Waupaca Extension Heard Citizen Concerns and Acted
Many groups and individuals helped make Wisconsin’s new Working Lands Initiative a reality. Two Waupaca County Extension agents played crucial roles, both in their home county and in the state.
Greg Blonde, county agriculture agent, and Mike Koles, community development educator, are quick to give credit to others, but those who’ve watched the evolution of Wisconsin’s new farmland protection tools give them a lion’s share of the credit.
“Mike and Greg had an impact far beyond Waupaca County,” says Vicki Elkin, policy initiatives advisor at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Before moving to DATCP, she led the campaign for the WLI on behalf of American Farmland Trust and Gathering Waters Conservancy.
UW Extension prides itself on listening to people and then helping them achieve their goals. The Waupaca County story is an example.
Extension agents there got involved more than 10 years ago, notes Blonde. “An Extension Advisory Committee asked county residents to identify the most important issues in the county,” he says. Land use and loss of farmland were among major concerns.
Armed with that information, the county began its comprehensive planning process in 2003, helped by a $500,000 grant from the state. The county and local municipalities picked up the rest. “We had folks’ cooperation throughout. The process went phenomenally,” says Koles. That’s not to say it was easy. “We had 44,000 points of public contact,” says Koles. “It took a lot of work and a lot of local, regional and county meetings.” Efforts were boosted by a landowner survey conducted by Extension that showed 80 percent of county residents agreed or strongly agreed protecting farm and forest land was important to them. Blonde successfully wrote a grant request to fund the survey.
The plan was completed in 2007. An accompanying ordinance was adopted in 2010. It identifies areas for growth and areas where the intent is to protect farm and forest resources. Key components include revisions to county zoning and its subdivision ordinance and a conservation easement program.
With county residents showing interest in farmland protection, Koles and Blonde set out to help people learn more about the details. They combined with American Farmland Trust and other groups to set up a tour of programs in the eastern U.S. For the initial tour, they had to raise $20,000 in just a couple of weeks. “We had great support from businesses and individuals. We raised $22,000,” Koles says. Fifty people took that initial tour. Two more followed, pulling in interested people from around the state. The tours helped educate people about programs in other state and how similar programs might be shaped for Wisconsin. The tours are credited with building grass-roots support for the WLI, which passed the Legislature in 2009.
Back home, the Waupaca County Partners for Working Lands has obtained three donated conservation easements, two on working farms and one on forested land. The program is partially funded by profits from the statewide Farm Technology Days hosted in the county a few years ago and by a grant from American Transmission Company.
The initial round of state Purchase of Conservation Easement applicants included four from Waupaca County.
Waupaca County has emerged as a farm and forest land preservation leader in the state. Blonde sees it this way: “Very few counties are blessed with the farmland, forest land and water resources we have. Protection of farm and forest land not only helps protect the character of our county, but our economic foundation, as well.”
ADVICE FROM THE AGENTS:
- Start with local (town level) information and education efforts to increase awareness: “Where does your community want to encourage agriculture and forestry to be located in the future?” “Where do you want to encourage residential and commercial development to be located?”
- Document local need/interest. More than once someone will ask “Why is this important?” and “Who says so?”
- Use the time-tested Extension strategy of farm tours. Identify others who have been successful, then travel to see how they made it happen, and/or bring them in to share their story.
- Keep the local UW-Extension Committee/local UWEX program advisory committee informed and up to date.
- Create an opportunity for local ownership through program development that includes leadership development. Through this process, key leaders who are firebrands can emerge.
- Include other county staff/departments early on. Their cooperation and support for establishing and implementing the easement program is absolutely crucial.
- Pursue grant opportunities to expand interest/awareness, and provide the needed resources/incentive to establish an easement pilot program (landowner surveys; model easement agreement; consulting/specialist input; cost-share demonstration project). Grants help create deadlines with outcomes.
- Develop a name and signage to help brand the program.
- Realize that progress will occur over years, not weeks or months. Stay focused on what’s possible. It’s been done before, successfully. Avoid getting dragged down by those who say it can’t work. It has and it will. Ultimately, broad-based public support and strong leadership always prevail. Respect divergent perspectives and find a way to achieve a win-win situation for as many people as possible.