The landowners bordering the Blue River and Fennimore Fork of Castle Rock Township have made a renewed promise to protect their farmland and the trout-filled streams flowing through them.

As of Jan. 1, 2020, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) named Castle Rock Township in Grant County one of the newest of 40 Agricultural Enterprise Areas (AEAs) in the state. Landowners and professionals petitioned for the township’s nearly 22,000 contiguous acres to receive the AEA designation, a tool that preserves farmland and incentivizes voluntary conservation through income tax credits.

Even trout advocacy groups signed in support, and the Castle Rock Township’s AEA status has since lured interest from landowners to form these farmland preservation areas in neighboring townships.

“We want to promote the conservation practices on the land so we can continue to enjoy the cold-water trout streams this township embodies within its borders,” says Lynda Schweikert, administrator of the Grant County Conservation, Sanitation and Zoning Department. “Since development of the Castle Rock Township AEA, we have had other townships approach us as well. This program is really opening the door to farmland preservation for townships that weren’t eligible in the past.”

Photo credit: Mary Nachreiner

A New Era

AEAs represent a landowner-led initiative of the Wisconsin DATCP Farmland Preservation Program, which has preserved farmland and incentivized voluntary conservation practices since the late 1970s. The AEA designation, established in 2009, removes the zoning hurdles associated with older efforts of the Farmland Preservation Program. Yet, the incentivized agreements within AEAs still come with the responsibility to preserve agricultural land and enhance land stewardship practices.

As of 2020, Wisconsin-based owners of 1.38 million acres of agricultural land had partnered with local government bodies to petition the formation of 40 AEAs across 27 counties. The sizes of these agricultural areas vary from 1,200 acres to 200,000 acres – all contiguous, as required by the program. Neighbors band with neighbors, creating a collaborative approach to farmland preservation.

In Sauk County’s Bear Creek Township, farmers graze dairy and beef cattle, raise eggs, harvest maple syrup, and grow specialty crops and row crops. Even with a diverse mix of interests, the families owning nearly 31,000 acres of contiguous land in that township petitioned to establish the Bear Creek AEA, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

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“When you go out and meet with these people, they have a deep connection to the land out there,” says Brian Sadler, Sauk County conservation technician. “There are some third- or fourth-generation farmers with land passed down to them, and they want to take good care of it.”

Landowners follow nutrient management plans, implement rotational grazing, and follow best practices for manure storage and runoff diversion. They also have made habitat improvements over a 4-mile stretch of trout stream within the AEA.

“This Agricultural Enterprise Area shows further investment in healthy agriculture out here,” Sadler says.

Wisconsin farmland preservation

Photo credit: Mary Nachreiner

Promoting Healthy Agriculture

Farmer Mary Nachreiner gladly contacted neighbors near her 80-acre farm, asking them to join her in petitioning for the Bear Creek AEA’s formation.

“I really like the fact that we are trying to keep farmland farmland,” says Nachreiner, owner of Mary’s Organic Farm, which sells gourmet beef from Belted Galloways and certified organic eggs.

See more: Farmers Lead Wisconsin Watershed Conservation Efforts

Neighbors agreed. Many had participated in a previous farmland preservation program that had expired. The AEA offered an opportunity to regain an income tax credit to support ongoing and improving conservation practices.

Her farm implements rotational grazing and annual soil- and water-quality tests.

“We are very much into sustainability and having healthy soil, healthy water, and healthy animals,” Nachreiner says.

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