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Dane County Farmer a Farmland Preservation Leader

Just south of the beltline that dissects the bustling capital city of Madison, verdant farm fields and woodlots mark the line between development and farmland preservation.

The Uphoff family hog and grain farm, operated continuously since 1866, serves as a linchpin in efforts to keep farming viable and open space plentiful in the Dane County town of Dunn and adjoining municipalities. The family farms 700 acres and raises purebred Berkshire hogs.

To say that Bob Uphoff is a farmland preservation pioneer in Wisconsin is an understatement. He and his brother, Fred, were recognized as American Farmland Trust Stewards of the Land in 1999 for their efforts to preserve farmland and employ sound farming practices. Fred has since left the farming operation due to health issues.

The town of Dunn is also recognized as a Wisconsin leader in efforts to preserve the agricultural economy and rural heritage. The town adopted a purchase of development rights program in the mid-1990s after residents agreed to a property tax levy of 50 cents per $1,000 valuation to fund the program. It has preserved more than 2,800 acres. The local funding has also allowed the town to leverage state and federal program dollars.

The town’s program was cited often in recent years as grassroots support grew for an updated statewide farmland preservation program. That led to the state’s new Working Lands Initiative, which includes tools such as a purchase of agricultural conservation easements (PACE) program and agricultural enterprise areas.

Uphoff, a member of the Dunn Plan Commission since 1980, served on a committee that studied how to structure the farmland preservation plan. The Uphoffs were also early adopters, selling development rights on three parcels totaling 244 acres – 134 in the town of Dunn and 55 acres each in the town of Blooming Grove and village of Fitchburg.

The Uphoffs are big believers in conservation, employing contour planting and grassed waterways along with no-till cropping. While selling development rights was motivated in part by that conservation ethic, it was also a business decision. “We saw an opportunity to add to our farming operation so we could improve our cash flow,” says Bob. The Uphoffs acquired more land for their operation and were also able to install more conservation practices. “Agriculture is a challenging lifestyle and business. It’s very dynamic, and you need stability,” he says. “Our town is a leader in trying to preserve agriculture. We feel it’s a very viable industry.”

The added stability has allowed the Uphoffs to look to the future. He and his wife, Julia, have two sons, Chris, 22, and Brian, 17. Both are involved in the business. Chris plans to stick around. “I’d like to be in it for the long haul,” he says.

One key to successful farmland preservation is a strong land use plan, Bob notes. “Our town has had a strong plan since 1979. Purchase of development rights is good, but if you don’t have that plan, it’s not going to work.”

Bob’s advice for individuals and organizations working with tools like easements is to look to the future. “You have to look beyond now to down the road. Do you want to participate to enhance your operation or to help with your retirement? Is it for debt reduction? Expansion? You need to give it serious consideration,” he says. “At the end of the process, if you sell the development rights, you still have the land.”

TRACKING THE WORKING LANDS INITIATIVE IN DANE COUNTY

The first-ever request for applications to Wisconsin’s new PACE program drew interest in Dane County, where nine requests totaling 1,462 acres were submitted for review by the state PACE Advisory Council and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The state’s new Agricultural Enterprise Areas program also drew interest in the county. The town of Dunn and six farmers submitted requests to voluntarily enroll 11,075 acres for farming. The town of Windsor and 15 farmers sought to enroll 11,135 acres. Both requests were recommended for official designation through the state’s rulemaking process. Once an area is officially designated as an AEA, eligible farmers owning land within the AEA may enter into a voluntary farmland preservation agreement with the state. This enables the landowners to receive tax credits in exchange for agreeing to keep their farm in agricultural use for at least 15 years.