Report Outlines Course for Healthy Agriculture and Rural Life

The Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin Project is releasing a wide-ranging report on the changing face of agriculture in Wisconsin. The report, a product of 2 ½ years of study, offers recommendations for healthy and sustainable agriculture and rural life in the state.


The final report of the project, an initiative of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, will be released at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Ave., in Sheboygan.


Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen, U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen, state Rep. and Assembly Agriculture Committee Chair Al Ott and Andrew Christenson, Wisconsin state president of the Future Farmers of America, will accept the report on behalf of the people of Wisconsin. 


Among more than 80 recommendations on all aspects of rural life, the report proposes:


  • Providing all citizens affordable, accessible health care. As a first step, the study recommends convening a summit of stakeholders to develop solutions to the rural health care dilemma, described as “a major constraint to the future of agriculture and rural communities.” 

  • Creating a statewide purchase-of-development-rights grant program to partner with voluntary local efforts to preserve working agricultural lands with minimum 25-year easements.

  • Creating agricultural enterprise areas that allow for designation of farmland areas for fixed periods of time for preservation and clustering of agricultural activities.

  • Changing the school aid formula to address declining enrollment issues so rural K-12 students are not disadvantaged.  

  • Recruiting and training non-traditional farm workers, both native and immigrant, to address the decline in the pool of farm and forest workers. 

  • Establishing an Agriculture Workforce and Development Council.


Co-chairs Stan Gruszynski and Tom Lyon led the project with a diverse steering committee (see full list at  Gruszynski is   director of rural leadership and community development in the Global Environmental Management Education Center at the College of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Lyon is a retired agribusiness operator with a long history of public service. He lives in Cambridge.


The project was funded by many public and private supporters from around the state:   


“What is important to remember is that the report expresses the wishes and desires of the people of Wisconsin,” Gruszynski says. “It is a commencement, not an end.  And it reflects what could happen if citizens become engaged in realizing public goals.” 


The project report contains information of vital interest to citizens interested in the future of agriculture and rural Wisconsin.


For example, medium-sized farms in Wisconsin are most threatened, with numbers dropping from 86,969 such farms in 1974 to 72,491 in 2002. At the same time, there has been an increase in both large and small farms. Overall, the total number of farms in Wisconsin dropped 30.4 percent from 1970 to 2004, while the number of farmers fell 31.5 percent. Farm acreage in Wisconsin is increasingly rented.


“The need to assure economic sustainability of farm families–particularly those who operate mid-sized farms–and their neighbors in rural communities is a foremost issue across the state,” the report says.


The state’s rate of farmland loss is now highest of all states in the upper Midwest. “We are losing 30,000 acres of farmland a year and even more is ‘parcelizing’: too small to farm, yet too big to mow. This is not sustainable,” Secretary Nilsestuen says in the report.


The study really did bring all voices to the table. About 740 citizens participated in six regional forums in 2006 in Ashland, Menasha, Menomonie, Oconomowoc, Platteville and Wausau. A statewide conference held in Madison in May 2007 drew 500 more.  Other expert and grassroots input was accepted throughout the project.


The report will be available as a PDF document on the Wisconsin Academy website, and will be distributed widely to designated public institutions and all statewide conference attendees. Individual copies may be purchased for $10 plus $2.50 postage and handling by calling 608-263-1692, ext. 10.