Lawmakers push to recharge program that preserves Wisconsin farmland

Madeline Heim
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin lawmakers are taking another swing at updating a program meant to preserve the state's farmland and incentivize farmers to protect soil and water.

The bill would sweeten the deal for farmers who agree to enroll their land in the Farmland Preservation Program —and stick to its conservation standards — by increasing the tax credit they earn by doing so, and in some cases, shortening the length of time they have to participate in the program.

Authored by Rep. Loren Oldenburg, R-Viroqua, and Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, the bill has bipartisan support and the backing of agricultural and conservation groups. But it was introduced and shot down in two previous legislative sessions.

Oldenburg, a dairy farmer who has participated in the program since 2009, said a small tweak this time around makes him optimistic it will pass.

"It's not like we're reinventing the wheel here," he said. "We just want to get more farmers and landowners involved."

Here's what to know about the bill.

What is the Farmland Preservation Program?

Though agriculture is central to Wisconsin's identity and economy, the state has lost a significant amount of it to residential and commercial development. Since 2010, farmland has declined by about a million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farms and Land in Farms report from earlier this year.

Once that land is gone, it's likely gone for good.

"Once agricultural lands are converted to different land uses, they're rarely, if ever, converted back to agricultural land," said Wednesday Jordan, the Farmland Preservation Program manager at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The Farmland Preservation Program was born in the 1970s to help protect Wisconsin's agricultural resources and was updated in 2009 to function the way it does today.

Farmers have two ways to enter into the program. The most common is by living in a certified farmland preservation zoning district, which is adopted by their city, town or county, and choosing to enroll in the program. A local community can also petition to create an Agricultural Enterprise Area, under which farmers can sign a 15-year farmland preservation agreement with the state.

Once farmers are enrolled, they have to comply with Wisconsin's soil and water conservation standards — such as limiting soil erosion and phosphorus runoff, having a nutrient management plan and properly disposing of animal waste — to claim their tax credit. County land conservation staff check for that compliance every few years.

More:It's been more than a decade since Wisconsin cracked down on phosphorus. Has it helped protect our lakes and rivers?

How much land is enrolled in the program?

In 2010, more than 15,000 farmers were claiming the farmland preservation tax credit with almost 3 million acres of land in the state enrolled, Jordan said. Today, claims average around 11,000 with about 2.1 million acres enrolled.

Why the decrease? In a 2018 survey of landowners who participated in the program, DATCP found that many said the tax credit was not worth the cost of compliance with the conservation standards. Some farmers who signed the 15-year agreements said it was too long a time to limit what can be done with the land. Still others said the program's benefits weren't clear enough, or that they did not want to participate in a government program.

What changes would the bill make?

The heart of the bill is an increase to the per-acre tax credit farmers who participate in the program can claim — one of the chief concerns in the 2018 survey. That includes:

  • An increase from $7.50 to $10 per acre for farms that are in a farmland preservation zoning district but not subject to a preservation agreement.
  • An increase from $5 to $10 per acre for farms that are subject to a preservation agreement but not in a farmland preservation zoning district.
  • An increase from $10 to $12.50 per acre for farms that are both in a farmland preservation zoning district and subject to a preservation agreement.
  • A new, $10-per-acre tax credit for farms that are located in a farmland preservation area and covered by an agricultural conservation easement.

It also decreases the length of time that farmers who participate under the Agricultural Enterprise Area have to stick to their contract, from 15 years to 10 years.

Previous versions of the bill also attempted to provide DATCP with funds to help municipalities and counties implement farmland preservation plans. Oldenburg said that piece was shaved from the current bill in hopes of guaranteeing it easier passage, but that lawmakers plan to pursue that in separate legislation. Gov. Tony Evers' biennial budget includes a line item that would achieve it, though it's currently unclear what Republicans will cut.

Because much of the work to carry out farmland preservation plans falls to county land conservation departments, which are already strapped for resources, it will be essential for that money to eventually be available, said Matt Krueger, executive director of the nonprofit conservation organization Wisconsin Land + Water.

"If this (bill) results in more acreage (in the program), it's going to be a bigger lift for counties to make sure the program is running smoothly," Krueger said.

Who supports this bill?

The bill has support on both sides of the aisle, including from Democratic Sens. Lena Taylor, Brad Pfaff and Mark Spreitzer.

It's backed by a number of the state's agricultural organizations, including the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, the Dairy Business Association and the state's soybean, corn, cranberry and potato and vegetable groups. Wisconsin Land + Water and The Nature Conservancy have also signaled their approval.

More:Heavy winter rains are happening more often in Wisconsin. That's a problem. Here's why we should care.

Steve Richter, director of agricultural strategies for the Wisconsin chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said the organization supports incentives for farmers to try out conservation practices on their land, understanding that trying new things means added cost and added risk. Since farmers have to verify that they are implementing those practices to claim the tax credit, he said, it also shows the public that their money is well spent.

The Nature Conservancy cares a lot about protecting existing farmland, Richter said, because the land will need to be as resilient as possible to feed a growing world population. Making changes that improve soil health, for example, will naturally make the land more productive, he said.

"It's huge for conservation groups to be playing a role in maintaining and building quality working agricultural lands," Richter said.

Madeline Heim is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about environmental issues in the Mississippi River watershed and across Wisconsin. Contact her at 920-996-7266 or