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Ohio’s Rural-Urban Connections: Learning from Marion County

By Alison D. Goebel, Associate Director At GOPC, we focus on researching policies and strategies that revitalize Ohio’s communities, particularly our cities that face legacy challenges. However, GOPC’s work has always had the dual purpose of valuing our urban cores and preserving Ohio’s open space and farmland.

Farmscape in Marion County, Ohio

I was reminded of the importance of preserving farmland and open space earlier this month when my Leadership Ohio class and I visited the farming community of Marion County, Ohio, to learn about agriculture’s contributions to Ohio’s life and economy and the greater national economy. Our hosts gave us incredible “behind the scenes” tours of livestock and crop farms and provided a window into the inextricable relationship between the rural and urban in Ohio.

One in seven Ohioans work in an agriculture-related field and as various speakers reminded us, the global food system starts with crop and livestock farmers. Ohio, which is on the eastern edge of the soy and corn belt, is a major contributor to the global food system: agriculture makes up 7% of Ohio’s GDP.

But Ohio remains an extremely urban state, and this mix of urban and rural create diverse metro areas. Marion County is one hour north of Columbus, and is arguably on the far edges of the Columbus metro. Many people I spoke to visited Columbus at least once a month for business or for pleasure--and some travel to Columbus much more often. But Marionites see themselves as part of the Marion community or a broader, less place-bound, rural community. They do not see themselves as being part of the Columbus ambit.

Alison in Marion County

Like I find in many communities in Ohio, there was a pride in place among the people I met in Marion County. And as is the case in many of Ohio’s communities, this pride in place derived from pride in work. Youngstowners’ fondness for their scrappy city is one enduring legacy of its steel mills. Marionites’ pride in rural living is a direct product of the hard, unrelenting hours that farming requires. This diversity within Ohio’s metros—this mix of urban, suburban, and rural; industrial, retail, and agricultural—is one of Ohio’s greatest strengths. Our industry diversity certainly helps Ohio weather economic storms, but the resulting cultural diversity also means that there is a place for everyone in Ohio.

The diversity of Ohio also means that we depend on one another. As one woman from Marion said as we talked about the shopping and entertainment options in Marion, “I’m glad I don’t live in Columbus, but I am glad it is there.” I could say the same about Marion County. For many reasons I would fail at being a good rural resident but I am extremely grateful for Marion County, where over 80% of its land is dedicated to the crops and livestock pastures that form the foundation to the country’s food system.

In Ohio, the economic reach of our cities is strong and extends across counties, but the impact of our agricultural lands are just as important. Maintaining this balance—keeping urban places urban and rural places rural—helps each place do what it does best.

Yearlings in Marion