Farmer leaves rich soil to the city, worries it will happen again
Read more stories focusing on Rock County's rich soil and how best to preserve that natural resource.
Saving Rock County's natural resource
The soil in parts of Rock County is some of the best in the world. Combine that with the climate, and experts say it doesn’t get much better. Anywhere.
But more and more of our irreplaceable soil is being lost as municipalities expand their boundaries and towns allow development.
These articles focus on the rich soil and how best to preserve this natural resource.
In Day 1, we look at how the soil got here and agriculture’s importance to the state and the county. Should we worry when yet another subdivision or strip mall is carved from the rich loam? Can—and should—agriculture be determined as the best use for some land?
Day 2 looks at four farms and the pressures caused by their physical relationships to the city of Janesville. The circumstances range from a farmer who was forced to abandon his farm for another deeper in the county to a farm secure in La Prairie Township.
Day 3 focuses on countywide and statewide efforts to preserve farmland and some of the tools available. Developers, builders and the city also get their say.
JANESVILLE Kirk Leach loaded up his family and belongings, drove away his farm tractors, trucks and equipment and tore down his fences and sheds.
He couldn't box up his soil, the best soil he has ever worked.
The land he left behind now includes the Youth Sports Complex, The Janesville Gazette's printing plant, Gallina USA and several other industries.
It tells the tale of good earth lost forever to development.
In 2000, Leach retreated deeper into the country as the city bore down.
He still talks about that land 10 years later.
"It was the most valuable soil we had," he said.
Leach, 54, now lives about 2.5 miles off of Highway 14 on Van Allen Road, southeast of Janesville. He owns 1,304 acres and farmed about 1,460 this year. Most is in La Prairie Township, and the rest is in Janesville Township.
He and his wife have two sons. One has an agriculture degree, and the other is working on one.
Leach's former property was bordered by County MM on the north, Highway 11 on the south, Highway 14 on the east and the fence line of Lab Safety on the west.
He had farmed the land since 1960.
"Almost right off the bat, we had kind of an awareness that there were storm clouds in the west," Leach recalled.
Housing then pretty much stopped at Interstate 90 and Ruger Avenue. But every year, it crept closer. By the 1970s and '80s, it was up to Wright Road. Now, it's spilling over Highway 14.
Farmers today need more than the traditional 160 acres to make a living, but Leach wasn't able to buy what he needed. The main farm was 301 acres, and he owned another two farms for another 200.
"We were between the proverbial rock and hard place," he said. "The city was eating up all of our retiring neighbors on one side."
The Metcalf farming family was buying land on the other side of Highway 14.
More and more, farming near the city became a challenge.
"God help you if you've got to move machinery on the road in the morning and in the evening before work time," Leach said.
The potential of nuisance suits from smells or other farm-related issues also was greater before amendments to the Right to Farm Law were enacted in the mid 1990s.
Leach was reluctant to invest in his farm, not knowing what the future would bring. He didn't take advantage of a government program that subsidized grain bins because he didn't know if he'd see the payback, for instance.
"I guess we knew we'd eventually get pressured and get squeezed off," Leach recalled. "We just didn't dare to build anything that wasn't portable."
City officials say they don't force farmers to sell their land.
"The closer it gets, the harder it is to farm," Leach said. "It's disingenuous to say it's a complete choice on the farmers' part."
The death knell came when the city annexed Ruger Avenue, which fronted his farm. Leach knew that at some point the road would be improved, and he was worried that he could be assessed for $350,000 for new curb, sewer and gutter.
Leach was also getting slammed by taxes. At the time he sold, he paid more in property taxes than he and his brother drew in salaries. Since then, use valuation—when farmers are taxed on the agricultural use of the land rather than the potential development value—has helped farmers keep their land.
In 1993, Lab Safety tried to buy a chunk of land.
"We knew we didn't want to be trying to farm anywhere near the city, and we weren't going to die a slow death," he said. "We wanted to get out all at one time."
He began negotiating with the city, which eventually led to the industrial park and the Youth Sports Complex.
When Leach moved, he added more than 1,000 acres to his holdings.
Now, Leach worries that he didn't get far enough away.
It vexes him that the city had to sign off on the house he built because he is within its 3-mile extraterritorial boundary.
"There are plans being made for our farmland out there right now," he said.
Janesville's newly adopted 20-year comprehensive plan puts his farm in a so-called "urban reserve."
Leach said city planners often use such ambiguous terms to describe agricultural land.
"The land is kind of worthless until it is finally and fortunately utilized by the city of Janesville," Leach said with sarcasm.
The state has also talked about continuing the Highway 11 bypass east, and one of the six proposed routes slices through his land.
"Maybe my son won't be able to live out his days here without being shoved off again," he said.
"I don't blame the developers," Leach said. "It's up to the government to direct them as to where it's appropriate. The leadership and the vision have got to come from those in control."
He thinks people are finally realizing that "we don't live on the frontier, that there isn't more land on the horizon that can simply be developed when we use this up."
He believes a lot of agriculture will return to Wisconsin as development dries up the Imperial Valley in California and the Great Plains aquifer is drained by irrigation.
Leach has an agreement that allows him to farm between the factory buildings on the land he sold until it is developed. It is down from the original 300 tillable acres to 120.
"It keeps us going back there every year and seeing the slow creep: every new factory building, all the good soil scraped up and rearranged or carted away," he said.
The biggest insult? His farm lane is now a busy concrete road named "Wuthering Hills Drive." He thinks the name conjures up images of the pastoral rural lifestyle that was paved over for development.
"I don't know who thought of that name—some advertising clerk somewhere," Leach said.
"Emotionally, that's one of the hardest things to take."