Recognizing the real value of local farmland

Originally published in the Kenosha News

By Agriculture Educator, Leigh Presley

Talking shop with my UW-Extension colleagues throughout the state usually involves discussion of upcoming programs, the weather, and how crops are looking in our respective counties.

But lately one question is posed to me again and again: “How ’bout all that development down there?”

So often the character of our corner of the state is reduced to “all that development.” Yes, to put it mildly, there’s a lot going on here, but what both locals and our fellow Wisconsinites can’t lose sight of is that agriculture, along with other small businesses, beautiful parks and vibrant downtowns, is still here, and should be valued.

Why value our local agriculture and farmland for what it is, and not what it could be? Several reasons come to mind:

Sense of place: I often hear from locals that the urban/rural mix is part of what makes this area unique. Seeing a combine in a corn field way east of the interstate one early morning this week reminded me of that. Agriculture is also a part of our local heritage and culture, a reminder that fertile soils, and access to abundant fresh water, is what brought settlers and urban development here in the first place.

Balance: Agriculture in our area contributes to an ecological and visual balance in the landscape.

Significant production value: According to a study by the American Farmland Trust, more than half of America’s food production takes place in metropolitan counties, in counties adjacent to major cities, and in counties with both high population growth and higher than state average agricultural production. We can see that reflected in our area; Kenosha and Racine Counties have some of the most fertile farmland in the state and crop yields that rival many other less-populated counties.

Agri-tourism: Several farms in our area offer a close-to-home opportunity to learn about agriculture in a fun and family-friendly environment. These farms are nearly providing a public service.

Low demand on local tax base: Though farmland doesn’t contribute a lot to the local tax base, it also doesn’t draw a lot. Crops don’t require much in the way of public services, like sewer service and garbage collection.

Valuing local agriculture goes beyond simple recognition — if we truly value local agriculture, we should also support it when possible. A few ways you can show support for agriculture during this time of change and development include:

Visiting farmers markets and purchasing food and value-added products directly from local farms.

Patronizing businesses that support and purchase from local farms, such as farm-to-table restaurants and stores.

Speaking up for agriculture when you have an opportunity in the public sphere. Farmers represent less than 2 percent of our population and are often outnumbered by the voices of other interests.

Understanding agriculture and the challenges faced by farmers, including the challenge of deciding whether to sell their land in a time of historically low farm incomes, and hard to refuse offers.

Become familiar with regional and local plans guiding development in agricultural areas. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission has recently updated their Vision 2050 regional land use plan at www.sewrpc.org/SEWRPC/LandUse.htm. It recommends that local planning efforts focus on redevelopment of existing urban areas and using compact development designs when converting ag land to other uses.

Slow down and be aware. During this time of unprecedented traffic on local roadways, slow down and be patient when you come upon farm equipment. Remember, we’ve all got places to be.