Bigger cities mean less farmland

John Oncken
Housing development, strip malls and businesses encroach on land once used to raise dairy animals and crops.

Did you ever look out the window of an airplane as you prepared to land at most any good size airport? If so, did you note how you passed over farmland that all of a sudden turned into city streets and rows of houses? Maybe you even revisited that same airport a year or two or three years later and saw how the streets and houses had moved even further out into the country and eaten up more of that farmland.

I have, I saw and I noted.

It’s not as easy to see from a car window how our cities progressively sneak their way into the rural scene because we’re probably on main highways lined with strip malls and fast food places and we’re in a hurry.

But, if you take the back roads out of town you can often see how “progress” wends its way and brings changes to the landscape.

Madison? Yes

For instance, you might drive Seminole Highway south from the Beltline (Highways 12/14 & 18/151) in Madison. Go through the stoplights at PD (McKee Road) and note all the new construction ‒ business park on the right, houses on the left.

A couple of years ago you would have come upon a small farmstead with cattle milling about the barnyard next to a very old stone barn. It's now gone ‒ replaced by a large church. Go a little farther, just beyond the junction with Lacy Road and you’ll see some empty land, a large farmhouse, big empty barns and other empty farm buildings on both sides of the road.

Jean and Patrick O’Brien now overlook 140 acres of glass solar panels, but no cattle.

The farm on the left, long farmed by Patrick O'Brien is empty of livestock with most of the rich farmland now covered with solar panels. Same for the farm on the right across the highway long farmed by also retired brother Thomas O'Brien.

This mere mile of blacktop road leads us through major urban construction to real-life operating farms. However there is little doubt that the relationship is a bit fragile as we can still see the outline of housing developments, schools and water towers just to the east of the farms.

Over 100 years

The first farm owned by the O’Brien family has been in the family for over 100 years. The O’Briens came to the township of Fitchburg in 1899 after leaving Pennsylvania following the Civil War.

Patrick O'Brien is the current owner (retired) of the 200-acre farm

“This was 'Irish country',” he laughingly commented in a recent interview. “There were the Mckees, Laceys, Whelans and O’Briens in our area.

The now-outdated farm sign.

“I remember when we rode our bicycles up to Treasure Island (for many years the State Lottery Headquarters and Prangeway). That seemed to be a long trip and there was a lot of open space between here and there. Now it’s across the Beltline and there’s so much traffic”, recalls Pat.

“We had a lot of big dairy farms in the area then ‒ there was Bowman Dairy, Alpine Dairy and McKees”, he commented. “They’re all long gone as Madison grew in size the acres of farmland decreased.

Sun Prairie too

We've lived In a house we built a couple miles outside Sun Prairie many years ago. It's some 15 miles northeast of Madison just off US 151, For many years I rode my bicycle to Madison via a criss cross of rural farm roads – roads with little or no traffic – and an easy route around the interstates and heavy traffic.

Not any more. The farms are all gone, replaced by houses, apartments, eateries and stores of many kinds. Yes, I parked my bike some years (age caught up with me) but as I travel the area today by car it's obvious my rural roads and bike paths are now gone and the Sun Prairie metro area has expanded into double its former size. (23,000 in 2000 - 34,000 today)

Big box stores on the edges of big cities are often built on land used to grow crops.

I remember my conversation with one of the Statz Bros. at Carl F. Statz and Sons Implement, Waunakee who professed, “we are losing so many farms in the area that we have had to move more into the lawn, garden and landscaping business marketing areas.”

And so It goes: larger cities are expanding in acreage as farms sell to a higher bidder. It has been going on for many years but now it seems to be easier to notice and to see.

I remember the days when I did a lot of business flying and noted the city expansions while landing and taking off. Houston especially – new roads, new developments of every kind but little zoning – a mess they say.

Time moves on and land use sometimes lags or changes in ways that don't satisfy everyone.

John F. Oncken can be reached at