BY GREGORY A. HALL
The Cincinnati Enquirer
VERONA - Mixed with Ronnie Vest's bills and other mail are offers of big money.
Mr. Vest, a farmer on Stephenson Mill Road, receives notices every month or so from a real estate broker who sees his tobacco patch as Boone County's next subdivision.
With demand for available land increasing, along with the price, the state and area communities are taking steps to preserve Kentucky's farms.
"In our area, when the farm's sold it goes into subdivisions," Mr. Vest said.
A new state program, funded with state and federal money, buys permanent agricultural easements. The easements guarantee that the land will be used for farming forever.
Ohio's General Assembly is working out a similar program.
The Ohio initiative would let local governments use easements to keep selected farmland from being developed for strip malls or housing tracts.
A federal survey completed this year estimates that Northern Kentucky is losing eight acres of farmland every day to urban growth - an extremely fast pace.
"That's pretty alarming," said Joel LeGris, district conservationist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. "It's faster than anywhere else in the state."
Jefferson and Fayette counties, lose about six acres of farmland a day.
The Benton family farm, 260 acres along Old Lexington Pike straddling the Kenton-Boone line near Richwood, sits in the middle of what planners anticipate as a major industrial park.
"I think eventually it's going to happen, but we're going to do our best to keep it as a farm," said John Benton.
Twice he's had offers from Tri-County Economic Development Corp. (TriED), the regional recruitment firm for Northern Kentucky. The money farmland is getting in the area, $10,000 an acre and up, is tempting, he admits.
But selling isn't as lucrative as it may sound. Farmers know the land they have is fertile and unleveraged.
"There's traditional ties that people have to that land," Mr. LeGris said. "They even have their family grave sites there."
The Bentons, whose farm has been in the family for five decades, have applied for the new Kentucky program, which purchased its first four easements last month. Forty-two applications are pending, said Bill Burnette, executive director of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's Office for Environmental Outreach.
The $1.5 million that the program called PACE (Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements) has for the next two years won't cover all of them.
"But it's a start," Mr. Burnette said. "And we're demonstrating how the program can function, and hopefully somewhere down the road we'll get some sustained source of funding other than the general fund."
That could be a bond issue or some other source, he said.
"I think the PACE program could be a good program," Mr. Benton said. "The state of Kentucky doesn't fund it enough to accomplish their objectives, that's for sure."
In Lexington, a tax referendum may be placed on the ballot next year that would pay farmers who agree not to subdivide their land. The program could cost $100 million over 30 years.
Private organizations are working to buy remaining farms in the state's most populated area, Jefferson County.
Mr. Benton said he's in favor of growth but thinks farms and development can coexist. In addition to wanting to see the PACE program better funded, he'd like to see a local effort.
He wonders why something like the local rental car tax that funds TriED can't be duplicated.
The 60-acre property behind the Benton farm sold this summer to an Arlinghaus family member. That family is a major builder in Northern Kentucky.
The lack of water and sewer service likely will prevent residential development for a while. Mr. Benton said the builder told him the land is an investment.
Eventually, he expects the development that currently lies within two miles of his home and farm to come south. He expects, without protection from programs like PACE, he can withstand the development pressure for 10 years.