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  • Forgotten Rural Resident

ENDANGERED: Dane County Farms and Farmers

Dane County government has become one of the largest landowners in this county. It now holds more than 12,600 acres. Beyond that, it essentially controls an additional 2,775 acres in conservation easements and 24 miles of streambank easements. (For verification of these figures, see page 15 of the 2018-2023 Dane County Parks and Open Space Plan) All of this land has been captured in the name of “progress.”

But as Dane County residents, do we know what progress is?

Do we recognize it when we see it?

And does this so-called progress benefit all…or just some?

Dane County officials love to tell us that when government owns land it benefits everyone, while private ownership only benefits the few.

Is that true? Or is it possible we’ve allowed a bunch of smiling officials to sell us a false bill of goods concerning what progress is and how we should achieve it, while ignoring a whole lot of evidence that they’re leading us off a cliff?

Is public land acquisition progress?

There are lots of ways we could explore this question, but let’s start by asking how many small farms you still see operating in Dane County? When you start paying attention, you’ll notice loads of signs posted that indicate Dane County land ownership. This reality is a result of the massive land buying spree Dane County government began about twenty years ago. The county has been steadily adding to its holdings ever since—removing land from the tax rolls, inflating the value and price of land, and growing the tax burden and cost of living for everyone who lives here. Considering the amount of land the county has purchased, it’s quite astonishing that all of this acquisition has mostly flown under the radar for as long as it has.

The impact that Dane County’s land acquisition has on our county is not in any way good.

What is left of the farms that are still in operation in our county. Ask the shrinking number of farmers in this county who their main competitor is when they’re looking for property to support or expand their operations. Many would guess it is other farms or businesses. That guess would be wrong. The farmers will tell you that, one way or another, they’re most often competing with Dane County when it comes to land purchases.

In Black Earth, for example, Dane County just recently purchased 14.6 acres of land along Black Earth Creek. Before you exclaim, “How wonderful!” consider that this land was bought for $11,000 per acre. What independent farmer do you know who can afford to compete with that purchase price?

In 2020, Dane County purchased 295 acres of land in the Town of Berry that abuts Indian Lake County Park. The price? A whopping $2,924,460 ($9913/acre) that you as a Dane County taxpayer not only funded but are now responsible for maintaining. What’s worse, it represents a huge revenue hit for a small community, since all that land is now not only removed from Dane County’s property tax rolls but also from the Town of Berry’s.

The Town of Berry situation gets even worse. Smaller farms often need to rent land, because they can’t afford the high purchase prices in this county—price tags the county has essentially ginned up through their land dealings. Two small farms have been renting on those 295 acres of farmland for the past 20 plus years. The rental contract is coming to its end. At a public meeting held in 2022 at the Town of Berry by Dane County Parks, it was stipulated that the new rental agreement would require inclusion of a plan for how lessees would maintain the land. It's just one more way to restrict a small farm's operation. It's all about control, not the trust that farmers merit.

In point of fact, small and independent farmers tend to be great stewards of the land that we work. We understand better than anyone that the land enables us to produce the clean food all of us want to consume. We also keenly recognize the need to keep waterways clean for the sake of all concerned, from livestock to consumers.

Pages 27 and 30 of the 2018-2023 Dane County Parks and Open Space Plan, showing recreation parks and natural resource areas the county owns or effectively controls to one degree or another. For additional insight, see the full plan, which contains a wide variety of maps, tables, statistics, definitions, history, and plans related to the county's land acquisition and oversight.

Let’s dig even deeper.

Put yourself once in a farmer’s shoes. Dairy farmers, for example, rely heavily on having a good milk price to generate supplemental income to run their operations. When milk prices run low, farmers will instead usually try to boost production by adding more cattle to help offset any losses experienced via those prices. More cattle require more land to produce feed and house animals. In such a scenario, farmers need more than just a few additional acres. So, while some may think that $11,000 an acre sounds like a steal…is it? Try buying 200 acres or more at a price of $11,000 per acre. We are talking about some serious money. How is it doable, much less sustainable, for a dairy farm continually to confront high land costs and, moreover, to be regularly outbid?

With Dane County government driving land prices to unaffordable levels and out-competing farmers for land purchase, a hypothetical small family farm with 300 acres and milking around 60-90 cows will often have no choice but to fold operations.

What are we looking at, here? In short…

Using our tax dollars, Dane County is pricing farmers out of the real estate market…and right out of business.

Want to keep eating...?

Now consider that we’re already seeing growing evidence of U.S. food shortages, due to incredibly poor policy decisions at all levels of government—decisions that have deeply affected agricultural production and distribution alike over the past three years. Things are getting worse, not better. Sure would be nice to have more functioning farms in Dane County to work with as things go haywire elsewhere. Yet our county government seems to think that the beauties of endless government parkland and nature conservancy will comfort us when our bellies are empty.

Dane County’s ongoing land grab has already had—and continues to have—severe impacts. Progress is a good thing. Growth is a good thing. But when the small, local farmers we need—and who we should support—are being undermined and destroyed, that’s not progress or growth. It’s madness, hiding behind the huge apartment complexes that have sprung up at the edges of our cities and villages. It is foolishness that we continue to allow Dane County government to perpetrate in our name…and at our expense.

Time to start putting up a fuss.

Want a ready-made solution?

Do you know about 2015 Wisconsin Act 178? It grants towns in populous Wisconsin counties full authority to withdraw from county zoning, enabling them to enact a zoning ordinance and a comprehensive plan as they see fit. What if towns across Dane County started to use Act 178 to their advantage? What if they used it to opt out of Dane County zoning and establish ordinances that prevented or at least seriously restricted any more land from being bought up for public ownership?

Our towns tend to operate on very tight budgets. There isn’t a lot of room for lost revenue created by the county’s constant land gobbling. What if the towns could, via Act 178, take the stress off of themselves and local farmers by using their statutory clout effectively to end Dane County government’s perpetual and massive land grab?

One thing we know for sure, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi is no fan of Act 178. Back in 2015, around the time of the law’s passage, Joe Parisi was quoted in the Sun Prairie Star, disingenuously claiming that the legislation would “endanger Dane County’s multi-generational farms.” The fact is, Parisi knew the new law restored proper authority to towns that might just get in the way of the county’s land acquisition initiatives—which increasingly threaten all small and independent farms.

I close with a few pointed questions for Mr. Parisi: Dane County’s current practice from 2015 up to now has been to buy up massive amounts of land in rural Dane County from underneath our farmers. Their situation is progressively worse, not better. So, how have you and your friends on the Dane County Board of Supervisors not knowingly endangered the multi-generational family farms you supposedly care so much about? How have you not consciously choked off their operations by reducing their access to land and hindering their continued operations? And why shouldn’t the towns of this county finally begin to leverage their authority under 2015 Act 178 to stop you?

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