JEFFERSON TWP. – Deep in the winding, fertile hills that hug the Mohican River – where splotches of farmland interrupt seas of mile-high conifers – Jean and Bud Miller had a decision to make.
It was about the family farm.
The two were approaching their mid-80s. What would become of the property, which had been acquired in 1930, after they passed? How would they ensure it would keep its charm and purpose – that it would remain a family farm and not be split up into smaller, more marketable lots?
They found the answer in a Wooster Daily Record story about their neighbors, the Baldersons, who worked with the a regional non-profit called the Western Reserve Land Conservancy to preserve their property. It was done through a deed restriction that was signed in perpetuity, meaning certain aspects of their farm would remain the same forever under Land Conservancy supervision.
Jean and Bud wanted that for their farm as well.
“My mother is a force to be reckoned with, and she encouraged all of us that this is where they wanted to go,” Julia Miller, one of Jean and Bud's three daughters, said laughing.
And that was that.
After a year of discussion, planning and execution, the Miller property was preserved in January for years to come. The family worked with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy to make history; it was the first property in Knox County (it splits the Knox/Holmes county line just north of Greer) to be preserved by the agency.
“It’s a big step and it’s an unknown step in a lot of ways. But we definitely did the right thing and I’m very excited about it,” Julia Miller said. “The big thing is that my parents wanted it that way.”
From cookies to conservation
When Jean and Bud finally decided they wanted preserve their farm (Julia said she’d urged them to do so for years), Julia’s sister, Linda, gave the Land Conservancy a call.
Shortly thereafter, the family met with Andy McDowell, VP of Western Field Operations at the Land Conservancy, to discuss how the process would play out.
“He came out to the farm, they made coffee and cookies and just walked through the process of what it means to do this,” Julia Miller recalled.
McDowell has worked with the Land Conservancy since its inception in 2006. He is one of several boots-on-the-ground field directors, who works hand-in-hand with families during the preservation process.
McDowell says he typically takes on “a dozen or more” preservation projects in a calendar year, but he remembers the Miller property vividly. He knew it was special from the moment he arrived.
“I always have those one or two each year that I know are going to be my favorite ones,” McDowell said. “You know, between the family that I’m working with and the property itself, I knew when I showed up at the Miller farm, I’m like, ‘This is going to probably be my most favorite project of 2018.’”
The Miller property encompasses 417 acres in the scenic Mohican region. There are 140 acres of tillable farmland, which are rented out to soybean, corn and wheat farmers. The rest of the property is wooded; 30 acres of white pine (planted by the Federal Conservation Reserve Program) accompany 247 acres of deciduous and coniferous tree species.
McDowell, who grew up on a farm but has a background in environmental education, fell in love with the land. He marveled at the upkeep of the forests, with their diverse collection of tree species. He grasped the importance of the property’s western boundary, the Mohican River, and the tributaries that run into it. The cleanliness and safety of one of the state’s most prized waterways could be attributed to the maintenance of this land.
“When you get into the Mohican region (and) you get to preserve farmland, you get to preserve some of the best natural areas that the state of Ohio has to offer,” McDowell said.
“The family, over the generations, has done an outstanding job in balancing the need to work the land and raise a family and earn an income from it, as well as conserving the natural resources at the same time.”
After meeting the Millers that day, McDowell learned as much about the property as he could. He had honest discussions with the family about what they wanted to do with the estate – what they wanted to keep the same and what they had in mind for the future.
The key, McDowell said, is that property owners realize the magnitude of their decisions. Under the conservation easement, all property specifications are made in perpetuity, so McDowell encourages families to ask questions and think about the future thoroughly before drafting a proposal.
For the Millers, this process took almost a year. Ultimately, Jean and Bud decided they wanted it to forever be a ‘family farm.’ If another generation eventually sold the farm, they wanted it to be sold to a family with similar intentions.
They also wanted to be able to add on to their family cabin in the future, so they included that in the document. There were several other smaller requests. Every inch of the property had to be accounted for.
“You think you’ve covered all the bases but you really don’t know,” Julia Miller said. “But I think the bottom line is, we did everything we thought we should to keep that property as is for future generations. And however that plays out, we do know that it will remain a farm.”
Once the Millers made decisions on how they wanted their land preserved, McDowell went to work, examining the property’s title history. He looked through old documents to make sure there would be no conflicts with the potential conservation easement.
McDowell then pieced together the first draft of the easement document. He typically walks families through it paragraph-by-paragraph, and they are free to mark it up and have conversations about certain items. The document itself essentially preserves the land by prohibiting or limiting future development. It is permanent and runs with the land.
Often times, a family will request three or four revised drafts before the final document is agreed upon. Once it is, Land Conservancy staff will come out to the property and record its condition; this includes land measurements, photos and GPS points for various landmarks.
The Miller farm’s conservation was made official on Jan. 17 after a year-plus of preparation. The Land Conservancy will now perform yearly inspections of the property to make sure it is following the standards set forth in the revised deed.
Once a property is conserved, its owners can begin taking a tax deduction on the value of the easement. Because the Land Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the IRS views the conservation easement as a way of giving a valuable asset to a charitable organization.
Not all families opt to do this, McDowell said.
“I tell people, it’s kind of like gifting a painting to the art museum,” McDowell explained. “You’re not giving them cash but you’re giving them something that can be appraised and a value can be associated with it, and you can take a tax deduction based on that value. Not everyone does that; some people do, some people don’t.”
For the Miller family, simply having the property preserved was enough. Julia still recalls fondly the memories she and her sisters made on their parents' farm; now, those memories are being passed down to their children, who visit often.
They still hold family dinners (although they usually start around 1 p.m.) at the main farmhouse every Sunday. Everyone is invited – grandchildren, nieces, nephews, significant others, family friends – and even though Jean and Bud are 87 and 88 now, respectively, the tradition is still going strong.
Preserving the farm was about more than just property, Julia Miller said. It was about preserving the family legacy.
“We are very wildly opinionated, all very strong willed, but the one thing that ties us together is this family farm,” Julia Miller said. “We have a love of the land and this property. And it is a very diverse property.
“The impetus to preserve it just kind of came organically and naturally.”
The Miller farm was the first property preserved by the Land Conservancy in Knox County. It also marked a milestone for the non-profit: it pushed the Land Conservancy past the 55,000-acre mark after just 13 years of business.
The Land Conservancy was founded in 2006 after eight land trusts in northeast Ohio decided to merge. Led by the Chagrin River Land Conservancy, the neighboring trusts believed they could get more accomplished together. They were right.
In the two decades prior to 2006, McDowell said those eight land trusts had conserved a combined total of 8,000 acres. In the last 13 years, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy has multiplied that number by seven.
Three more land trusts have joined the Land Conservancy over the years, and it has now conserved land in 23 counties across northeast Ohio. Most occur north of Wayne County and east of Sandusky Bay, all the way to Lake Erie and the Pennsylvania border.
The Land Conservancy is the only organization in Ohio that focuses on conserving natural land, farmland and urban land. It has preserved more than 240 farms and has created more than 170 public parks and publicly-owned preserves. It stewards more than 740 properties across the region, totaling 56,216 acres.
The mission is to not only preserve family traditions, but also boost Ohio’s economy. In a largely agricultural state, the preservation of fertile farmland for food production is crucial.
“Prime farmland is an increasingly threatened and precious resource,” Land Conservancy spokesperson Danielle Johnson said in a press release. “Once it’s paved over, built on, or destroyed in other ways, it is lost forever.”
If properties aren’t conserved, McDowell says, they run the risk of being split up and sold to land developers. Hundred-acre plots, once farms, are being divided into 10 or 20-acre sections, used to house ‘dream homes.’ The Millers have seen this first-hand in their region, which McDowell believes poses as a threat to Mohican tourism.
“One of the big things in our neighborhood that we see over and over again is neighbors pass on and their property gets split up,” Julia Miller said. “And when you grew up there and you didn’t have close neighbors, to see this closing in of housing and lots is really disconcerting. So for me, it was a huge relief to know that this couldn’t happen to my mom and dad’s farm.”
So, why don’t more families conserve their land?
McDowell believes people are “afraid of restrictions.” Some don’t realize how flexible – and personal – a conservation easement can be. They might envision an easement impacting the future sale of the property, or their ability to profit off their land. These are all things that would be worked out in the document discussions, McDowell said.
Julia Miller thinks there are also cultural factors at play.
“I believe that farming families are typically very self-reliant, stubborn, hard-working people, and they don’t want the government in their business, and they see it as the government,” Miller said. “And they don’t want it tied up in a deed restriction, so they can’t sell it for as high a price as they can get it.”
There is a risk involved with property preservation, too, McDowell added.
“There’s the fear of the future. Nobody has a crystal ball to tell you what’s coming down the pike, and you’re looking to put a permanent restriction on the property, and all the what-ifs start coming up – what if, what if, what if,” McDowell said.
“We try to accommodate as many ‘what-ifs’ as we can, but obviously you can’t take into account everything.”
Once property owners are able to balance the risks and clear away misconceptions, McDowell said the process typically runs smooth. It certainly did for the Millers, who McDowell said did it for all the right reasons.
Sitting at their kitchen table with cookies and coffee that day, they weren’t focused on a tax deduction or any other financial motives for preserving their land. They simply wanted to keep the farm the way it had been for nearly a century – focused on ‘family.’
“You know, it’s very sweet,” said Julia Miller, reflecting on the process. “I think that it’s something that (we) always wanted to see happen and we finally made it happen.”