What’s at stake when we pave over, fragment and otherwise fail to protect Wisconsin’s farmland from the disruptions of development? - American Farmland Trust

We’ve detected that you are using an outdated browser.

Please use a new browser like Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Microsoft Edge to improve your experience.

We’ve detected that you are using an outdated browser.
May 20th, 2020
What’s at stake when we pave over, fragment and otherwise fail to protect Wisconsin’s farmland from the disruptions of development?

American Farmland Trust’s new report demonstrates how developing farmland puts food security, the environment and our way of life in jeopardy.  

5/20/2020, WASHINGTON, DC — Millions of acres of America’s agricultural land were developed or converted to uses that threaten farming between 2001 and 2016, according to Farms Under Threat: The State of the States,” a new report by American Farmland Trust. The report’s Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard is the first-ever state-by-state analysis of policies that respond to the development threats to farmland and ranchland, showing that every state can, and must, do more to protect their irreplaceable agricultural resources.  

The State of the States report shows the extent, location, and quality of each state’s agricultural land and tracks how much of it has been converted in each state using the newest data and the most cutting-edge methods. The Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard analyzes six programs and policies that are key to securing a sufficient and suitable base of agricultural land in each state and highlights states’ efforts to retain agricultural land for future generations. It offers a breakthrough tool for accelerating state efforts to make sure farmland is available to produce food, support jobs and the economy, provide essential environmental services, and help mitigate and buffer the impacts of climate change. 

The “Farms Under Threat” State analysis finds Wisconsin’s growing cities are being developed on some of the most productive agricultural land in the state. 

The Midwest region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin holds some of the richest, most productive agricultural lands in the country. These six states are part of the 12 Midwest states in the U.S. that each generate over $10 billion in agricultural cash receipts. From Wisconsin’s dairy industry to the Illinois’ and Iowa’s corn and soybean fieldsall the Midwest states hold invaluable assets to America’s agriculture. Yet these six states in particular are among the most threatened for conversion of agriculture land to nonagriculture uses.  

Wisconsin’s farms are under threat with its best land succumbing to development.  

From 2001-2016, 249,800 acres of agriculture land were developed or compromised – that’s over 16,000 acres annually. Using AFT’s PVR index, the measurement of productivity, versatility and resiliency of land, 61% of Wisconsin’s agriculture land is considered “Nationally Significant,” or land best suited for growing food and crops. 

“Agricultural land loss is significant in certain regions of the state, particularly where growing populations will increasingly depend on the health and productivity of nearby farmland,” said Alison Volk, AFT’s easement project manager. “The loss of land impacts our access to food and the health of our local rural economies. Agriculture depends on the presence of a sufficient land base and the loss of that land threatens people’s livelihoods and the state agricultural heritage.”    

Wisconsin is referred to as ”America’s Dairyland” because it is the leading producer of dairy products, mainly cheese, in the country. Manufacturing (especially paper products), cranberries, ginseng and tourism are also major contributors to the state’s economy. As Wisconsin farms continue to consolidate across the landscape, the number of farmers themselves continue to decrease in this $104.8 billion ag-based economy. 

The hot spots for development are the dramatic expansions around Madison, Green Bay and the greater outskirts of Milwaukee. However, the threat is more than just urban sprawl. Wisconsin’s agricultural land is disproportionately threatened by a new, more insidious kind of development discovered by AFT through this research, termed low-density residential, or LDR, land use 

Roughly 61% of the state’s agricultural land is Nationally Significant land. LDR is insidious because it is not always immediately visible to communities and policy makers and therefore has yet to provoke a policy response. In Wisconsin, LDR is 21 times more likely to be converted to urban and highly developed land use than other agricultural land as these acres melt away into the urban landscape. 

LDR compromises opportunities for farming, making it difficult for farmers to get into their fields or travel between fieldsoften tempting them to sell their farm for financial reasonsUltimately, this means that new and beginning farmers will not have the opportunity to take up farming on this land, making it challenging for our nation to maintain agriculture. More often than not, the land prices in these areas have been driven up by the encroaching development making it impossible for new farmers to afford to buy a farm. Stressors in the dairy industry continue with financial and economic woes. Only 10% of Wisconsin farmers are under the age of 35 and the state average is 57.5 years old. 

Wisconsin scored among the top states for the conversion of agricultural land to urban and highly developed and lowdensity residential uses. Wisconsin needs to consider state leasing programs, property tax relief avenues on ag land, and establishing a network for farmers that want to pass on their trade to the next generation but do not have someone to which to turn it over. Establishing credit with bankers and finding available and affordable start-up farming operations is becoming more and more crucial to the survival of this threatened industry. 

AFT has maintained a presence in the Midwest since just after its founding in 1980, and today our presence is greater than ever. In the Midwest, AFT focuses on promoting sound farming practices and developing new opportunities for work on climate change and protecting farmland. Midwestern farmers are facing new economic challenges, and efforts must be made to ensure farmers have access and technical assistance to implement sustainable agricultural practices. 

To sign up for a Farms Under Threat webinar about Wisconsinclick here. 

For a brief summary of national results and connections with climate change, food security and the economy:  National Media Release 



American Farmland Trust is the only national organization that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the land itself, the agricultural practices used on that land, and the farmers and ranchers who do the work. AFT launched the conservation agriculture movement and continues to raise public awareness through our No Farms, No Food message. Since our founding in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect over 6.5 million acres of agricultural lands, advanced environmentally-sound farming practices on millions of additional acres and supported thousands of farm families.