Jun 27, 2013

Farmland protection: How is Wisconsin doing?

It has been nearly five years since Wisconsin’s updated farmland protection program, the Working Lands Initiative, was established.

So, how is it working? In short, pretty well. The Wisconsin Working Lands Initiative has three main components – the updated Farmland Preservation Program, Agricultural Enterprise Areas, and the Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements Program. Here’s an update on these three key areas.

Agricultural Enterprise Areas:

Farmers, working with local communities, can voluntarily pursue designation of an Agricultural Enterprise Area (AEA) by    submitting a petition to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).  AEAs encourage continued agricultural production, working lands protection and investment in the agricultural economy.

Farmers within designated AEAs can enter into voluntary farmland preservation agreements to collect farmland preservation tax credits. Landowners sign an agreement to keep land in agricultural use for at least 15 years. Those who sign up for tax credits agree to keep their farms conservation compliant. Some other key points:

·         Three rounds of petitions have yielded 22 AEAs in 17 counties and 55 towns, covering 530,000 acres. About 750 individual landowners have signed petitions seeking designations. Another round of applications has been submitted, and an announcement on the new AEAs is expected soon.

·         About 300 farmland protection tax credit agreements were signed by farmers in the first two rounds of AEAs. Farmers in AEAs that sign up for credits are eligible for $7.50 an acre. Those in an AEA that is also in a farmland preservation zoning area are eligible for $10 an acre.

·         We expect to see DATCP attempt to strengthen and enhance AEAs in coming years.  American Farmland Trust, Gathering Waters Conservancy and other partners are cooperating with DATCP in those efforts.

·         To learn more about the AEA program click here.

Farmland Preservation Program

After being cut last year due to budget constraints, grants to counties for updating farmland preservation plans were renewed in the state budget this year. As this program proceeds, it will eventually supplant the older Farmland Preservation Program. Among other improvements, the new program allows local people to make wise decisions about how to protect farmland while accommodating other land uses in their counties. Farmers in designated farmland preservation program areas are also eligible for farmland preservation tax credits. When the old program is phased out, farmers must be in a newly designated area to receive payment. 

For more information on the program, including information on planning progress in Wisconsin counties and a map showing the distribution of farmland preservation plans, click here.

The state budget as approved by the Legislature switched farmland preservation payments from “sum certain,” capped at $27 million per year in the past, to “sum sufficient,” which means whatever the total farmland preservation claims are in the future, the state would be committed to paying the full amount.

Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements:

While we’re disappointed funding for this innovative program was eliminated in the 2011-13 state budget, American Farmland Trust, Gathering Waters Conservancy and other partners continue to work to restore funding. A few key points about PACE in Wisconsin:

·         The first round of PACE farms preserved 5,124 acres of Wisconsin’s best farmland through 17 permanent easements.

·         Wisconsin’s PACE farms represent the agricultural diversity that blesses the state. They include dairy, row cropping, grazing and fruit and vegetable operations.

·         In several cases, young family members were able to join the operation as a result of PACE.

·         Several landowners used PACE proceeds to reinvest in their operations in a variety of ways that have resulted in a healthier businesses or reduced pressures on landowners. Some purchased additional farmland, some used easement proceeds for a tax-deferred real estate exchange that allows landowners to qualify for deferred capital gain treatment. Five landowners paid down debt. One landowner installed an on-farm grain storage facility by constructing a new 28,000 bushel grain bin and hiring an additional employee.

For more information on the state’s Working Lands Initiative, contact Bill Berry, American Farmland Trust field representative, 3210 Dan's Drive, Stevens Point, WI 54481, 715 341 9119, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).