Rolling bucolic farm fields dotted with big red barns and roaming cows are part of the fabric of Wisconsin’s landscape, but those idyllic scenes are vanishing. Thousands of acres of farmland are gobbled up by sprawling development and, particularly in Door County, skyrocketing land values.
There are a few tools in the regulatory toolbox to prevent the conversion of farmland to other uses, but in the words of dairy farmer Don Niles, owner of Dairy Dreams in Kewaunee County, “We’re not making any more farmland in the world.”
A 2017 report from the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association stated Wisconsin has lost 40 percent of its farmland to other uses since 1950.
The loss of farmland has not had much of an effect on food production. Improved technology and farming practices have given farmers the ability to produce more on fewer acres. But the loss of farmland does have implications for conservation.
“New concrete gets poured, strip malls go up, land gets filled in… that obviously puts a little more pressure on the acres that are left,” Niles said.
There is a general consensus among conservationists that farmland preservation programs don’t have sharp enough teeth or offer a big enough incentive for farmland owners. Two of those programs and policies, use-value assessment and the Farmland Preservation Law, make up the bulk of the incentives to keep land in agriculture.
In 1995, Wisconsin passed a law to phase in use-value assessment, a policy used in every state to provide property tax relief to farmers. The policy applies a tax assessment based on the production value of farmland, not the market price.
The program was particularly popular around urban areas, where development pressures were increasing land values and virtually taxing farmers off their property.
Paul Zimmerman, executive director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, said use-value assessment was the single greatest tool in promoting preservation of farmland.
“Without use-value assessment we would have, in a number of farms or a large amount of farmland, the farmers would not be able to farm because the property taxes would be too high,” Zimmerman said.
He added that the number of farmland acres lost to development dropped by around 75 percent compared to the years before use-value assessment was implemented.
“[Use-value assessment] has helped ease the tax burden of farmers by more fairly recognizing the value of the land as it is being used,” wrote the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letter in their 2007 Future of Farming report.
The program essentially shifted the tax burden away from farmers and to residential and commercial property.
According to a 2003 report from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, between 1996, when the use-value assessment was first phased in, and 2002, property taxes on agricultural land fell by $767 million. Of that, $644 million (84 percent) was shifted to residential and commercial property owners while $123 million (16 percent) was absorbed by other agriculture-related properties such as farm buildings.
Use-value assessment has been criticized as being unnecessary in most parts of the state and for how easy it is to be abused.
In the Town of Delafield, about 30 miles west of Milwaukee, a property owner slashed his property valuation by more than $800,000 in 2012 by claiming he was planting some apple and Christmas trees. The town disagreed and, as of this year, the case may go to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
A 2010 report of 14 Wisconsin municipalities from the Legislative Audit Bureau determined that nine percent of the land in Wisconsin that is eligible for use-value assessment is owned by real estate developers.
“The agricultural use-value program has a loophole that is being abused by wealthy developers to shift their property taxes on to homeowners,” said former Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker in a statement in 2010. “Sometimes there are even improvements in the land already like sewer, curbs and streets which means it will never be farmed.”
In 2005, the state imposed levy limits on municipalities. Towns, which harbor most of the agriculture land that enjoy low property taxes, have been particularly squeezed for cash.
“We preserve farmland and receive very little in property taxes,” said Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association (WTA), at a conference in Elkhart Lake in October.
“Cash-strapped county and local governments may be inclined to support conversion of farmland, if non-farm development will generate high local property tax revenues,” according to the 2017 report from the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.
Koles also points to a cheap food policy that devalues land by subsidizing the crops grown on farms, but he suggested that municipalities have no incentive to keep farmland if there is another development looking to convert farmland away from agriculture.
“Let the farmland be developed into some type of residential or some other development that creates some property tax base,” said Koles, explaining the mindset of town officials.
But elimination of the use-value assessment without any cushion, particularly in a time of low commodity prices, could put smaller farmers out of business.
“If you had significantly high property taxes on land… you would literally begin taxing farmers off the landscape,” Zimmerman said.
The Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters stated there was no support for eliminating the use-value assessment in its research.
Farmland preservation (FP) zoning provides a way to incentivize agricultural landowners to keep their land in farming by providing tax credits. It also encourages conservation practices by requiring compliance with agricultural performance standards to receive the credit.
Following the 1977 Wisconsin Farmland Preservation Law, planning departments got together and determined the land in their respective counties that is expected to stay in agriculture for at least 10 years.
If a farmer’s land is in a FP zone and they are following the county’s conservation standards, they get between $5 and $10 per acre in a tax credit.
The 2017 Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association report states that many farmers choose not to participate in the program. They cite costs for conservation practices as being higher than the tax credit and limiting their options to sell the land if they plan to retire soon or are unable to farm due to economic pressures.
Farmers in Wisconsin receive approximately $20 million in tax credits each year.
The original law in 1977 required the property owner to pay back tax credits if they took the land out of farming, but that provision has been gradually repealed since 2009.
The program is not widely used in Door County. The only town that has opted in is Clay Banks, where county planning department head Mariah Goode estimates approximately 40 landowners take advantage of the property tax credit.
Preservation in Perpetuity
There is not much consensus on the practice of farmland preservation in perpetuity. Some say designating certain parcels to stay in agriculture forever is one way to guarantee preservation. Others fear that inflexible option would hinder future development.
“When we have these great plans in place with great zoning, they’re only as useful as the next board who changes the rules,” Koles said. “Let’s actually preserve farmland permanently when we have the leadership to do that.”
“There’s already been a conversation in areas that are close to urban areas where [farmers] lost their farm infrastructure and those farmers can sometimes feel stuck and they want to sell,” Koles said. “Preserving that farmland might not be the best option. Then what do we do if it is preserved in perpetuity.”
The challenges of farm succession also play a role in perpetual farmland preservation. The average age of a farmer in Wisconsin is 57 and, without knowing who will take over their farm when they retire, they may be anxious to put it in farmland preservation that would make the land more difficult to sell.
The state had a program to create a farmland conservation easement program (PACE), but funding was eliminated in 2012.
Zimmerman said the Farm Bureau doesn’t push for perpetual farmland preservation.
“Organizationally, we’re not huge fans of broad easements because what’s going to happen 15, 50 years from now?” he said. “There’s not enough money in government to do perpetual easements on farmland to make a significant difference across the state.”
On the peninsula, the Door County Land Trust (DCLT) has played a small role in farmland preservation.
Drew Reinke, conservation easement program manager for the DCLT, said he hopes to see more farmland preservation from the organization. Outside of waterfront property, Reinke believes the biggest development pressures are on rural landscapes.
“Nobody is going to build a home in a cedar swamp, but a deciduous forest that overlooks a rural landscape is a lot more appealing,” Reinke said. He added that the DCLT is not against development, but works to promote sustainable development.
Reinke said 18 of the 72 conservation easements the DCLT has in the county include some agricultural purpose. Those 18 properties total 1,477 acres, but only a portion of that is actually in agriculture. The terms of easement, which are upheld by the organization forever, requires sustainable practices such as native plant buffers along any water features on the property or nutrient management plans.
“We have not done easements for the sole purpose of keeping land in agriculture as some land trusts nationwide have, but we absolutely promote conservation practices on agricultural lands,” Reinke said.
Between 2002 and 2012, Door County lost 3,173 acres of farmland. With commodity prices in the gutter and new rules being promulgated by the Department of Natural Resources that will make farming in Northern Door particularly difficult, the few incentives to keep land in agriculture may not be enough.
While cherry orchards probably won’t disappear anytime soon, farmland in Door County is facing intense development pressure that could change the landscape of the peninsula, for better or worse.