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OCONOMOWOC – There is a strong connection between farmland preservation, groundwater recharge, water quality and wildlife habitat.

Susan Buchanan, director of Tall Pines Conservancy, told a gathering of farmers and lakes association members that aside from being good for the state and local economy, well-managed agricultural land supplies important non-market goods and services. Farmland provides food and cover for wildlife, helps control flooding, protects wetlands and watersheds and maintains air quality.

In addition, new energy crops grown on farmland have the potential to replace fossil fuels.

As for the economic benefit of farms, agriculture contributes to local economies directly through sales, job creation, support services and businesses, and also by supplying lucrative secondary markets such as food processing.

Buchanan points out that planning for agriculture and protecting farmland provides flexibility for growth and development, offering a hedge against fragmented suburban development while supporting a diversified economic base.

Development, on the other hand, imposes direct costs to communities. Well-managed agricultural land generates more in local tax revenues than it costs in services.

Buchanan said in 2014 Tall Pines took more of a watershed approach, taking on a project to clean up the Mason Creek together with other organizations. The four and one-half mile creek was found to be dumping sediment into North Lake and the partnering organizations set out to figure out why. Much of the problem was caused by rapid development in the area and increased demand for groundwater for human use, as well as the increasing numbers of non-native species created problems.

The organizations are continuing to monitor the creek but have noticed improvements after the installation of a buffer in a portion of the area.

Land trusts help

While getting involved with a variety of conservation projects, Tall Pines Conservancy, one of 16 land trusts in the state, continues its primary goal of preserving farmland and helping land owners work through the process of doing that.

Tall Pines Conservancy has protected 1500 acres of land in its Purchase of Development Rights program. Nine-hundred of those acres are on active farms including the sixgeneration Zwieg dairy farm along the Rock River; 112 acres of the 4-generation Koepke family farm on the edge of Oconomowoc; the 116 acre CSA farm, Serenity Farm in the Township of Oconomowoc; and the 300-acre Gessert organic farm along the Rock River.

Tall Pines Conservancy holds the easement for these farms with the Natural Resource Conservation Service under the Federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program. The easement remains on the land if and when it is sold.

The Conservancy was involved with one of the state’s first Agricultural Enterprise Areas that encompassed land in both Waukesha and Dodge Counties.  In all there are now 33 AEAs in Wisconsin.

Ag Enterprise Areas

Ag Enterprise Areas were started as a part of the state’s Working Lands Initiative. Through this designation, the community encourages continued agricultural production and investment in the agricultural economy.

The reasoning behind the AEA program is to keep farms together in order to keep businesses that serve the agricultural community such as processors, implement and feed dealers, dairy service suppliers and others near the farms.

Keeping farms together is also easier for those operating the farms. When development occurs in rural areas it means more traffic and more difficulty for farmers to safely get their equipment from one place to another.

The AEA program is administered through the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Natalie Cotter of the DATCP was on hand to explain the benefits of the program.

“To date over one million acres of farmland has been enrolled in one of 33 AEAs around the state," she said. "We are authorized to do up to two million acres."

There are also property tax benefits for enrolling land in an AEA.

One of the most unique AEA's was established in 2011 and covers 28,833 acres in two townships and two counties. The municipalities and farmers in the Waukesha-Dodge County area worked together to enroll the land that includes dairy, beef, row crops and other livestock on the farms.

Local communities can voluntarily pursue designation of an “agricultural enterprise area” (AEA) by submitting a petition to the DATCP. To learn more visit farmlandpreservation.wi.gov or email DATCPWorkinglands@Wisconsin.gov

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