In June 2009, the Wisconsin State Legislature adopted the Working Lands Initiative with the objective of protecting farm and forest lands in the state. Among the landmark efforts introduced by the Working Lands Initiative were the Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) and Agricultural Enterprise Area programs. American Farmland Trust and Gathering Waters Alliance were the driving forces behind the initiative and continue to work together to support conservation programs while providing resources to support farmland protection.
Farmland protection leaders in Waupaca County gather at Bob and Penny Leder's (left) farm in 2010. Waupaca County farmers were among the first successful PACE applicants in Wisconsin.
Just two years ago, farming and farmland protection advocates in Wisconsin were riding high when the legislature created a statewide Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (PACE) and the budget allocated $12 million to provide state grants to PACE projects over the next two years. Through the PACE program, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection provides funding to local governments and non-profit organizations for the purchase of easements from landowners.
The new tools were certainly necessary. Wisconsin is near the top of the list of states that have lost prime agricultural land to development pressure, with more than 280,000 acres lost between 1982 and 2007 alone. Agriculture is crucial to the state’s economy, and well-managed agricultural areas provide an array of environmental benefits. Fast-forward to this past January. Governor Scott Walker’s inaugural budget package not only put on hold all previously promised funds for PACE but also called for eliminating the program entirely. Wisconsin is near
This threat to the state’s fledgling PACE program caused a stir among a wide, bipartisan cross-section of farmers, conservationists, farm advocates and community activists. Citizens from across the state spoke up in support of keeping a strong farmland protection program intact. Dozens of individual farmers and other citizen advocates of farmland protection were joined by counties and towns, land trusts, farm groups and other citizen-based organizations in these efforts. Citizens reached out to lawmakers, the governor and other key leaders to voice strong grassroots support for farmland protection in Wisconsin. In particular, Joint Committee on Finance field hearings on the budget were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for farmland protection and the PACE program in Wisconsin.
And indeed the legislature listened, removing the proposal that would have eliminated the PACE program and restoring funds for the 16 initial PACE applications that had received careful review and approval for funding. Other critical components of the state’s farmland protection program have also been maintained in the budget. Counties are required to update their farmland protection plans, and grant money is available to assist them with their plan updates. The budget also provides $27 million in farmland protection tax credits to Wisconsin farmers when they meet their conservation responsibilities.
With Governor Walker’s signing of the budget over the last weekend in June, farmland protection efforts and PACE have a new lease on life in Wisconsin. This is due in no small measure to the earnest and genuine voices of citizens speaking out in support of farmers, farming and the protection of valuable, irreplaceable farmland.
About the authors:
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.
Bill Berry is a writer and communications specialist who works in the areas of private-land conservation and agriculture. A consultant to American Farmland Trust, he currently oversees the Working Lands Initiative website. He lives in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.