Saving our Farmland

“We must protect our land,” urged the Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture. “Land is our most precious natural resource.”

Secretary Rod Nilsestuen testified before a Joint Hearing of the Assembly Agriculture Committee and the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Higher Education. I had the distinct honor of chairing the Joint Hearing. The topic was protecting farmland – specifically the Working Lands Initiative.

We are permanently losing farmland at an alarming rate. State-wide we are losing about one township of productive farmland every year. UW research documented our state lost about 100,000 acres in the first five years of this decade. We simply cannot sustain such a loss of a vital part of our economy, our heritage and an irreplaceable natural resource.

The Working Lands Initiative is a state-wide effort, started five years ago, to provide tools and incentives for the preservation of forest and farmland. The ideas for the initiative came from a 27- member committee of farmers and stakeholders. The group spent a year reviewing what has and has not worked around the country. Many members and others traveled to the East Coast to see how farmland is preserved around very quickly growing cities.

The task force looked for practical and achievable solutions. This was particularly challenging given the budget deficit faced by our state. The task force wanted something that promoted growth and development in a way that also preserved productive farmland. They wanted to promote all types of farms and they wanted to protect individual property rights.

After carefully crafting their proposal, the group and the organizations they represent scheduled dozens of sessions around the state asking for citizen input.

The results of all this work ended up in the Governor’s 2009 –11 state budget released a few weeks ago. It was then I and Assembly Ag Committee Chair Representative Vuwink scheduled a Joint public hearing on the proposal.

During the committee hearing, members and the public learned the details of the new initiative. The program overhauls and modernizes the state’s 30- year old Farmland Preservation Program; it provides dollars to local government to update their farmland preservation plans and zoning ordinances (if zoning exists). The program allows for the Purchase of Agriculture Conservation Easements – a way to preserve farmland for a long time. The initiative also creates another tool – the Agriculture Enterprise Area. This is a way for farmers and local officials to create areas of land dedicated to agriculture.

At the Joint Hearing committee members received testimony from many farm groups, farmers and local government officials. No one spoke in opposition to the proposal. Two farmers brought their daughters with them as a testament to the importance of protecting farmland for future generations.

For me, the day was best summed up by one of the farmers who shared with us the following quote from Theodore Roosevelt…We are not building our country for a day. It is to last through the ages.

State Senator Kathleen Vinehout serves the 31st Senate District. She can be contacted by mail at Senator Kathleen Vinehout, P.O. Box 7882 Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7882 by phone at 877-763-6636 (toll free) or email at Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov