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Let's wed stewardship fund, PACE

Nov. 8, 2012 | 0 comments

A commentary by Dan Poulson, who farms in Jefferson County. He co-chaired the Working Lands Steering Committee in 2005-06.

The point of this opinion piece is simple: Wisconsin needs a farmland easement tool to strengthen its farmland protection efforts, and there's a way to do it without raising taxes a nickel.

Wisconsin's Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund allocates $60 million a year in bonding authority to protect special places in the state, mostly natural areas.

Stewardship has benefited from broad bipartisan support since its inception in 1989 and has protected more than 500,000 acres.

We can permanently protect some of our best farmland by allocating a portion of the Stewardship bonding authority to fund a farmland easement program administered by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

In wedding farmland preservation to the Stewardship Program mission, we will provide lasting economic and environmental benefits and strengthen both rural and urban communities.

Let's protect some of our best farmland in addition to other special places. Using Stewardship funds to do this just makes common sense.

This isn't the first time the idea of using Stewardship bonding for a farmland easement program has been proposed. I've been among those who have advocated for it in the past. When I was a Natural Resources Board member a few years ago, I proposed just that. The board voted it down, but I continue to believe this would be good public policy. So do others in the agricultural and conservation communities.

There is recent precedence for this approach.

The Wisconsin Working Lands Initiative, a comprehensive update of the state's farmland preservation tools, became law in 2009. It included a Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements Program.

A source of funding was identified, but in the course of developing the current state budget, that source was eliminated.

Thanks to legislative leaders, one round of PACE easements was approved, and $5.2 million in Stewardship funds was set aside to fund the program.

Not all of that money has been spent, but 13 easements have been purchased, permanently protecting more than 5,000 acres of prime farmland. Two other easements are being finalized.

While the PACE program remains on the books, it lacks a funding source. A strong economic case can be made for funding PACE. Most of the first PACE farmers reinvested in their operations by making improvements and/or buying more land.

Some added employees. Others were able to make the transition from one generation of ownership to the next, keeping the farm in the family. In all of these cases, local and state economies benefited as farmland was protected.

PACE is a voluntary and targeted program aimed at protecting Wisconsin's best farmland. We should keep it in our toolbox and use a small portion of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund to do so.

State funds are only part of the picture with PACE. They serve as an investment to leverage other dollars.

In the PACE program, landowners who donate a portion of their easements rank higher on scoring criteria. The landowners are able to claim a federal tax credit for their donations.

In addition, the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program can pay for up to half of the cost of the easement for qualifying landowners.

Local entities such as county and town governments and land trusts also contribute to the cost of obtaining an easement.

The combination of these options results in permanent farmland protection at a real bargain for the state.

I was happy to see that the DATCP Board recently voted unanimously to support PACE and urge the Legislature to fund the program "to ensure Wisconsin will have sufficient land to farm now and in the future."

Support came from board members appointed by Govs. Doyle and Walker. This shows bipartisan agreement on the need for farmland protection, as it should.

A farmland easement program funded by the Stewardship program can help accomplish that important goal.

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