Wisconsin's cropland is shrinking faster than any other state in the region, a loss that could affect the state's economy. The loss could jeopardize Wisconsin's ability to profit in the growing biofuels industry, which uses plants like corn to make fuels such as ethanol, said state Agriculture Secretary Rodney Nilsestuen.
"This is the biggest opportunity for rural development I've ever seen," he said. "But we can't have biofuels, biopower, bioproducts without working farmlands and working forestlands."
Wisconsin lost almost 5 percent of its cropland from 2000 to 2005, according to a recent study by the nonprofit Corporation for Enterprise Development.
That's equivalent to 30,000 acres of cropland a year, or nearly two townships, Nilsestuen said.
Seven other states, none of them in the Midwest, lost a larger percentage of their cropland during the five-year span, the group said. Those states were: California, Georgia, Vermont, Nevada, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Delaware.
Last week, President Bush asked Americans to lessen their dependence on foreign oil, including cutting gasoline consumption by 20 percent by 2017. He called on Congress to require the use of 35 billion gallons of ethanol and other alternative fuels, such as biodiesel, in the next decade.
Gov. Jim Doyle was expected to announce Tuesday that he will push for more investment in other sources of renewable energy, such as ethanol. Doyle has already announced a $450 million program of public and private investment in the state's ethanol production.
Wisconsin's five ethanol plants make about 220 million gallons a year of ethanol, Nilsestuen said, and there are plans to build six more plants.
"Four years ago, we produced zero gallons of ethanol," Nilsestuen said. "This is a tremendous opportunity for Wisconsin.
That's why it's important for Wisconsin to preserve the farmland it has, said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, a nonpartisan, group that promotes protecting farmland and open space.
"Clearly, the state is embarking on a strategy related to biofuels, and the impact of the loss of farmland goes right to the heart of that strategy," Hiniker said.
A state task force of farmers, planners, local officials, businesspeople and builders, issued a report, prompting Nilsestuen to recommend several measures that would preserve farmland, including overhauling the state's Farmland Preservation Program.
Other ideas include creating agriculture enterprise areas to protect clusters of contiguous working farms from development and provide incentives to promote more farming there. Another would craft a state program to help organizations and local governments protect land permanently from development by buying development rights.
But cities may not want to take part. In 2004, residents in the Town of Hartford in Washington County rejected a proposed purchase of developments rights program over concerns about the cost to taxpayers.
The growth of cities means the loss of farmland, said Rich Eggleston, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities. But land can be developed so the impact on prime farmland and other environmental areas is minimized, he said.
"You can't impose an iron ring around a city because there happens to be farmland there," he said. "If cities don't grow, they die, but growth can be done in a responsible way."
Eventually, the profitability of farming will keep farmers in business, said Tom Thieding of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. That will slow down the development of farms into subdivisions and malls, he said.
"We never say one year will make a career," Thieding said. "But if farming is profitable, a farmer is less likely to sell his land."