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March 23, 2009 Governor’s proposed budget includes farmland preservation
By JASON STEIN | Wisconsin State Journal
MADISON — In perhaps the biggest initiative to protect Wisconsin’s
farmlands in three decades, Gov. Jim Doyle’s proposed budget would try
to prevent cornfields from being gobbled up by strip malls and
The proposal would redirect tens of millions of dollars in existing
state incentives to keep farms from being sold for development and
would prod local governments and counties to set up their own plans
for preserving lands.
The measure could have a particularly notable effect in Dane County
and southern Wisconsin, where farmland is vanishing at some of the
fastest rates in the country. The state plan could help local
authorities here who already are moving to protect lands.
“A decade from now and beyond that, it’ll be potentially recognized as
one of the significant environmental and land use steps that we’ve
taken,” said state Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen, who called
for the initiative to protect farmland almost four years ago. “We just
can’t throw the dart at a board and say it’s okay to put up a
Farming and food processors contribute about 12 percent of the state’s
workforce, according to one recent study. The value of farmland to
tourism, the environment and the emerging biofuels industry also make
them a critical part of the state’s economic future, he said.
A dwindling supply
The land available for farming has fallen steadily for decades, though
the trend slowed last year. The state had 15.2 million acres of
farmland in 2008, down 19 percent from the 18.8 million acres in
Fifth-generation farmer Jerry Bradley, 54, owns about 750 acres of
working lands on his farm just 3 miles from the rapidly growing city
of Sun Prairie.
“I love what I’m doing. I want to see this preserved,” Bradley said of
his farm. “We certainly would like to see it continue on as long as we
can remain profitable.“
Bradley represented the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation on a
26-member state steering committee that Nilsestuen asked to look at
the problem. Bradley had both praise and concern about the plan in the
The state’s last major farmland preservation law, passed in 1977,
provided tax credits to farmers to encourage saving land and sought to
strengthen local planning.
The state also made one other major change, completed in 2000, to
value Wisconsin farmland and set local property taxes solely according
to the money the land could bring through farming operations, without
accounting for the often higher price it might bring through sale for
How it would work
Doyle’s proposed update to that 1977 law would attempt to preserve
farmland in tight state budget times by:
nUsing $12 million in unused borrowing authority from a separate
conservation program so the state could partner with local governments
or conservation groups, who would put up matching funds to buy the
development rights to agricultural land. The program might also be
able to pull in more federal money. Farmers would continue to own and
work those fields, which they still could sell as farmland.
nPushing local governments to update their planning and zoning rules
by the end of 2015 to identify farmland that should be protected in
their area. Dane County would need to have its updates in place by the
end of 2011 or farmers in those communities could lose certain state
farmland preservation tax credits.
nUsing $27 million a year from two existing state farm tax credit
programs to create a new farmland preservation tax credit. The credit
would go to farmers according to their acres of land, not their
profits. The credit also would be higher if the farms are included in
an area zoned for agriculture and the farmers have an agreement with
the state to keep land in farming.
nAllowing neighboring farmers to band together to form an agricultural
enterprise area, which would entitle them to more state tax credits
and possibly other state help.
Bradley said he opposed the proposal to pay for the new tax credits by
using credits from an existing program that already serves 50,900
farmers, some of whom might not qualify for the new program.
Tom Larson, a lobbyist with the Wisconsin Realtors Association, said
he worried the program might let the state buy development rights to
land in an area where a local government wanted to allow development.
He said the proposal was too weighted against development because it
also would raise existing fees on lands zoned for farming when they
are rezoned to allow for development.
But both Larson and Farm Bureau lobbyist Jeff Lyon said they were
hopeful their groups might be able to support the plan with changes.
The plan already has support from the Wisconsin Towns Association and
environmental groups such as Gathering Waters Conservancy.
Bruce Jones, a farm economist at the University of Wisconsin in
Madison, noted the loss of farmland has slowed in recent years because
of higher farm profits and turmoil in the housing and lending markets.
But losses could pick up again in future years, he cautioned.
Buying development rights to farmland can be expensive for taxpayers
and private groups and also requires discipline on their part, since
they could be tempted to sell those rights later on if they needed
money, he said.
An example of success
The town of Dunn in Dane County already has bought development rights
from farmers to preserve farmland.
So far, the community has used $2.7 million in taxpayer-supported
borrowing and more than $3 million in outside grants and donations to
preserve nearly 2,900 acres as farmland, said Cathy Hasslinger, the
town’s clerk and treasurer. Hasslinger called it one of the town’s
best successes and welcomed help from the state.
“It’s definitely going to support small communities by providing a
source of funding,” Hasslinger said. “Funding is a huge obstacle.“
Under the town’s program, Bob Uphoff sold some of the development
rights on his hog and grain farm, part of which has been in his family
since 1866. That sale in 1997 helped Uphoff buy neighboring land that
he since has kept in production.
Now Uphoff, 54, has two sons interested in continuing to run the
“For us, all the cards fell in the right direction,” Uphoff said.
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