Wisconsin now has nearly 750,000 acres of farmland in agricultural enterprises areas (AEAs). The state has AEAs in 19 counties, 72 towns, and one Indian reservation.
Farmland preservation planning is proceeding in several counties as the process of updating these important plans resumes after a one-year hiatus due to budget cuts.
Funding in the recent state budget restored most of the earlier cuts to county land conservation department staffs, which play crucial roles in farmland protection and private lands conservation efforts in the state.
So, everything’s peachy when it comes to protecting Wisconsin farms and farmland, right? Not exactly. Many farmers continue to struggle to make ends meet, especially in the dairy sector. Development pressure in parts of the state is on the rise again. Frac sand mining operations in southwestern and central Wisconsin are gobbling up farmland. Even those farms in AEAs are not immune to development pressures, including annexation by nearby municipalities. And one key tool for farmland protection, a permanent easement program, has been removed from the state’s toolbox.
Of course, nothing’s perfect. But overall, Wisconsin is in much better shape to protect its farmland than in the past. A few enhancements to the state’s modern farmland protection program would make it even better.
Wisconsin’s farmland protection package was updated and improved in 2009. The so-called Working Lands Initiative strengthened local planning efforts and introduced AEAs and a Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements program. Unfortunately, special interest groups convinced Gov. Walker to eliminate funding for PACE in the 2011 state budget. The Legislature made sure funds were made available for farms already designated for permanent farmland protection, but the program is unfunded today.
Why does Wisconsin need a farmland protection program? The state has lost farms and farmland at an alarming pace during the past several decades. While the trend may have abated a bit in recent years, make no mistake about the fact that it will continue.
Some of the losses are part of longtime trends that have impacted agriculture across the country. Sometimes referred to as the “hollowing out of the middle,” we have seen a steady decline in the number of mid-sized family farms that have long been the backbone of agriculture and rural communities in Wisconsin and other states. At the same time, the number of large farms continues to increase, as does the number of small farms.
This mega trend is probably to continue, and there is probably not much we can do about it. All the more reason to afford Wisconsin farm families that want to keep working the land every opportunity to do so. Agriculture is crucial to the state’s economy and strengthens both our rural and urban communities. It’s bigger than that, too. Virtually every national gathering that has anything to do with agriculture starts these days with the premise that America’s farms will be called upon to produce up to 50 percent more than today to help feed a world population expected to rise to 9 billion people by 2050.
A second theme emerges at these meetings: Dramatic weather events like drought, floods and violent storms have increased, whipsawing the landscape. People can argue about climate change and its causes, but there is no disputing that these dramatic weather events have spiked sharply in recent years. The word “resilience” is used to describe the need to assure that our agricultural production and conservation systems are built to withstand these new challenges.
Of course, farming has always been a gamble. In part because of this, we decided as a nation long ago that the public good rests on the shoulders of American farmers. Government programs like the Farm Bill, imperfect though they may be, are intended to assure a plentiful and affordable supply of food, fiber and, yes, fuel. By many measures, the system has worked.
Here in Wisconsin, state government also has worked to help farmers stay on the land. In addition to the farmland preservation program, use-value taxation for farms has helped reduce property tax burdens for farmers and thwart the loss of farmland to development. These government programs have enjoyed success, but they have not been able to keep Wisconsin from being near the top of the list of states that have seen farmland converted to other uses.
The recent Wisconsin legislative session proved again that agriculture and conservation of agricultural lands rises above partisan politics. Kudos to state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, for leading efforts to restore funding to county land conservation departments and other important programs. The number of lawmakers from either party with a farm background is precious few in today’s Legislature. Sen. Harsdorf and a few others with farm backgrounds have inherited the crucial job of being the voices of agriculture in the halls of the capitol.
Kudos also to Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel for his ongoing efforts to protect Wisconsin farmland and strengthen agriculture. Under Brancel’s leadership and that of other dedicated staff in the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, farmland protection efforts continue and in some cases have been strengthened.
An example of the latter is rule-making undertaken by DATCP for the state’s farmland preservation program. The new rule is intended to help assure that county farmland preservation plans protect blocks of farmland in areas identified by local people. Under the old program, farmland protection was scattered, and the resulting “Swiss cheese” pattern did not do enough to protect large blocks of farmland.
Now, farmers in AEAs that also are part of locally established farmland preservation zoning districts are eligible for tax credits of $10 an acre. They also agree to conservation compliance on their farms. By assuring that blocks of farmland are protected, we also are able to address long-term issues like resiliency.
Secretary Brancel has expressed an interest in strengthening and enhancing AEAs. As the state nears its statutory cap of 1 million acres in AEAs and DATCP considers asking the Legislature to increase the cap, it’s a good time to consider how to make these areas even more attractive and effective. A package of incentives might include more economic development opportunities for agriculture-related businesses and on-farm businesses. A new package might also include tools that prevent or limit annexations in AEAs. Some states already have such tools, so there are examples from which to draw.
Another way to strengthen farmland protection in Wisconsin would be to reintroduce an easement program, such as PACE. Logically, these perpetual easements would help to anchor AEAs, especially in areas subjected to heavy development pressure.
These are just a few ways to address the need to continue efforts to protect Wisconsin farmland. As the old saying goes, this is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to keep our eyes on the long-term goals that are so crucial to agriculture, conservation and the well-being of Wisconsin farm families and the state as a whole.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point is Wisconsin field representative for American Farmland Trust, a national organization that seeks to protect America’s farmlands and farms. AFT and its partners, including Gathering Waters Conservancy, worked to help modernize Wisconsin’s farmland protection program. Learn more about Wisconsin farmland protection efforts at www.wisconsinfarmland.org.