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Report: Wis. loses 30,000 acres of farmland per year, but diversity insulating fallout

By TODD RICHMOND, AP, Capital Press 10/11/07

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin is losing 30,000 acres of farmland per year, but the state's agricultural diversity has insulated it against farming downtrends, according to a new report.

The study by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters found Wisconsin had nearly 24 million agricultural acres in 1950. By 2005, that number had dropped to 15 million.

Nearly 60 percent of acres lost between 2000 and 2005 were in 19 counties, including counties near Minnesota's Twin Cities and Wausau and between Madison and Milwaukee.

"Crops of houses where farms and forests used to be is nothing new in Wisconsin," the report said. "Still, agriculture and forestry are the principal land uses in the state. Is it too late to make a difference? No. But ... pushing the resource to its limits before acting is foolhardy."

Recommendations from last week's report to improve farming and country living include a call for a statewide grant program. The program would involve the purchase of 25-year easements on land - or so-called purchases of development rights - that would prevent development and establish agricultural enterprise areas with farming clusters. Development would be prohibited within these clusters for fixed periods of time.

The report found that Wisconsin agriculture revolves around a wide range of animal and plant products, including milk, cheese, meats, cherries, oats, corn and peas.

But farmers are also branching out into specialty operations, such as making cheese or working organic farms, and the state's agriculture is more resilient as a result, the report said.

The nonprofit academy spent more than two years studying multiple aspects of rural life for the 240-page report.

The report also recommends rewarding development projects that have small lots and retaining ample green space as well as developing so-called farm and forestry ambassadors to educate people about land preservation.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau issued a statement Wednesday praising the report, saying it will increase awareness of rural issues. The report now goes to Rod Nilsestuen, secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and state lawmakers, Lyon said.

DATCP spokeswoman Donna Gilson said no one at the agency had seen the report to comment on it.

The report, however, includes an essay by Nilsestuen in which he reminisces about his Norwegian grandparents' farm in Arcadia and laments the state's farmland losses.

Lyon said the committee that crafted the report hopes to solicit money from farming and conservation groups, perhaps including the farm bureau, 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives, to put the recommendations in place.

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