Largest AEA Relied on Communication, Creativity

Advice from Matt Zoshke, an organizer of Wisconsin’s largest agricultural enterprise area (AEA):  Be willing to work with the farmers in your area and understand their concerns.

That and a lot of cooperative, creativity and hard work went into establishment of the Heart of America’s Dairyland AEA in Clark and Marathon counties. It also didn’t hurt that Zoshke, the Clark County conservationist, has a farm background and is well-known in the agriculture community.

The AEA was initially about 98,000 acres but was expanded to 164,451 acres across 10 towns, five in each county. It is aptly named. Clark, with 895 dairy herds, and Marathon, with 689, rank one and two in the state, which has about 10,500 herds.

Early buy-in by town chairmen was a key. “I told the chairmen ‘I will do it with you, not for you.’ This completely came from the towns,” Zoshke said. In all, 27 town meetings were held in Clark County. Five towns were then ready to move forward.

Next came a series of meetings with town residents to determine their interest. Then it was time to petition the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) for AEA designation.

DATCP officials noted that HOAD’s petition “was the first to say we need to preserve farmland because it’s the right thing to do,” Zoshke noted.  “We said we need to save farmland because that’s our economy. That’s our bread and butter.”

In an area were zoning is limited, Zoshke’s message to town chairmen was simple: “You’re not zoned, so real farmland preservation is going to come from the AEA.”

Participation in the state’s farmland preservation program was also touted as a means of boosting the local economy. State tax credits of $5 to $10 an acre are available in AEAs, depending on whether governments enact farmland preservation plans and farmland preservation zoning. In Clark County, credits are usually $5.

“We started talking about multiplier effect of a dollar. Farmers said ‘If we can bring a quarter or half a million more into the county, it’s not just for us.’ All of a sudden, everybody is getting some of that money being spread around,” Zoshke said. He noted UW Extension provided good information about dairying’s multiplier effect on communities.

As of November 2013, the AEA has produced 175 agreements, covering 40,000 acres. The average agreement covers 220 acres. At $5 an acre, “That’s real money. It’s a couple of tractor tires. Fuel for planting,” Zoshke said.

Landowners signing agreements agree to meet conservation standards, but Zoshke said most of the farms were already in compliance.

While the area isn’t impacted by urban sprawl, rural residential development is a concern. The AEA petitioners said they wanted to preserve the region's agricultural heritage, assure production capacity, assess and protect environmental resources and minimize conversion of farmland to non-farm uses.

They also aim to develop markets for local products. “We created a brand with HOAD, building off discussions with Extension and business development folks,” Zoshke said.

The efforts of many didn’t go unnoticed. The AEA received the Top Rural Development Initiative Award from Wisconsin Rural Partners in 2012.