Farmland preservation program on chopping block

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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.

Walker's budget proposals require approval from the Assembly and Senate.

"Obviously, it's the Legislature's turn now to deal with the budget, and we don't know what that outcome will be," Lyon said.

Bill Berry, a spokesman for American Farmland Trust, said there is broad support for the preservation program. He said his organization and the Madison-based Gathering Waters Conservancy, which has worked on farmland preservation, are encouraging people to tell the governor and lawmakers to save PACE.

The Tall Pines Conservancy, which helped to create the ag enterprise zone in Dodge and Waukesha counties, also is trying to save PACE.

"The program helps make it possible to keep the next generation of innovators in the industry here in Wisconsin by providing an alternative to selling the farm when retirement comes. It also has the potential to help keep large areas of farmland intact so farming can have continued economic viability, and in fact grow," said Susan Buchanan, the Nashotah-based Tall Pines executive director.

Program adds to debt

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said programs that add to the state's debt have to be cut.

"In an effort to balance Wisconsin's budget and get our state working again, the 2011-'13 budget proposal makes a number of changes to programs that rely on borrowing," he said.

Said Berry, "We just hate to see a really good program, one with a lot of promise, eliminated without even an opportunity to show how well it works."

"All the tools we had to date to deal with farmland preservation, prior to the Working Lands Initiative, didn't stop an inexorable incursion of development into rural Wisconsin and into some of the best farmland," Berry said.

When the economy gets rolling again, Berry said, the loss of farmland probably will return.

Across the state, there are 78,000 farms and about 16 million acres being farmed, down from 110,000 farms and 20.1 million acres in 1970, according to the latest figures from the agriculture department.

Lyon, the deputy agriculture secretary, said other portions of the Working Lands Initiative remain in place, including working with counties on zoning to preserve farmland and income tax credits for farmers who agree to keep their land in farm production.

"Currently in the governor's budget, the meat and potatoes of farmland preservation are still there. . . . Quite honestly, if we do those kinds of things, we'll preserve more farmland than through a PACE program," Lyon said.

___

Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.


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