DATCP: Cows on the Capitol lawn lead to career spent writing ag impact statements

Contact: Donna Gilson 608-224-5130

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Jim Dick, Communications Director, 608-224-5020

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MADISON – Growing up on a dairy farm near Rio, Alice Halpin may have only heard talk about a protester camping out on the Capitol lawn more than thirty-five years ago with three cows. Little did Alice know that protest would open a career path for her.

As an agricultural economist with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Halpin writes agricultural impact statements for public projects: roads, pipelines, airports, sewage treatment plants, electric transmission lines and landfills. It’s a job she’s been doing for more than 20 years.

Agricultural impact statements are required by law when the project initiator – whether a government agency like the Department of Transportation or a business like a power company – has the authority to condemn property and the project will take more than five acres from any one farm. Statements may also be prepared for projects that will take less land, but still affect a farm significantly, or that are within city or village boundaries, but still have a big impact on a farm. Town roads and lower voltage power lines are exempt from the program.

The law came into being in 1978, after a Manitowoc County farmer’s protest two years earlier of the expansion of I-43 from Sheboygan to Green Bay. He felt the project took too much farmland, so he brought three cows to the Capitol lawn, sheltered them in a tent and makeshift corral, milked them daily, and stayed for a month. The interstate went through, but the law changed to make sure that farmers were part of the discussion.

“It was originally designed to provide public information about the agricultural impacts of public projects,” she says. “But we can also aid communication between the project initiator and the landowner. We can explain it to the landowners, because often they haven’t dealt with anything like this before, and we can bring things to the attention of the project initiators that they may not have realized. Typically, the project initiators try to follow our recommendations.”

Among the major and most controversial projects she’s worked on have been an electric transmission line between Wausau and Duluth, the Enbridge pipeline, and the expansion of Highway 26.

“Pipelines and transmission lines tend to be more controversial,” she says. “People can see the benefits of roads more easily, but transmission lines seem as if they’re just passing through for someone else’s benefit. Petroleum and natural gas pipelines are often more of a concern for the landowners than the rest of the public. Also, pipelines and transmission lines usually affect more property owners than even large highway projects.”

Ag impact statements start with interviewing the farmers who own the land in question. Halpin tries to contact all the farmland owners for small projects, and samples them for larger ones. The statements may cover drainage, access, or whatever else is of concern to the landowner. The statements include recommendations for reducing impacts on farms.

Those phone calls to interview farmers are among the most rewarding parts of her job, Halpin says. “Farmers aren’t always opposed to projects that will affect their property. But for all the landowners I talk to who are facing a situation they’d rather not have to deal with, for the most part, they’re cooperative and answer my questions. They rarely yell at me or vent at me. That kind of amazes me, that so many people are courteous and polite even when they’re confronting an unwelcomed project. I’ve had people thank me just for listening to their concerns.”

Halpin and the AIS program are without a lead worker since Peter Nauth passed away in early September. She gives him much of the credit for the program’s success, and her own professional growth.

“I originally came into this job as a limited term employee,” she recalls. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics, spent some time in an exchange program at an Irish ag college, did volunteer work and what she describes as “odds ‘n’ ends” when the LTE job opened up. After 18 months, she moved into a permanent position.

“I have a farm background, but had no experience with construction. Pete started me out writing right away, with a little airport project. It was on-the-job learning, and Pete was really helpful in answering questions and pointing me in the right direction to get answers,” she says. “He was a strong mentor not only for his knowledge, but also for his character – he was concerned with doing the right thing, helping land owners, and working with initiators to get reasonable solutions.”

Generally Nauth handled the more controversial or unusual issues that arose, she remembers. For smaller projects, one or the other of them would usually write the report, but for big projects, everyone contributed. The nature of the projects has changed somewhat, she says. She used to write a couple of reports a month. Now, it’s 6 to 12 a year, but the projects are bigger.

She appreciates the fact that she was hired her for her abilities, because she is legally blind. “There are limits to where I can work because I can’t drive, and Peter was always very accommodating. This has been a good place for me. I use the phone and computer, and Pete usually did the farm visits.”

The variety in her job has kept her interest all these years. Although she unloaded hay and fed calves on her family’s dairy farm as a kid, she was unfamiliar with cranberry marshes, potato fields, drainage, and irrigation.

“That’s all stuff I never knew much about,” she says. And now she does.