MILWAUKEE (AP) — Part of a relatively new state program aimed at preserving farmland would be eliminated under Gov. Scott Walker's budget to help erase Wisconsin's $3.5 billion deficit over the next two years.
Proponents of the program say the move by Walker would deal a severe blow to efforts to permanently protect agricultural land from development.
Walker's 2011-'13 budget proposal recommends eliminating the purchase of agricultural conservation easements program and $12 million in borrowing that was approved in 2009 to help fund the program.
The so-called PACE program is part of the state's Working Lands Initiative championed by the late Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen to protect farms from development and slow the loss of working agricultural land. The initiative also includes farmland preservation zoning, tax credits and the creation of agricultural enterprise areas.
At the time the initiative was approved, the state was losing about 30,000 acres of farmland a year.
Under PACE, the state would use the $12 million to provide grants to local governments and nonprofit conservation groups to purchase agricultural conservation easements from farmers. The state would provide up to 50% of the money for the purchase, and the governments and nonprofit groups would have to match state funds.
An easement would prohibit development that would make the land unavailable or unsuitable for agricultural use, according to the agriculture department.
Last year, 16 farms in six counties - Columbia, Dane, Dodge, Iowa, Jefferson and Waupaca - were selected from 36 applications for the program, and about $5 million had been earmarked to buy easements.
But Walker's move to eliminate the funding has put on hold plans to permanently protect the 5,779 acres of those farms, said Jeff Lyon, deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
One of the farms, 233 acres, is in Ashippun in Dodge County. It is within 31,600 acres in Ashippun and the Town of Oconomowoc in Waukesha County that the state recently designated as an agricultural enterprise area.
The idea is to preserve large, contiguous areas of working farmland from development that breaks up productive fields and to promote development of agricultural businesses in the zones.
The state so far has created 12 of these areas.
For the 16 farms, the department was in the process of finalizing paperwork and contracts related to the easements. However, Lyon said it would not be prudent to sign contracts with funding in jeopardy.