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Koepke Family Proves Farming Viable in Urban Shadows

The Koepke family of rural Waukesha County has been a voice for farmland preservation for a long time. With Wisconsin’s still-new Working Lands Initiative in place, they’re finally seeing the fruits of their labors.

Father Jim Koepke has been a long-time member of the town plan commission, a voice for wise land use and protection of agricultural lands.

Son John Koepke has taken up the torch and become a staunch advocate of farmland preservation, serving on local and state boards and committees.

The Koepkes have been so engaged in farmland protection that they find themselves a bit boxed in. They’d consider an easement on their property under the new state Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements (PACE) program, but John believes his involvement on state bodies makes it prudent for them to wait a bit.

The Koepkes are partners with other family members in a 330-cow town of Oconomowoc dairy farm. Once known as “Cow County, USA” for its many dairy farms, Waukesha County in populous southeastern Wisconsin has seen suburban growth devour farmland in recent decades.

John Koepke faced that head-on after earning a degree at Cornell College in New York 1995 and coming back home to farm. “Our neighborhood in Waukesha County changed a lot from 1990 to 2000. We suffered a large loss of farmland. The ‘front’ of houses got a lot closer. I remember one of my employees described them as ‘ominous mushrooms.’

“It became obvious that farming was going to be hampered by limits on our ability to either grow or buy feed or recycle nutrients in the form of manure if there wasn’t enough farmland.”

Then, in 2005, a subdivision was proposed near their farm. Neighbors and friends asked the Koepkes for help. They agreed, which led to many trips to the town and county meetings. One thing led to another. “One person on the Town Board was anti-agriculture and pro-development,” John says. “I decided I should run against him. At the last minute, I filed papers. Much to our surprise, we won with a 70 percent majority.”

Both the town and county boards denied the developer’s rezoning request. “It became pretty heated. We’d win one battle and lose the next,” John recalls. “It was an adventure, let’s put it that way. I remember my wife and me going to testify at the county courthouse the morning of the vote and the developer going out to the land and having Digger’s Hotline out there.”

It was a significant victory, Koepke says. “Maybe not in acres-wise thinking, but in long-term thinking. We made the County Board realize there were farmers in Waukesha County, and they wanted to stay in farming. While the county is very diverse, we do contribute to the county’s economy and just as much to the character, open space, water recharge, all the good things that go with farming. It was very encouraging.”

The victory also propelled John into a number of other farmland preservation efforts. He has worked with a local land trust, the Tall Pines Conservancy, to develop local interest in purchase of conservation easements.

In addition to serving on the Town Board, Koepke is also now a member of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Board. He was also appointed to the state’s Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements Council, which is implementing the state easement program.

Interest in farmland preservation continues to build in Waukesha County and neighboring Dodge County, where the Koepkes farm some land.

John’s advice for farmers interested in farmland preservation is to get involved. “There’s a lot of fear out there about doing things: Fear about how easements work, fear of what the neighbors will think, general concern about going first, will this work, and that sort of thing. The more people get together and the more it’s discussed, we realize it’s a good idea and it will work in short-term and long-term. We have hope."

TRACKING THE WORKING LANDS INITIATIVE IN WAUKESHA COUNTY

The first-ever request for applications to Wisconsin’s new PACE program drew interest in Waukesha County. Two requests were submitted to Wisconsin’s DATCP board. They include 50 acres in the city of Muskego and 72 acres in the town of Mukwonago. The latter was submitted by the Land Trust Network of Jefferson County. Also, a 31,608 acre-area in the town of Oconomowoc in Waukesha County and adjoining town of Ashippun in Dodge County was recommended for official designation as an agricultural enterprise area. Twenty-five farmers petitioned for the voluntary designation. 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.