October 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA2

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Farm Growth Next to a Large City: Opportunities for Extension Education

Land use issues and farmland preservation have continued to be prominent topics, particularly in communities bordering cities. Extension educators in a county adjacent to Cleveland, Ohio undertook a study to determine how urban pressures might be impacting the agricultural community. The findings revealed the number of farms in the portion of the county located closest to the urban center is increasing, even though land values and housing starts are increasing there as well. The number of farms in the most rural areas is decreasing, in spite of lower land values and fewer housing starts. The farms closest to Cleveland tend to market products and services directly to the consumer, as opposed to the wholesale agricultural operations located in the more remote sections of the county. These findings demonstrate that agriculture, even in high-growth areas, can adapt to compete with other uses for land. Assisting community members in making these adaptations is likely to challenge Extension educators in the future.

Barbara H. James
Extension Agent
Ohio State University Extension
Burton, Ohio
Internet address: james.186@osu.edu

Thomas W. Blaine
District Specialist
Ohio State University Extension
Wooster, Ohio
Internet address: blaine.17@osu.edu


In recent years, much attention has been paid to farmland retention issues. Virtually all areas of the country view farmland retention as a valid policy issue (Libby, 1998; Prindle, 1998). Therefore, it was not surprising that public officials in Geauga County, Ohio were also concerned that growth from Cleveland, whose downtown is only 15 miles from Geauga's western border, would soon drive farms out of their county.

In 1996, a group of county officials and community leaders asked their local Extension staff to find ways to work with farmers to maintain their economic viability and therefore the rural nature of the county. An extremely valuable first step was to learn how the county's agricultural community was changing.

The local Extension Agents agreed to review the available literature and then conduct a study to document changes in the local agricultural industry. While the study was conducted at the request of local officials, the Extension Agents took the opportunity to structure the study as a comprehensive and in-depth needs assessment. The unexpected results of the study surprised public officials and the farm community and have caused County Extension Agents to redirect programming resources.


Each of Geauga County's 16 Boards of Township Trustees contacted a group of farmers whom they felt best represented agriculture in their community and invited them to participate in a focus group meeting in their township. Participation ranged from 5 to 16 farmers per township for a total of 147 (mean = 9). No incentive was given for participation. At the beginning of each of the 16 township meetings, a Geauga County Extension Agent explained that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the following issues:

  • How agricultural land is being used in the township.
  • How agriculture is changing in the township.
  • How farmers feel about land use and property rights.
  • How the economic viability of the agricultural community can be maintained.

The agents led each group through an exercise in which group members identified farms and the commodities they produced in 1990 and located these farms on a township map. Group members next identified farms that were lost/gained, changes in commodities produced between 1990 and 1997, and any vacant parcels of land that could be brought into production. The 1992 United States Census of Agriculture definition of a farm/farmers was used in the identification process. It specifies anyone producing over $1,000 in gross agricultural sales per year.

Horses are a major part of the county's agricultural community, but the Census of Agriculture did not include units that were exclusively used for commercial stables or horse production in their definition of a farm. The Census did include a category of on-farm horses, which counts horses that are kept on farms producing other agricultural products (United States Department of Agriculture, 1992). Horses will be included in the next Census of Agriculture.

Both the Internal Revenue Service and the Ohio Revised Code, in the zoning exemption for agriculture, do recognize stables and horse production as farms. (The Farmers Tax Guide, 1996 and ORC 303.01). In this study, the researchers included stables and commercial horse production, as farms.

Rented agricultural land was considered part of the farm of the operator who rented the farmland. If a farm had previously been operated by the owner, but was at the time of the study being rented to another farmer, it was counted as a farm loss. Farms, commodities, and vacant land were identified based solely on the knowledge, memory, and estimates of the individuals in the group.

One discussion leader (agent) then presented a series of questions, allowing ample time for discussion of each question. The other agent served as the recorder capturing highlights of the discussion on a laptop computer. After the discussion, the agent/recorder read back the notes for group members to approve or amend (Archer, 1987).

After all 16 township meetings were completed, the agents reviewed the records of each meeting, compiled simple descriptive statistics, prepared a synopsis of the discussion, and made individual township recommendations. Township reports were then mailed to township trustees and participants.

Concurrent to the focus group interviews, the agents reviewed and summarized a number of available and pertinent county statistics, such as housing starts per township, average farm size, farm parcels, gross farm sales, etc. A report was then compiled that provided officials, farm organizations, and farmers with a synopsis of county and township statistics, focus group results, and agent recommendations.


As part of the review of existing statistics, it was found that in 1992, approximately 25% of Geauga County's total landmass was being used for agriculture, and approximately 46% of the total landmass was in woodland. The total number of farms in the county fell through the 1960's to an all-time low in 1974. The number of farms generally increased throughout the late 1970's and early 80's, declined in the late 80's, and from 1992 to 1997, again increased.

The acreage per farm fell from 105 acres in 1992 to 90 acres in 1997. "Land in Farms" in the county as defined by the Census of Agriculture has fluctuated between roughly 74,000 acres and 59,000 acres for the past 30 years (Table 1) (United States Department of Agriculture, 1964-1997).

Table 1: Number of Farms in Geauga County, Ohio
Year Number of Farms Land in Farms (Acres)
1969 578 70,000
1974 544 65,000
1978 591 69,000
1982 753 74,000
1987 702 73,000
1992 622 66,000
1997 661 59,000

The 1992 Census of Agriculture and a North Carolina State Extension horse budget were used to estimate average gross farm sales. Farms producing nursery and greenhouse crops, and commercial horse stables had much larger annual gross farm sales than other farms in the county (Table 2) (Census of Agriculture 1992)(Mowrey, Barnette, & Neuman,1995).

Table 2: Geauga County Average Gross Farm Sales by Agricultural Products Sold in 1992
  Average Gross Sales per Farm ($)
All Farms 25,862
Dairy 39,164
Nursery and Greenhouse Crops 85,513
Other Horticulture Crops* 10,159
Horse Stables ** 106,000
*Includes vegetables, sweet corn, melons, fruit, nuts, and berries.

** Calculations based on a Horse Boarding and Training Budget prepared by North Carolina State University Extension (Mowrey, Barnett, & Neuman, 1995), and assume a stable boarding 20 horses, training 16 horses per year, and providing both group and private lessons.

The agents found that five of the seven townships in the western half of the county (those closest to Cleveland) experienced a net gain in the number of farms. Eight of the nine townships in the eastern half (most rural townships) experienced a net loss of farms between 1990 and 1997.

Due to the historic township boundaries, county townships are set up in a grid-like fashion, with each being a 5-mile square containing 25 square miles. Therefore, townships can be grouped according to their distance from the Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) line.

The townships closest to Cuyahoga County had a mean net increase in farms per township. The townships farthest from Cuyahoga County had a mean net decrease in farms per township. Those townships in the most rural half of the county tended to be losing farms, while those townships closer to Cleveland tended to be gaining farms (Table 3).

Table 3: Mean Net Change in Number of Farms from 1990-1997 in Relation to Distance from Cuyahoga County Line (Cleveland)
Township Location in Miles from Cuyahoga County Line Mean Net Change in Farm Numbers per Township
0 - 05 + 2.00
05 - 10 + 3.25
10 - 15 - 4.75
15 - 20 - 3.80

Table 4 contains correlation coefficients on housing starts, net farm change, and land values for the period 1990-1997.

Table 4: Correlation Coefficients: Housing Starts, Land Rates, & Net Change in Farms from 1990 — 1997
  Housing Starts Land Values Net Change in Farms
Housing Starts 1.00 - -
Land Values .61
1.00 -
Net Change
In Farms
* Numbers in parenthesis are p values.

Contrary to what might be expected, a moderate positive correlation (r=.45, P<0.10) was found between the number of housing starts per township and the net increase in farms per township. In other words, those townships that experienced the greatest increase in residential development (housing starts) also tended to have the greatest increase in number of farms.

In addition, a moderate positive correlation (r=0.46, P<0.10) was found between the market value of farmland per acre by township (as established by the Geauga County Auditor) and the net increase in farms per township. In other words, those townships with the most expensive land tended to gain farms, while those townships with the least expensive land tended to lose farms from 1990 to 1997.

Between 1990 and 1997, Geauga County farms shifted toward agricultural products and services that are normally sold directly to the consumer (e.g., as horses, nursery/greenhouse crops, and vegetables) and away from those agricultural products and services that are sold through wholesale markets (e.g., dairy, cash grain, and beef) (Table 5).

Further, during the farmer focus groups, farmers were asked about the impacts of residential development on their townships and their farms. In general, those farmers on the eastern side of the county (more rural), most of whom were involved in production of wholesale products, tended to focus on the many problems (e.g., trespassing and increased traffic) associated with residential growth. Those farmers in townships on the western side of the county (more developed), many of whom were producing for the retail market, acknowledged the difficulties in coping with residential development, but focused on the market potential of those new residents.

Table 5: Number of Farms Producing Various Agricultural Products



Net Change
Horse 159 171 +12
Dairy 208 154 -54
Cash Grains/Hay 145 142 -3
Beef 104 100 -4
Maple Syrup 89 89 0
Nursery/Greenhouse 73 85 +12
Vegetable/Herbs 52 60 +8
Sheep 27 33 +6
Fruit 36 28 -8
Swine 28 23 -5
Dairy Heifers 5 12 +7
Poultry 10 11 +1
Specialty Commodities* 38 46 +8
*Commodities include: Goat, Deer, Ostrich/Emu, Llamas/Alpacas, Rabbits, Bees/Honey, Fish, Buffalo, Donkey, Game Birds, & Veal

Discussion of Importance to Extension Educators

This study revealed a surprising picture of the changes in Geauga County's agricultural community in the 1990's and reveals some exciting opportunities for agricultural growth near cities.

While some townships are losing farms, other townships are gaining farms. These new farms are likely to be located in the most densely populated and rapidly developing western townships on some of the most expensive land in the county. Farms in these townships most often produce horse and horticultural products and services that are marketed directly to the consumer. These farms are likely to be financially larger than the farms that are being lost in the eastern, least developed townships in the county.

As might be expected, the study was initially viewed with some skepticism from farmers, government leaders, and colleagues. Before any information was released, the study was reviewed by a panel of faculty members in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Ohio State University. This confirmed its scientific validity and thus helped defend the findings.

The local agricultural community is now using the results. For example, a local fruit and vegetable producer with a roadside market cited the study as the reason that he chose to expand at his present site rather than sell out and move elsewhere.

The information in this study was recently presented to a group of approximately 40 Ohio Extension Agents and State and District Specialists. Comments from the participants in response to the findings of the study included:

  • "This study challenges conventional wisdom."
  • "Mind blowing."
  • "Stimulated a lot of thought."

A number of the Extension participants requested additional information on the study, and subsequently a 1-day tour of the county was conducted for 12 Extension professionals. Several county, state, and district Extension workers are now planning additional research as a follow-up to the original study.

The Geauga County Extension Office is now targeting more of its energy and resources toward assisting the dynamic growth occurring in the horse and horticultural farm industries. The surprising agricultural opportunities found in this study have changed the way we view urban sprawl and farmland retention. Extension educators in other Ohio counties that border major cities are challenged to examine the portions of their counties where similar transitions are being made and to assist members of the agricultural industry to maintain and grow their businesses.


Archer, T. (1987). Focus group interview. Edge Guide to Evaluation Fact Sheet. The Ohio State University Extension.

Banks-Baldwin Law Publishing Company. (1994). Ohio Revised Code, Annotated. 303.01.

Internal Revenue Service. (1996). Farmers tax guide, Publication 225. Department of the Treasury.

Libby, L.W. (1998). Introduction. The performance of state programs for farmland retention conference proceeding. The Ohio State University.

Likert R., Roslow, S., & Murphy, G. (1993). A simple and reliable method of scoring the Thurstone Scales. Personal Psychology 46(3):639-690.

Mowrey, R.A., Barnette, D.T., & Neuman, D.F. (1995). North Carolina State University Extension, Horse Boarding and Training.

Prindle, A.M. (1998). State level farmland protection policy: History, purpose, approaches. The performance of state programs for farmland retention conference proceedings. Otterbien College.

United States Department of Agriculture. (1964-1997). Census of agriculture, Ohio state and county profiles. Washington, D.C.