Land Use and the Changing Face of Wisconsin Agriculture


Douglas Jackson-Smith[*]


            Wisconsin’s rapid growth in the 1990s has coincided with a period of relatively weak agricultural economy.  Competition from residential and recreational development has put upward pressure on agricultural land markets, making it difficult for young farmers to enter the sector and providing incentives for other farmers to sell their land.  As more nonfarm people move out to the countryside, property taxes tend to rise, demand for public services increases, and there are more conflicts over noise, odor, and other agricultural nuisances.  The result has been an accelerated decline in the number of commercial farming operations and in the acreage devoted to farming in Wisconsin.

While land use issues have become increasingly important to farmers and other rural Wisconsin residents in the last decade, two recent legislative initiatives will ensure that rural land use planning will be a critical issue in the coming years.  First, the passage of a “Smart Growth” bill in the 1999 legislature will provide incentives for all cities, villages, counties, and towns in Wisconsin to develop comprehensive plans to manage the growth process.  While voluntary at the outset, the bill is designed to provide significant incentives for local governments to seriously engage the planning process by the year 2010.  At the same time, changes in Wisconsin Department of Commerce rules governing rural septic systems will likely permit new technologies to be used on soils that had hitherto been unacceptable for residential development.  Estimates suggest that roughly 40 percent of rural Wisconsin lands may be opened up for possible development.  Since many rural governments had relied on the old septic codes to limit development pressure, they will be forced to consider adopting more stringent land use policies if they want to control the siting and volume of new recreational or residential development.  Finally, controverial proposals for large livestock facilities in several communities have encouraged many local governments to explore possible manure storage or feedlot ordinances to regulate the location of these new types of agricultural operations.

This talk will provide an overview of these recent agricultural and land use trends in Wisconsin.  A particular focus will be to explore regional differences in the rate of urbanization, the decline in farming, and the local land use policy climate. Implications for farmers and rural decision-makers will be highlighted.

[*] The author is the Co-Director of the Program on Agricultural Technology Studies, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.