August 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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A Research Based Approach to the Development of Educational Programs for Extension Clientele: A Case Study on Land Use Issues in Ohio

In response to concerns expressed by clientele, Extension educators working in Portage County, Ohio initiated a series of surveys of public attitudes regarding land use. The results revealed that respondents were deeply concerned about preserving farmland and rural character, but did not believe they had adequate knowledge as a community to make prudent land use decisions. Use of these results assisted Extension personnel in developing educational programs designed to acquaint clientele with an array of land use tools and farmland preservation methods that might be adopted in the future.

Stephen Hudkins
Extension Agent, Community Development
Ohio State University Extension, Portage County
Ravenna, Ohio
Internet address:

Thomas W. Blaine
Extension District Specialist, Community Development
Ohio State University Extension, Northeast District
Wooster, Ohio
Internet address:

Introduction and Problem Statement

In recent years economic growth has brought expansion of businesses and residential development further and further into the countryside far beyond previous city centers and suburbs, resulting in growing numbers of citizens becoming alarmed about the loss of farmland and open space. The complexity of issues such as this has brought about enormous challenges in program development for Extension educators.

To address these complex issues, Extension programs, typically developed through input from clientele committees, must now move beyond traditional approaches in order to provide relevant and timely programming. Application of research generated at the local level has become inextricably linked to the way Extension professionals develop programming (Nieto, Schaffner, & Henderson, 1997). This became very apparent as land use issues began to take center stage in Portage County, Ohio in the mid 1990s.

Portage County (PC), located in the midst of the metropolitan areas of Cleveland, Akron-Canton, and Youngstown, is perhaps similar to many areas of the country. In the past, Portage County was primarily an agrarian community. However, with easier access to and from places of employment because of improved highways, along with the increased desire of residents and businesses to move away from the cities, Portage County has experienced severe growth pressures in the past decade. During this period, population grew at the rate of about 6% per year. This resulted in the conversion of approximately 1,000 acres of farmland to non-farm uses per year. The number of dairy farms in the county fell from 150 in 1985 to 45 in 1996 (Ohio Department of Agriculture).

As residents observed rapid changes in the landscape, many became alarmed at the encroachment of development on agricultural lands. Township and county-wide organizations sought the assistance of Ohio State University Extension to help them understand what was happening to their community. One of the first steps was to obtain a systematic summary of the views of members of the community at large, since the views of traditional Extension clientele do not necessarily reflect those of the overall public. Research has shown that residents' views on land use issues vary from community to community (Lembeck, Willits, & Crider, 1991; Kline & Wichelns, 1996).

The purpose of the study undertaken was to determine the attitudes of residents about the importance of preserving agriculture in the county. The basic research questions addressed were (a) whether residents of Portage County believe that the loss of farmland and open space are significant problems, (b) what steps they believe are appropriate in dealing with land use issues, and (c) whether these views and opinions vary based upon important demographic factors such as length of residence in the county and occupation.

Survey Design

Mail surveys were sent to a sample of 1,854 residents of six townships in Portage County. The sample was taken randomly from a list provided by Americalist, obtained by Haines and Co. of North Canton, OH. Sampling procedures were undertaken following techniques described by Dillman, (1978). A total of 649 usable responses were returned, for a response rate of 35%.

One of the key questions that inevitably arises in survey research is whether those who responded differ significantly from non-respondents (non-response bias). Miller and Smith (1983) developed a well known procedure to test for this phenomenon, and it was employed in this study. A random sample of 70 of the non-respondents were telephoned, and their answers tested for statistical differences with the responses of those who had returned usable mail surveys. An F test with criteria of p<.05 was used. No differences were found at this level. Thus the authors can say with 95% confidence that non-response bias was not a problem in this survey.

Respondents were presented with a series of statements regarding agriculture and land use in PC. The survey incorporated a 5-point Likert-type scale, with 5 = strong agreement, 4 = agreement, 3 = no opinion, 2 = disagreement, and 1 = strong disagreement. Respondents were also asked about their occupation, and then categorized as one of the following: full-time farming, part-time farming, and non-farming residents. They were asked about how long they had lived in the county, and grouped again: less than five years, between five and ten years, and more than ten years.

Results and Discussion

The frequencies for the responses to the statements in the survey are presented in Table 1. Table 2 shows all three of the cases where statistical differences were found among groups.

Table 1
Results of Likert Scale Responses (percentages by response)
We need to preserve agriculture in Portage County (PC) 50 40 7 3 0
New people who move to PC want to preserve agriculture 6 27 19 39 9
Agriculture is a major contributor to the economic base in PC 42 40 12 5 1
People move to PC for rural character 43 48 7 2 0
PC is a farming community 21 47 12 18 2
Agriculture in PC is on the way out 6 39 13 31 11
Free market economics should determine the use of the land 2 24 14 39 21
There should be a tax to help pay to preserve agriculture 7 21 12 46 14
PC should enact legislation to preserve farmland 30 38 13 16 3
Farmers in PC should receive tax breaks on their land so that we can preserve agriculture 33 46 8 11 2
We in PC are well enough informed to make prudent land use decisions 7 38 15 32 8

Statement 1: We need to preserve agriculture in Portage County.

A total of 90% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. This result demonstrates that there is a strong consensus among the residents of Portage County that agriculture should be preserved. No significant differences existed among groups. Not a single respondent strongly disagreed with this statement.

Statement 2: New people who move to Portage County want to preserve agriculture.

Only 33% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. While virtually all respondents want to preserve agriculture, there is not a consensus that newcomers are of a like mind on this, even though they (new residents) expressed this desire in statement one above. Here again there was no statistical difference between groups, which indicates that even the residents of less than five years themselves are saying that residents who just moved to the county do not want to preserve agriculture. Evidently what they mean is that new residents other than themselves are not interested in preserving agriculture.

Statement 3: Agriculture is a major contributor to the economic base in Portage County.

The high rate of agreement on this statement across all groups reveals that respondents value agriculture not only for aesthetic reasons, but also as a viable industry with important economic impact in the community.

Statement 4: People move to Portage County for rural character.

This result, with over 90% in agreement or strong agreement, demonstrates that the residents recognize the role of rural character in making Portage County an attractive community in which to live. Residents of 10 years or less were more likely to agree with this than longer terms residents (Table 2).

Table 2
Differences Among Groups (by length of residence)
< 5 years 5-10 years > 10 years
People move to PC for rural character 4.40 4.32 4.19
F = 3.36, p = .04

Statement 5: Portage County is a farming community.

Here there was an extremely strong level of statistical difference between farm and non-farm groups. Non-farms residents were much more likely than part-time or full-time farmers (p<.05) to agree that Portage County is a farming community (Table 3). This demonstrates that there is a major difference in the way that the county is perceived by the different groups, and probably means that the conceptions of what it is that constitutes a farming community are radically different between farmers and non-farmers. It is interesting to note that a statistical difference was not observed here regarding length of residence, since often perceptions of community character differ between those who have witnessed changes such as growth and those who never knew the community prior to this growth.

Table 3
Differences Among Groups
(means by occupation: non-farm, part-time, and full-time farm)
Non-Farm Part-Time Full-Time
Portage County is a farming community 3.95 3.91 2.08
F = 10.6, p = .00
Farmers in PC should receive tax breaks on their land so that we can preserve agriculture. 3.96 4.49 4.50
F = 14.56, p = .00

Statement 6: Agriculture in Portage County is on the way out.

On this statement, opinions diverged greatly, but with relatively few respondents in strong agreement. This indicates that while most respondents are deeply concerned about the future of agriculture in Portage County, they believe that there is time to take action to preserve it. Even farmers who, in statement five, indicated that they no longer see Portage County as a farming community, were not significantly different from non-farmers in terms of believing that agriculture will vanish from the county.

Statement 7: Free market economics should determine the use of land.

A total of 60% of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. Only 2% strongly agreed with it. This probably bears on the reactions to statement one. Residents see the changes taking place in the county, the loss of agricultural land in particular, and are aware that market forces that are driving land use. The primary question that emerges from this is, if the market should not be the driving force behind land use, what should? Typically, remedies are divided between regulations (such as zoning,) and incentive programs which involve subsidies or tax breaks. Most subsidy programs (such as purchase of development rights) require financing, which is usually obtained from some type of taxation.

Statement 8: There should be a tax to help pay to preserve agriculture.

The tax idea met with fairly strong opposition. Only 28% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with this position, while 60% opposed it. Another 12% expressed no opinion. Ironically, the opposition was slightly greater among farmers (although not statistically significant with p<.05). Perhaps the opposition here, and particularly among farmers, is a lack of understanding as to how such a tax might be generated and the revenue distributed. It may also be due to the general dislike for taxation.

Statement 9: Portage County should enact legislation to preserve farmland.

This idea had a broad range of support, with two-thirds of the sample either agreeing or strongly agreeing. Typically, farmers may object to this type of approach for fear that it will hinder their choices as to how they use their own land. That sentiment was noticeably absent from this sample, which indicates that members of the farming community in Portage County would be willing to make sacrifices on their land in order to keep it in agriculture.

Statement 10: Farmers in Portage County should receive tax breaks on their land so that we can preserve agriculture.

Tax breaks received a great deal of support across the board, with 89% of respondents in agreement or strong agreement. Despite the strength of support, a statistical difference was noted between groups (p<.05), not surprisingly with non-farm residents less likely to support or strongly support this type of remedy (Table 3).

Statement 11: We in Portage County are well enough informed to make prudent land use decisions.

This result presents the greatest challenge to Extension educators. A total of 55% of respondents were either unsure, disagreed or strongly disagreed that members of the community are well enough informed to address the issue of land use. Given the degree of importance respondents placed on agricultural preservation, along with an unwillingness to allow market forces alone to determine land use, this finding could be interpreted as a "cry for help" from the public.


Land use in this study was identified by local clientele as an important issue that needed to be addressed. OSU Extension personnel had the knowledge base to address the topic, but were not aware of where the citizens of the county were on the "learning curve" related to land use. Initially, an effort was made to develop educational programs related to the importance of the value of agriculture to the local economy. The survey results revealed that the community was already keenly aware of the importance of agriculture to the economy as well as to the rural character of the community. Therefore, to expend efforts in educational programming directed at this aspect of the land use topic would have been superfluous. On the other hand, most respondents are unconvinced that the community is prepared, in terms of information, to address the land use issues which confront the county.

Taken together, these results indicate that the appropriate role for Extension would be to teach members of the community about which land use tools have been utilized in other areas of the country, how they were implemented, and what the impacts have been. Regardless of what tools (if any) are adopted in Portage County, if a survey taken in the future reveals that Extension helped to bridge this significant information gap, then the Extension mission will have been accomplished.

The land use education program launched by Ohio State University Extension professionals consisted primarily of the following efforts:

1) Hosting local round tables where residents were invited to share their concerns about land use trends. This enabled residents to learn about their neighbors' views, to discover how widespread their own concerns were, and to break down misconceptions such as those discussed under statements two and four in the survey.

2) Publishing a fact sheet series on land use. This series consisted of 11 fact sheets which primarily focus on tools that state and local governments, property owners, and developers can utilize to manage growth while preserving farmland and rural character. These tools include tax breaks for agriculture (statement 10), purchase of development rights, agricultural districts, agricultural zoning, comprehensive planning, and cluster development. Copies of the fact sheets have been posted on the Web at htpp://

3) Conducting a series of workshops, seminars, and conferences on land use education. These programs featured a variety of speakers, including public officials and farmers from numerous states where land use has been a dominant issue for considerably longer than in Ohio. The speakers addressed how they had adopted land use tools in their areas, which tools they believed had been most successful, and how they might proceed differently if starting over today.

Since Extension educational resources are scarce, it is far more efficient to conduct survey research of clientele to ascertain their knowledge base and view of a subject than it is to develop programs without an understanding of where potential audiences are in terms of their views and knowledge. The survey results presented in this study were extremely beneficial to Extension educators involved in the land use issue in Portage County and helped to lay the foundation for land use educational programming that was developed and presented throughout much of the state as the issue continued to emerge in the late 1990s.


Dillman, D.A. (1978). Mail and telephone surveys: The total design method. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Kline, J., and Wichelns, D. (1996). Public preferences regarding the goals of farmland preservation. Land Economics, 72(2).

Lembeck, S. M., Willits, F. K., & Crider, D. M. (1991). Public attitudes toward farmland preservation in Pennsylvania: Analysis of a statewide survey. University Park: Report 226, Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Pennsylvania State University.

Miller, L.E. and Smith, K. E. (1983). Handling non-response issues. Journal of Extension, 21 (Sept/Oct).

Nieto, R.D., Schaffner, D., & Henderson, J. L. (1997). Examining community needs through a capacity assessment. Journal of Extension, 35(3).

Ohio Department of Agriculture. Ohio Agricultural Statistics and Ohio Department of Agriculture Annual Reports, various years. Columbus: Author.