The future of farming

Can area farms survive the region’s development boom?

One of the most popular bumper stickers in Dane County, which may or may not come standard on any new Prius or Subaru, states a simple slogan: “No Farms, No Food.” But with rapid development in recent years, local fields are being usurped by subdivisions and parking lots, and families who spent generations tilling the soil are saying goodbye to a way of life forever. 

“America’s Dairyland” has graced the state’s license plates since 1948. Countless Wisconsinites willingly – proudly, even – self-identify as “cheeseheads.” But development and farmland are two land uses that often clash, and some say they are excited for a future with less farms. Five years ago, the conservative advocacy group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce pushed to remove “America’s Dairyland” from the state’s license plates, suggesting a different motto, such as “forward,” that would signify the state is moving on from its past. For many people, the way “forward” is to transform Wisconsin’s landscape into a more densely populated assortment of cities and villages. Surging land prices and a skyrocketing population in Dane County mean market forces are squarely on their side, and the region will be on the frontline of this ideological battle. As has been the case during prior times of crisis, some small, family farms are disappearing, while those that remain are facing pressure to become significantly larger.

According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, between 2012 and 2017, the number of farms in Dane County dropped by seven percent, to 2,566. But over the same period, the average size of farms in the county (197 acres) increased by eight percent, with just over half a million acres being farmed in total. Five years ago, the market value of farm products sold in Dane County was well over $509 million, with about $10 million in government payments to farms and $109 million in net farm income. The average farm sold $198,392 in products annually, while receiving $7,806 in government payments. Crops made up 36 percent of sales, while livestock, poultry, and products accounted for 64 percent. 

Updated numbers will be available from the USDA later this year, and they will show exactly how much farmland has been lost in Dane County over the last five years. At the same time, the county is updating its Farmland Preservation Plan, which will be finalized by the end of 2022. 

Farms in Wisconsin are well known for dairy cows, corn and soy, but local farms also produce sheep, goats, pheasants, fruits, nuts, vegetables, Christmas trees and tobacco, to name just a few. That’s still a sizable portion of the county’s economy, but when the Mail profiled a series of local family farms last year, one common theme was that they had recently stopped actively farming the land, or they expected to be the final generation to do so. 

Many champions of development say growth is inevitable, good, and a sign that the landscape is being modernized and improved, similar to the way early Europeans saw Manifest Destiny. But for others, farmland not only provides essential food; it also offers benefits for everyone, including non-farmers and nearby city dwellers. 

For government leaders, the issue is vast and complex. American economics are set up to promote growth, but growth comes with costs, as well. Sometimes, the benefits of certain land uses cannot be represented merely in terms of tax base. 

“[Farming] definitely, I believe, increases our quality of life, especially when people get out and urban folks and rural folks get to know each other,” said Dane County executive Joe Parisi. “Diversity is good at every level. You see we have so much in common, and the more we interact, the more obvious that becomes.”

Parisi, a progressive Democrat whose office is in one of the state’s most liberal, densely-populated cities, has spent much of his 11 years as head of the county working outside of the capital on a variety of projects, initiatives and partnerships designed to keep farming vibrant in Dane County. The county has numerous programs intended to preserve farmland, increase water quality, prevent erosion, create buffers from housing, tackle climate change, harness energy with manure digesters, and more. During the pandemic, the county created a program called Farm-to-Foodbank, stocking local pantries with goods from area farms, in an effort to simultaneously help struggling farmers and people experiencing food insecurity. 

The UW-Extension, Farmland Preservation Plan, Land Conservation Division, Dane County Comprehensive Plan, Dane County Climate Action Plan and more all address farmland preservation, to some degree. 

According to Brian Standing, senior planner with the county’s Planning and Development department, there are few, if any, county departments that don’t work with farms in some capacity. 

“Since agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the land area in the county, nearly every department of the county has at least some interaction with farmers or farming,” Standing said.  “For example, our Aging and Disability Resources Center provides services to all residents of Dane County, including a number of farmers. Our Highways and Transportation Department plans, designs, builds and maintains the County Trunk Highway system, which were, long ago,  originally termed ‘farm-to-market highways.’”

He said similar examples could be found for every single department, including the Sheriff’s Department, Emergency Management, the Register of Deeds or the Circuit Court system, “that touch the lives of all Dane County residents, whether farmers or not.”

Parisi called farmland preservation, coupled with environmental protection, “a big part of what we do.”

“We partner with [farmers] a great deal,” he added. 

But Parisi acknowledged “enormous pressures from population growth,” which inflate land values, leading to development, and “also creates challenges for farmers who find themselves suddenly surrounded by subdivisions.”

“It certainly is not getting any easier to be a farmer,” Parisi said. 

“Dane County is a microcosm of the state,” the executive continued. “Sometimes people laugh when I say that, because they think it’s just ‘liberal Madison,’ but Madison is less than half the population of our county.”

Parisi says he sees value in both the urban and rural ways of life that have historically thrived in Dane County, and his agencies, with an annual budget of $600 million, are working to help them co-exist in the face of a harsh economic reality. 

“The population pressures will not slow down,” said Parisi. “We will continue to be a fast-growing county.”

A key document in determining what Dane County will look like as it grows is the Farmland Preservation Plan. Last approved in 2012, the plan is due for an update and recertification this year. The document, which sets the county’s goals, objectives and policies for protecting working agricultural lands and the farm economy, also determines eligibility for farmland preservation tax credits and other government benefits. With 474,000 acres in Farmland Preservation Zoning, Dane County farmers can claim a total of $3.5 million in tax credits each year. Currently, there are more than 1,200 farmers with existing conservation practices in Dane County. As part of the initiative, farms that take part must comply with water and soil conservation standards. 

The general idea is simple: to preserve land for agricultural use and agriculture−related uses, which can include a variety of “undeveloped” natural resource and open space areas. While the plan is intended to preserve farms, it is also on the books to head off conflicts between rural areas and growing municipalities that threaten their existence through annexation. 

Farming is as old as human civilization. In fact, it was a prerequisite for civilization itself. Until recently, researchers believed farming was “invented” about 12,000 years ago in the Cradle of Civilization – modern-day Iraq, the Levant, parts of Turkey and Iran. But a discovery by an international collaboration of researchers from Tel Aviv University, Harvard University, Bar-Ilan University, and the University of Haifa offered evidence that the origins of modern agriculture stretch back as far as 23,000 years ago.

Scientists believe the carrying capacity of the entire planet was around 10 million hunter gatherers, which was roughly the population around the time of the last ice age. With agriculture, however, the globe is currently supporting an estimated 8 billion people. 

While humans have banded together in hamlets, villages and cities for thousands of years, modern development is incredibly recent, with cement only being invented less than 200 years ago. 

Ironically, the invention of farming created the ability for humans to cultivate and store vast surpluses, which led directly to the growth of cities and villages, which today are replacing the very agricultural land that enabled their existence all those years ago. Today, some conservationists are wondering if cities and villages, like some concrete Oedipus, are fated to destroy the father that gave them life. 

Many people also point out that farms are not entirely “natural” forms of land use. They are, in fact, landscapes that are highly impacted by human activity, which changed significantly when people moved away from hunting and gathering and settled down to work the land. Instead, farms are a bridge between people’s wild, primordial past and all the marvels and perils of modernity. 

Angie Doucette​ serves as the Midwest Farmland Protection Manager for the American Farmland Trust, which, in addition to working to save the nation’s farms, is also the source of the “No Farms, No Food” bumper sticker. 

“We, as a country, are very passionate about land use,” she said. “When it comes to land we really are very passionate, and … while we have different perspectives we can work toward the same goals.”

According to Doucette, farming contributes $105 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy and accounts for 11 percent of the workforce. 

From 2001 to 2016, 11 million acres of agricultural land in the United States were paved over, fragmented, or converted to uses that jeopardize agriculture. During that same period,  the country lost prime farmland roughly equal to the size of the state of New Jersey. The  American Farmland Trust says this imperils sustainable food production, economic opportunities, and the environmental benefits afforded by well-managed farmland and ranchland.

They believe low-density residential (LDR) land use is a “major threat” to agricultural land, and to the country’s rural character and the environment as a whole. 

“There is a serious threat to farmland in Dane County and in Wisconsin,” said Doucette. “Dane County has experienced some of the most severe loss.”

The good news, according to Doucette, is that “the tools to protect farmland exist.” They include tax incentives, land trusts, public education and an array of public/private partnerships. 

“I think we see great things when that happens,” she said. 

In addition to working to save existing farms, the American Farmland Trust also strives to engage with new and potential farmers to break down barriers – cost being chief among them – to entering agricultural production. 

Losing more farms would strike “a significant blow to our economy and our culture,” she said. -This is the first in a series of articles about local farmland and land use ethics

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