the right thing,” John Rife said last week, looking over his fields. “We could have sold it off to developers for much more.”

“But where are we gonna move to?” Bonnie asked. “I’m not a city girl and I don’t want a city coming into my world.”

Like the Rifes, 299 residents statewide and 47 residents in Greene and Clark Counties applied to the state’s Agricultural Easement Purchase Program this past year. Out of the entire applicant pool, the state granted $3 million in easements to only seven farms, four of which applied through the Tecumseh Land Trust located in Yellow Springs.

The state decides its grants based on a point system where farms with better soil, average development pressure, and willingness to contribute part of the easement cost score higher. The Rife farm scored the second highest in the state.

Two farms in Miami Township, the 285-acre Spencer farm and the 187-acre Fulton farm, also applied for easements along with matching grants from the township trustees. Neither farm was funded, though both were very worthy, according to TLT director Krista Magaw, who says the competition is growing as the program enters its second of four years.

“We take it personally when our farms don’t get funded,” Magaw said, because all of the farmers feel the way the Rifes do about their land, and they want it to remain open and fertile.

The land owners also spend a good deal of time with land trust representatives preparing extensive applications for the program. The Rifes scored well on most of the factors taken into consideration, many of which show how close a farm is to development pressure.

Farms adjacent to housing developments, water and sewer lines, and major intersections score lower because the urbanization of the area has already occurred. Likewise, farms further than 10,000 to 20,000 feet from these signs of development score lower because the pressure on these areas is not as great. The Rifes’ farm was situated just close enough to housing blocks and water lines to indicate moderate development pressure in the area.

The Rifes are also located near other properties that are either parks and conservation areas, land that already has an easement, or farms owned by co-applicants for easements. Good land use planning encourages like to stay with like, and the state looks to fund easements on whole blocks of land that already are or will be rural or conservation property, Magaw said.

When the TLT considers the big picture, township and county lines disappear and blocks of color coded areas emerge as either green space or hot pink urban development space. The goal of the land trust is not to exclude towns and cities but to work with developers and urban planners to consciously provide space where both can coexist in the most efficient way possible.

“We don’t want to stand in the way of progress. We’re not anti-development,” Magaw said. “We’re generally looking to build blocks of 3,000 to 5,000 acres and to protect land along the waterways.”

What this means around Yellow Springs is conserving land in the area to the north of town, around Whitehall Farm and further north of that, where landowners hold easements on 2,200 acres of land within a 3-mile radius, Magaw said. The area to the south of the village is also an important conservation region because of the Little Miami River that ideally should have farmland to buffer and protect it, she said.

The most imminent development is occurring to the west of Yellow Springs, which, if Beavercreek and Fairborn keep sprawling, could conceivably become indistinguishable from the village.

Yellow Springs and Miami Township have shown interest in preserving agricultural land and green space by contributing funds towards easement purchases, but according to Magaw, Greene County has been a tough sell.

“Clark County didn’t have as sophisticated a land use plan, but they went to a 40-acre minimum agricultural easement, whereas Greene County’s plan looked good but there was not follow through,” she said.

The land trust will follow up with the farms that didn’t get funding this year and they will focus on education throughout the area to get exposure to as many landowners as possible.

John Rife first heard about the TLT and the easement purchase program several years ago at the grocery store in Cedarville when he bumped into local farmer Joe Staggs, who had successfully obtained an easement on his farm. By the 1990s small time farming had become so unprofitable that John Rife had taken to driving a truck and was forced to sell a portion of the family farm to make ends meet, he said.

“I feel blessed,” Bonnie Rife said. “Suburbia stops here, isn’t that wonderful!”

Bonnie and John, who have nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary by taking a trip to the Jamestown settlement in Williamsburg, Va., where over 200 years ago the first Americans settled and started farming the land.

It’s an inspiration, and something everyone should see, he said, the original settlers and the roots to our vast land.

—Lauren Heaton