Highway projects/economic development hits farm family repeatedly

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Sunday, September 2, 2012

— It's never been a lot of land.

A dozen acres here, a parcel or two there, another piece for a desperately needed highway interchange or weigh station.

Since 1958, the Atkinson family has lost land for highway projects five times.

By the end of September, that number will probably go up to six.

One to five

The Atkinsons started farming in the town of Turtle in 1931. The farm is now run Robert and Alan Atkinson and their brother-in-law Scot Krebs.

They run about 3,400 acres of sweet corn, lima beans and mint—profitable crops that need irrigation. The also grow seed corn and soybeans.

In the late 1950s, the burgeoning Interstate system split the farm in half.

In the early 70s, they lost a portion of land north of Avalon Road for construction of the Avalon Road interchange.

Then Interstate 43 sliced through one of their fields. Another small loss came for an Interstate improvement over a creek.

In 2002, the family lost 23 acres to the weigh station.

Scot Krebs, who has become a defacto family spokesman, tries to be grateful for the small favors the state has bestowed on him.

"They could have taken 40 acres for the weigh station," he said. "But they cut it down to 23 and moved it a little south so we could still irrigate in that field. We were appreciative of that."

Now six

At its Sept. 27 meeting, the Rock County Board will consider a new connector between County G and Interstate 90/39.

It's designed to relieve congestion and improve safety and travel times on County G and surrounding roads, engineers said at an informational meeting Monday night.

With the I-90/39 widening project on the horizon, the connector could also serve as a bypass.

The three options include:

-- Extending Inman Parkway east from County G to Shopiere Road. Estimated cost: $4.7 million.

-- Building a connector from Shopiere Road to Creek Road, routing traffic north to Philhower Road and then over to County G. Estimated cost: $6.2 million.

-- Improving existing roads. This plan would take motorists from Shopiere Road to Cranston Road to County G. Estimated cost: $4.4 million.

The connector route is part of a $22.4 million project that would improve County G between Avalon Road and Huebbe Parkway in Beloit.

County G would remain two lanes, but the road would be reconstructed to handle trucks, and shoulders would be made wider. The Townline Road/County G intersection would also be improved.

The state would pay 70 percent of the County G project and the county would pay 30 percent.

In addition, the city of Beloit would pay for 10 percent of the Inman Parkway project.

Here's the kicker: The state's interest in the County G project is predicated on using it for a bypass route during and after Interstate construction, Rock County Administrator Craig Knutson said.

If the connector route doesn't meet the state's needs, it probably would withdraw funding for the whole, $22.4 million project, Knutson said.

If the state withholds funding, County G still would be improved, but it would be at the county's cost and "sometime in the future," Knutson said.

County Supervisor Al Sweeney said the state already has sent the county a letter saying the connector route using existing roads does not meet the project's stated purpose.

The route to the north via Philhower Road only partially meets the stated purpose of the project, Rock County Highway Commissioner Ben Coopman said at the Monday meeting.

The only choice left would run through farm fields owned by the Atkinson family and another farmer, Jerry Hahn.

Land, money and water

To say that the Atkinson family "lost" land isn't quite accurate. After all, the state paid market value for the family's property.

It's just that they never wanted to give up the land in the first place.

In a 2001 interview, Bill Atkinson, Robert and Alan's father, showed a reporter around a mint field that is now a weigh station.

As an excitable black Lab gamboled about him, Bill explained how the weigh station would cut into his field, making it impossible to grow mint, a profitable crop.

Mint needs irrigation, and center-pivot irrigation means a square field. A different shape means additional wasted money in the corners.

Bill said when people come to him about selling his land, they don't get far.

"I don't even talk to them about money," Bill said. "Money isn't going to do it."

Krebs, his son-in-law, felt the same way.

"We've always had the opportunity to sell, just haven't done it," Krebs said in an interview the same year. "Now, it's like we're being penalized for keeping it nice, not having a housing development on it."

Built-in benefits

The farmland under the proposed Inman Parkway extension isn't as good as the deep loam around the weigh station.

"It's good black soil on top, about a foot deep," Krebs said. "Then it's more gravel, and there's not a lot of water-holding capacity."

So they irrigate, although they might irrigate anyway because of what they grow.

Canning companies pay more for crops planted on irrigated land and sometimes even require it.

Irrigated vegetable crops are more uniform and still do well during drought years.

The proposed Inman Parkway extension would go right through the center of the center pivot of the irrigation.

Coopman said plans called for a pipe to be run under the road and for a new, half-circle irrigation system to be set up on the other side. The half-circle system would serve the rectangular piece left on the south of the road.

Land lost

Krebs said that his family "would just like to keep farming."

They still have plenty of acreage, but cutting up land makes fieldwork more cumbersome.

Although the weigh station debate was more than a decade ago, it feels like in happened yesterday.

"It seems like we're always fighting these issues," Krebs said. "It kinda deflates the spirit."


Last updated: 4:43 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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