DATCP: National study re-affirms need to protect state’s farmland

Validates and adds urgency to working lands intiative

Contact: Gary Radloff 608-224-5020

MADISON ― Wisconsin can boost its economic development climate by slowing the loss of valuable farmland to other uses, according to a national report on state’s economic development climate. The Corporation for Enterprise Development recently released a report card showing Wisconsin is improving its economic development climate – ranking among the top seven states nationally – but highlighted the large amounts of cropland being lost to other uses as a major challenge for the state.

The economic development rating put Wisconsin on the “honor roll” for the first time in the study’s 19-year history, but indicated can further strengthen its economic development climate by reversing the trend on crop land loss.

“We need to concentrate on slowing the loss of working farmland in this state and we are focused on making necessary changes. Wisconsin’s long-term economic development strategy must include tools to protect our valuable farm land and forest land,” says Rod Nilsestuen, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “Wisconsin can be a national leader in growing our bio-economy, but we need farmland and forestland for sustained growth and uses as the source of biomass for fuels, energy and new products. Wisconsin can be both green and growing”

Agriculture in Wisconsin has a direct economic impact of $28.6 billion and creates another $17.6 billion in economic activity, according to a UW-Extension study. The new bio-economy is a multi-billion dollar value added economic opportunity.

“Wisconsin has an incredible infrastructure in place today with its agriculture sector and forest business sectors. The new bio-economy can solidify Wisconsin’s economic growth as biomass from agriculture and forests is used to produce ethanol to fuel our cars, creating alternative energy sources and make products of the future such as chemicals and plastics from biomass,” said Nilsestuen.

When examining the amount of cropland being lost to other uses, the study indicated this as a “weakness” for Wisconsin and ranked the state 44th out of 50 states in this category.

“This should be a wake up call for Wisconsin residents, especially local units of government, that haphazard rezoning of their farm lands and forest lands for new housing or big box stores jeopardizes long-term economic vitality,” said Nilsestuen. “Once you pave over farms and forests they are lost forever.”

Research shows that for every one acre of farmland lost to other developmental uses, that an additional two more acres are made vulnerable. Working farm land in the state accounts for $16.8 billion in income-about 10 percent of Wisconsin’s total income every year. The value added economic opportunity from the bio-economy will be lost without an adequate supply of land to grow biomass crops which today are corn for ethanol and soybeans for bio-diesel, but tomorrow may include corn stover, wheat straw and switchgrass use for fuels and energy.

“Protecting farms and forest does not have to be a growth versus no growth debate. Intelligent approaches to planning and zoning can promote residential and commercial development while also preventing Wisconsin’s working lands from being chopped up and fragmented,” Nilsestuen said.

Secretary Nilsestuen last July formed the Working Lands Initiative steering committee – a citizen group of business, environmental, agriculture and local government leaders – to recommend new strategies and policies for Wisconsin to save its farm land and forest land. In addition to convening the Working Lands Initiative steering committee, Secretary Nilsestuen has been meeting monthly with groups of farmers and land conservationists statewide as a part of Governor Doyle’s “Capital for a Day” events. These meetings demonstrate broad public support for saving Wisconsin farms.

“Clearly Wisconsin is at a tipping point with its future economic position,” says Linda Bochert, co-chair of the Working Lands Initiative steering committee. “We need to give local communities the tools to save farms. Important steps we are considering include creating a statewide purchase of development rights program and strengthening agriculture planning and zoning protection.”

Twenty-seven states have some kind of a purchase development rights (PDR) program as part of the policy tool kit for saving farmland. Under a PDR a landowner sells all future development rights to a local unit of government or land trust and attaches easement to the title binding it. The land can continue to be a working farm.

The Working Lands Initiative steering committee will make final recommendations for new policies and programs to protect farmland to the governor and legislature by July.