Rock County program setting the pace to preserve farmland

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Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, April 21, 2013

— Arch Morton Jr. sat in his pickup after bouncing down a farm lane off Avalon Road.

The stubble of last season’s winter wheat and corn poked from the soil to his right and left, and the land appeared to be waiting for spring as expectantly as he.

Morton’s 200 acres are arguably just as good as the nearby Rock Prairie, famed for its rich soil. No one can really say where the prairie ends and begins, but most agree the prime farmland of Rock County extends south to the Illinois line.

Morton raises corn, soybeans, alfalfa and winter wheat and has deep roots in the town of La Prairie. He owns another 40 acres in the town of Harmony.

“It’s a good spot to be in—the town of La Prairie,” Morton said. “The people who live here identify with agriculture, whether they farm or not.

“In the town of La Prairie, we’re not developers. We’re farmers. That’s what we’re all about.

“We just want it to be undeveloped.”

Morton’s land is sure to remain that way if it is accepted into the fledgling Rock County Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements Program.

Encroaching development

Some saw the need for agricultural preservation before the recession, when development was encroaching by “leaps and bounds” onto prime farmland, said Andrew Baker, a county conservation specialist who administers the easements program.

“That’s when people started to really get worried.”

The recession and resulting halt of development offered an opportunity for a county committee that worked two years to fashion the easement program. It was approved in January 2011 and is one of a few in the state, Baker said.

About the only thing a conservation easement designation might not withstand is a challenge from the state Department of Transportation.

Under the easement program, owners sell their land development rights to the county, retaining ownership of the land but restricting future use to agriculture. The amount paid by the county is the difference between the appraised agricultural value and the developmental value.

“We’re kind of a leader in this,” Baker said.

Other areas have mostly private conservation organizations, such as the Land Trust Network of Jefferson County.

Rock County set aside $700,000 from a one-time power line environmental impact fee to fund the easement program.

The county covers 17 percent of the cost of easement purchases, including administrative, title and closing costs.

The federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection program covers half cost of easement purchases.

Landowners donate the remaining 33 percent of the land value and in return get a tax deduction spread over 15 years.

More money for the program was supposed to come from a fee collected by the state on agriculture land developed for another use, but the development fee ended a short time after the county approved its easement program.

The average price of farmland in 2012 was $6,500 per acre, Baker said. The county in 2012 spent $116,000 to preserve 410 acres. Farmers can use the money from selling conservation easements to pay off debt or invest in their business.

A starting point

Local landowners have a better chance of receiving federal preservation money if they are part of an easement program that ensures the land remains undeveloped.

“We’re in a unique time that we don’t have to worry as much about the development pressure,” Baker said. “We can possibly secure easements at a lower value than it might have been four years ago, five years ago.

“The idea is, if you have even one parcel that’s protected, that might convince someone in the future to buy that or be willing to invest in adjacent lands because you know you have a good starting point,” Baker said.

Conservation designation provides a sense of stability for a farmer renting land, as well.

The committee has designated priority areas by weighing soil quality and location. The program allows room for development around the cities, especially Janesville and Beloit.

“The purpose of the program is not to strictly restrict development but to manage it in a way that does not adversely affect the most productive farmland,” Baker said.

Farmers who aren’t in priority areas still can apply to Rock County’s program or to other programs, such as the land trust in Jefferson County, to preserve their farmland.

“If we don’t have any applicants in the priority areas, we can look at those still eligible but not in priority areas,” Baker said.

Three parcels are poised to receive agricultural easements.

Owners are Susan Anderson of Stoughton, Candace Phelps of Evansville and Mary Carlson of Clinton. The lands to be preserved are in the northeastern, southeastern and northwestern corners of the county.

‘What it’s for’

Gregory Vanthournout, Evansville, and Morton applied to the program this year and are waiting to see if they will be accepted. Morton included a majority of his land in the request.

Easements will be purchased as long as the money lasts.

Some county board members are looking for other ways to add money to the program. The board recently agreed to direct to the preservation program proceeds of the sale of county land to GOEX. The asking price is $46,000 an acre for five acres.

Morton urges farmers interested in preservation to contact him or the conservation office. An easement doesn’t limit agricultural uses, he said.

“All it does, really, is restrict you from developing it,” Morton said.

Morton was the Rock County Farm Bureau representative on the committee that created the easement program, and farming runs in his family.

Morton’s grandpa farmed. His dad is retired from farming but still gives a hand. His brother and nephew both farm.

If the county pays Morton cash to create an easement, he would consider buying more farmland.

“Unfortunately, it’s hard to come by more land,” Morton, 54, said. “That’s why it’s important to protect what we have.”

An easement is forever, and forever is a long time, Morton acknowledged, but joining the county’s easement program was an easy choice.

“I’m a farmer, and this farm’s been in our family for 90 years,” he said.

Under the program—and even if every last Morton stopped farming—the land would continue in agriculture.

“That’s what it’s for—to be farmed,” Morton said.

Last updated: 10:23 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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