Conservation Easement Incentive Act introduced
Congress may disagree on many items but one area they do seem to agree on is land conservation.
Last week, 300 U.S. Representatives, including Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Rep. Tom Petri, co-sponsored the Conservation Easement Incentive Act.
HR 1964 makes permanent a recently expired tax incentive that helps conservancies that work with modest income assist landowners in conserving farmland and natural resources.
Susan Buchanan, executive director of Tall Pines Conservancy, says that group is thrilled that these Congressional representatives recognize the importance of preserving this important tool.
"We have seen firsthand the dramatic impact the incentive has had in helping landowners permanently conserve farms, ranches, forests, and wildlife habitat in our area and across the nation," she says. "We look forward to working with Rep. Sensenbrenner and Rep. Petri to get the bill passed."
Landowners can retire the development rights on their land by donating a conservation easement to a land trust like Tall Pines Conservancy - keeping farm, ranch and forest lands in productive use and protecting important fish and wildlife habitat.
Since the incentive expired the end of 2011, landowners with modest incomes now receive little tax benefit from restricting development on what may be their family's most valuable asset.
By allowing donors to deduct a larger portion of their income over a longer period of time, HR 1964 will help thousands of family farmers, ranchers, and forest owners afford to conserve their land.
Just before the expiration of the enhanced tax incentive at the end of 2011 the Zwieg family of Ashippun placed a conservation easement on their 233-acre dairy farm with Tall Pines Conservancy and the State of Wisconsin as the holders.
"If we weren't able to close before the end of 2011, the project would have been harder to make happen," says Kyle Zwieg, a sixth generation farmer. "Completing this project has preserved our farm and made it economically viable to keep the future generations in farming."
Another land trust, Land Trust Network, originating in Jefferson County, has received donations of conservation easements on 21 farms, including the most recent easement from Michael and Linda Ball, who operate Ball's Plum Hill Farm CSA, and also a daylily nursery.
They donated a conservation easement on their 102-acre farm. The Land Trust network had received two donated conservation easements neighboring the property in 2006 and 2010.
Meanwhile, Jefferson County closed on its first agricultural conservation easement on the Rodell Lea farm in the Town of Oakland in December.
The County's Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement program (PACE) is administered by the Jefferson County Farmland Conservation Easement Commission, which was created by the County Board in 2007.
The 220-acre dairy farm ranked number one in the state and federal agricultural conservation easement programs and received 50 percent cost sharing from the state PACE program and 50 percent from the federal Farmland and Ranchland Protection program of the NRCS.
While these preservation efforts move ahead, the Farmland Preservation Program in Wisconsin continues to take on a new look. Under the revised program, there are new land preservation tools and increased available state credits available.
One of the tools is the Agricultural Enterprise Area. An AEA is an identified geographic area that is primarily devoted to agricultural use.
In Dodge County, four towns, Shields and Emmet, Portland and Elba, are currently applying as partners to become Agricultural Enterprise Areas. The towns of Trenton and Burnett are already participating in Farmland Preservation zones.
"To do the zoning, a town or county has to adopt certain zoning regulations," says Nate Olson, Dodge County senior planner. "About half of the towns in the county have already done that."
The story is similar throughout the state. Interest in preserving farmland continues despite tightening budgets at the local, state and federal level.
Coreen Fallat and Lisa Schultz work with the Farmland Preservation Program, a complex program in the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Explaining to local officials and farmers how it all works is a big part of how they spend their days.
"There's generally lots of support for farmland preservation, but the details can be confusing," Fallat says. "We help people understand how the tools work, so they can better plan for agriculture in their communities."
"Whether it's local government staff or landowners, we help them understand their options and make the programs easier to navigate," Schultz adds.
The two are among seven staff members who work in Farmland Preservation at the department. The program aims to keep locally identified Wisconsin lands available for agriculture.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent National Resources Inventory, Wisconsin lost more than 564,000 acres of farmland between 1997 and 2007. That's about the size of Sauk County.
The Farmland Preservation Program helps communities and farmers keep land in agriculture through:
• County farmland preservation plans and ordinances - The department shares costs with counties to update their farmland preservation plans, and certifies those plans. Local governments may also choose to adopt farmland preservation zoning. More than 400 towns and counties have such farmland preservation zoning ordinances, which make farmers in those zones eligible for tax credits.
• Agricultural enterprise areas - The department has designated about 340,000 acres in 17 agricultural enterprise areas, or AEAs. AEAs are composed mainly of land used for agricultural production, but also include services, processing, and other businesses necessary to support local agriculture. These areas can help keep farmland in production and encourage investment in the agricultural economy. Individuals, working with their local governments, must petition DATCP for AEA status, before AEAs are designated.
• Farmland preservation agreements - Individual farmers sign voluntary agreements to keep all or part of their acreage in production, and are eligible for tax credits in return. The program requires that agreements cover land in an AEA.
The Farmland Preservation Program also includes purchase of agricultural conservation easements, or PACE.
Currently, there are eight properties permanently protected by PACE, covering about 3,000 acres of farmland, and easements for seven more properties will be finalized this spring.
Fallat joined the department in 2005, working with counties on their land and water resource management plans. In 2008, she began conducting workshops and other outreach efforts on the Working Lands Initiative. This initiative ultimately led to changes in the law and new elements in the Farmland Preservation Program.
She is now the AEA program manager. Previously, she worked with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources doing water basin plans.
Schultz says, "I like working with landowners, and helping them preserve their farms, because it's something so personal and meaningful to them."