From tales of struggle and triumph passed down through generations of a farm family to accounts of new beginnings for those venturing into agriculture for the first time, the stories shared by farmers are as rich and diverse as the fields they sow. These stories mark the history of a farm family and, as was recently witnessed in Green Bay, Wisconsin, can also help chart the path for their future.
In early June, members of Wisconsin’s agricultural and conservation communities lent their stories to the Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, a policy-making body within the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The department was tasked in 2011 through the state budget appropriations process to review and evaluate its investment in the fledgling Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) program. Through the PACE program, landowners can apply for state funding to help purchase the development rights of their working lands and help protect it from non-agricultural development. The board meeting in Green Bay was the latest in the fight for continued PACE support.
There is no off-season in agriculture and the spring and summer months can be particularly demanding. Nevertheless, speakers came from farms across the state, each leaving much work waiting for them back home, to share their stories and to make the case for PACE. Several farmers detailed the economic development benefits tied to PACE funding. They identified incentives to buy more land, expand operations and provide opportunities for young family members: When they reinvested in agriculture, their employees and local communities also benefited.
As young farmers Christa Behnke, Zoey Brooks and Kyle Zwieg explained, the PACE easements on their families’ properties have provided them certainty for the future and the opportunity to carry on the family business. Zwieg added that he and a brother would probably be working off the farm had it not been for their farm’s PACE easement.
The power of these farmers’ voices—just a sliver of the approximately 37,000 farm operators across the state—illuminated the numerous benefits of PACE. As a result of their efforts, the board took decisive action. After reviewing the recently released PACE report in the afternoon, the board recommended to the Wisconsin Legislature that the PACE program be continued and a source of funding be identified. The motion passed unanimously.
This good news is the latest in American Farmland Trust’s ongoing work to help protect Wisconsin’s critical farmland. Along with our partner, Gathering Waters Conservancy, we have been on the ground in Wisconsin since 2008, working to secure essential policies and programs through the Campaign for Wisconsin’s Farm and Forest Lands. Together, we organized and coordinated a sizeable and influential coalition in support of creating two new farmland protection and farm viability programs — PACE and the Agricultural Enterprise Area Program — that were adopted and funded by the state Legislature in 2009.
However, then newly anointed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker targeted the PACE program for elimination in his inaugural budget package in early 2011. Through the “Friends of Farmland Protection” campaign, American Farmland Trust and Gathering Waters Conservancy coordinated key supporters from the farm, local government, land trust and planning communities to reach out to lawmakers, the governor and other key leaders to voice strong grassroots support for farmland protection in Wisconsin. In the end, the Legislature listened to the stories shared about the importance of PACE, removing the proposal that would have eliminated the PACE program and restoring funds for the first round of approved applications.
Altogether, the land protection and conservation involvement of American Farmland Trust and our partners in Wisconsin have made progress while overcoming significant hurdles since 2008. The impact has been the designation of 340,000 acres in 17 Agricultural Enterprise Areas and 75 applications covering more than 20,000 acres to the PACE program. But our work is far from complete. Through collective action and shared stories, we continue to help steer efforts to protect Wisconsin’s farmland for generations to come.
About the author: One of the nation’s leading experts in Farmland Protection, Bob Wagner celebrated his 25th year at American Farmland Trust in 2010 and has worked in the field of farmland protection since 1981. In his current position, Wagner helps states and local communities nationwide build support for and create policies to protect agricultural land.