Oct 10, 2013

Jefferson County Celebration

The clouds didn’t exactly part for the first Jefferson County Farmland Easement Celebration Saturday, Oct. 4. But overcast skies and a few sprinkles couldn’t hide the colors of autumn on Oakview Farms, permanently protected in 2011 by co-owners Rod Lea and Ned and Sarah Healy.

More than 200 people came to learn about farmland preservation, tour the farm and enjoy conversation, good food and a live band. The event was sponsored by the Jefferson County Farmland Easement Commission. Members of the commission were at work on the farm Saturday, and couldn’t be missed in the crowd. They wore bright red T-shirts that proclaimed, “Saving Our Dairy Air” on the front and had the county’s “Permanently Preserved Farmland” logo on back.

The commission has worked hard to protect county farmland in this pressure zone between Madison and Milwaukee metro areas. More than 1,000 acres have been protected through easements, and the county has a strong farmland preservation plan tied snuggly to the county’s comprehensive plan.

This gives farmers like Lea and the Healys hope for the future. They milk about 60 cows on the 221-acre farm. They harvest much of their own feed and employ no-till and vertical-till farming and a variety of conservation practices on the rolling landscape they call home. The soil hasn’t been plowed since the 1980s.

They were the first farm to gain a conservation easement as part of the Wisconsin Purchase of Agricultural Easement (PACE) Program. County easement commission funds and federal Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP) dollars helped secure the easement.

The state program preserved 5,124 acres of Wisconsin’s best farms and farmland through 17 permanent easements in its first round of applications. The commission was assisted in its efforts to protect the Lea farm by the Natural Heritage Land Trust. The farm was ranked No. 1 on the list of criteria considered by the state PACE Council. A second round of applications yielded high interest, but the program was defunded by state officials.

Lea hopes the state program will be revived. “I’ve lived here my entire life. I’ve seen the farmland get broken up by the subdivisions,” he says. “This program should have been in place 30 years ago. In 1987, there were 24 dairy farms in our township. Today we are one of eight that are left,” he said.

The County Easement Commission forges ahead in its farmland preservation efforts in a number of ways. It has some local funds for a county easement program and continues to help landowners who want to participate in the FRPP. Willing landowners also have donated a portion of the value of their easements, which provides a valuable local match and offers them a potential federal income tax deduction.

The easement helped assure a farming future for Ned and Sarah Healy and their three sons. After working on his neighbor and step-brother’s farm in his youth, in 1980 Ned Healy started buying into the business. The conservation easement helped assure that the Healy family will have an opportunity to buy the farm and remain in business without pressures to convert it to other uses.

When landowners donate or sell an agricultural conservation easement to a county or town program or land trust, they maintain ownership and management of their land and can sell or pass the land on to their heirs while forgoing future development rights.

(Portions of this taken from a story by Gloria Hafemeister in the Wisconsin State Farmer.)