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Preservation effort sprouts discussion

Former state ag secretaries Jim Harsdorf (left) and Gary Rohde were among the presenters at the recent Working lands seminar at WITC-New Richmond.

Farm land across St. Croix County is being swallowed up by development.

That's why an effort to preserve the region's agricultural property is picking up steam.

An impressive list of agricultural heavy hitters were in New Richmond March 11 to discuss ways to accomplish that very goal.

Among the presenters at the "Working Lands Protection in Western Wisconsin" conference were two former Wisconsin secretaries of agriculture, Jim Harsdorf and Gary Rohde, along with Rod Nilsestuen, current secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Representatives from various land preservation organizations, area farmers interested in preservation and land preservation experts filled the conference room at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College-New Richmond for much of the day's presentations.

Farm land preservation has been occurring on a small scale across St. Croix, Pierce and Polk counties in recent years. But as the population of the region continues to climb, more pressure is being felt among farm land owners to decide the future of their land.

Rohde told attendees that it will take a coordinated effort among all partners to be successful with preservation efforts.

In 1976, when the debate over saving farm land began, few state officials saw the need, Rohde said. He noted that the Department of Transportation was buying up more land than they needed for projects but didn't see a reason to change its practices.

By 1977, when the Farm Land Preservation Act was instituted, town hall meetings across the state turned ugly.

"People thought it was the wrong thing to be doing," Rohde said.

Today, most people understand the need to protect agricultural lands for future generation, he said. Not everyone agrees on the way to accomplish that task, however, he added.

Rohde said he supports several state proposals to ensure that Wisconsin's agricultural economy remains strong for generations to come.

He suggests that the state address development density requirements, so that smaller tracts of land are used up for housing and commercial proposals.

Rohde also would like to see beginning farmer programs to help young producers be successful when they start out.

"If we're serious about preserving land for agricultural purposes, we need to make sure we have people farming the land who really want to farm the land," he said.

On the issue of preservation, Rick Remington, with the West Wisconsin Land Trust, said more farmers in the region have shown an interest in saving ag land. Regional and state land trusts have worked out several agreements with producers in the area over the past decade.

"We've done pretty decent work. It's a start," he said. "It's picking up speed."

Remington said some funding is available to pay farmers for development rights. Others benefit from tax credits available on preserved ag land.

He cautioned, however, that farmers shouldn't go into the process to make a bunch of money. Their primary motivation should be the preservation of farm land.

Judy Edgar, a Town of Troy farmer whose ag land is preserved through a conservation easement, said she doesn't regret her family's decision.

"We're working class people who were trying to find ways to protect our farm," she said. "Forever is a very long time. It gives me a great sense of peace of mind and satisfaction."

Dan Pearson, a Town of Troy supervisor and farmer, reported about that municipality's efforts to promote farm land preservation. He said development rights are assigned to each plot of land and producers can sell off those right on a per-lot basis, effectively preserving ag land along the way.

He noted that a few farmers and developers have taken advantage of the program, but there is the potential for more agreements.

Attendees heard an update on state funding aimed at preserving farm land in certain parts of the state. St. Croix County is among high priority counties identified by officials.

One new idea that is being pushed is the establishment of agricultural enterprise zones, where five farmers near one another agree to work together to preserve their farms. The state is looking for 10 pilot projects across Wisconsin to try out the concept.

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