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Farmland preservation program to cover nearly 1 million acres

July 29, 2014 | 0 comments

MIDDLETON

Wisconsin is approaching 1 million acres of farmland protected by the state designation as "agricultural enterprise areas."

The latest round of petitions approved for the designation totals more than 190,000 acres, the Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection heard in a report at its July 23 meeting in Middleton.

The new acreage from this fifth round of applicants will become official Jan. 1, 2015 after Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Ben Brancel signs orders creating four new agricultural enterprise areas, (AEAs) and expanding an existing one.

Wisconsin will then have 29 such agricultural areas that total 940,000 acres in 22 counties, 85 towns and the Bad River Reservation.

The newest AEA acreage totals about 191,300 acres in six counties and 13 towns, with 290 landowners petitioning for the designation.

This is the fifth round of AEA designations since the program began under the state's Working Lands Initiative. Under the state laws that created the program, DATCP can now designate up to 2 million acres as AEAs.

Originally, the department had authority to designate up to 1 million acres, but the legislature recently doubled that figure. The way the program works, local landowners, in partnership with local governments, must seek the designation from the state.

Landowners in these designated areas have the opportunity to apply for farmland preservation agreements, and get the tax credits that go with that.

To date, the state has enrolled more than 430 farmland preservation agreements, covering nearly 100,000 acres in the AEAs, Brancel said.

"Landowners outside these AEAs who want to participate will have a chance to submit a petition during the 2015 petition cycle, which begins this fall," he added.

The AEA program is part of Wisconsin's farmland preservation program. They are intended to encourage preservation of agricultural land use and to promote agricultural economic development appropriate to each area.

In turn, the designation provides some certainty for farmers and agribusinesses that their area will remain in agriculture, so they can be confident about investing in their businesses. Landowners in AEAs are not subject to any new land use regulations.

However, Brancel noted to ag board members that the AEA designation does not offer owners of farmland any protection from projects that are deemed to be "for the public good" like roads and utilities. When one of those kinds of projects comes through an AEA, the land is not protected. "It's very frustrating," he said.

Under the farmland protection program, farmers who own land in an AEA can receive tax credits in exchange for signing an agreement to keep their land in agricultural use for at least 15 years.

Heart of America's Dairyland AEA

The AEA that applied for expansion is the Heart of America's Dairyland AEA, which covers parts of Clark and Marathon counties. It is the largest AEA in the state and received the 2013 Top Rural Development Initiative Award from Wisconsin Rural Partners.

The new designation expands the existing AEA by about 70,000 acres, bringing the covered area to about 234,500 acres. With 125 new petitioners, the newly added towns are Weston and York in Clark County and Bern, McMillan and Eau Pleine in Marathon County.

Towns previously included are Mayville, Colby, Unity, Beaver, Loyal in Clark County; and Brighton, Hull, Frankfort, Holton and Johnson in Marathon County.

Dairying and cash crops dominate agriculture here. In all, 395 landowners have petitioned for the designation and expansion of the AEA to preserve the region's agricultural heritage, assure production capacity and provide tools to control population density and residential-agricultural conflicts.

The original AEA was created in 2011 and was modified in 2012 and 2013.

In her report to board members, Coreen Fallat, who administers the program in the department's division of Agriculture Resource Management, said there was an extensive public outreach process in the area that included diverse producers.

The area is number-one in the state for dairy production while also supporting the production of vegetables, fruit, nursery crops and bedding plants.

The newly expanded AEA is also near some strong ag infrastructure, including the Central Wisconsin Agribusiness Innovation Center. Petitioners are working with the University of Wisconsin Urban and Regional Planning department to evaluate economic strategies for the area.

The newly approved AEAs include the following:

■ Friends in Agriculture AEA

The Friends in Agriculture AEA in Clark County is a new AEA that totals 17,158 acres the towns of Fremont and Lynn, where dairying and horticulture are among the primary agricultural enterprises.

The goals of the 36 petitioners include minimizing land use conflicts, assessing and protecting environmental resources for use by existing and new agricultural operations, respecting the agricultural heritage within the area and developing joint marketing opportunities for local products.

Petitioners hope to create the state's largest contiguous block of working lands by linking with other AEAs.

Petitioners noted that Clark County has the largest number of dairy farms in the state and has important road and rail infrastructure. There has been significant investment in dairy farms and in dairy processing production capacity in recent years. Less than 130 acres of the land in the area is considered to be residential or commercial land.

■ Greenville Greenbelt AEA

The Greenville Greenbelt AEA in Outagamie County covers 1,444 acres in the town of Greenville, where cash cropping accounts for most of the agricultural activity.

The nine petitioners' goals include maintaining the existing farmland for agriculture by supporting policies to increase development densities in the urban portion of their town and also supporting policies that promote infill development that targets land adjacent to urban areas.

They wish to provide support to ensure successful transitions of existing farm businesses between generations or to new ownership. The town offers many agritourism opportunities and enjoys support for agriculture through programs at the Fox Valley Technical College.

Fallat said the petitioners hope to support economic opportunities associated with farming and also to support the development of grow local and eat local efforts.

There has been extensive planning effort in the county over the past decade to support continued land use in the area.

■ Headwaters of Southeast Monroe County AEA

The Headwaters of Southeast Monroe County AEA, Monroe County is a new AEA that encompasses 86,380 acres in the towns of Clifton, Glendale, Wellington and Wilton. Cash grain and dairying dominate agriculture in this region, but forage, direct market vegetables and timber are also important to the local ag economy.

The area gets its name from the fact that it includes the headwaters of the Baraboo, Kickapoo and Little Lemonweir rivers. Fallat told the board that there is a significant amount of managed forest land in the area.

Along with preserving the area's agricultural heritage, the 99 petitioners aim to foster a conservation movement to protect resources, build support for policies that protect productive ag land, and minimize land use conflicts.

The petitioners said they applied for the designation because ag land can't be taken for granted, said Fallat.

The area has a significant block of agricultural land with limited rural residential development which allows these petitioners the opportunity to establish land use policies that will allow land to remain in ag use., she added.

■ West Point AEA

West Point AEA in Columbia County is a new AEA that covers 17,158 acres in the Town of West Point, which is strong in dairy, beef and row crop production.

The 21 petitioners include in their goals protecting soil and water quality and wildlife, slowing fragmentation of ag lands, preserving multi-generation farms, encouraging ag diversity, modernizing farm operations to remain competitive, and providing farm-related education.

The nearby urban areas offer a market for local products and existing operations have invested more than $10 million in the past decade.

The development of this AEA came from a strong grassroots effort from farmers who want to blunt the development pressure from Madison and from the Wisconsin River area, said Fallat, in her report to the board.

Over 40 percent of the area is owned by farmers who participate in the state's farmland preservation program.

Fallat said one of the recommended AEAs is currently in the process of updating the county's farmland preservation plan to ensure eligibility with program requirements.

Designation orders for that AEA will be completed following the plan's certification, anticipated to be in October or November.

For more about the AEA program, DATCP has information on the web available at http://datcp.wi.gov/Environment/Working_Lands_Initiative/AEA/index.aspx.

Wisconsin will soon have 29 agricultural enterprise areas that total 940,000 acres in 22 counties, 85 towns and the Bad River Reservation.

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