rural Wisconsin
Rural Wisconsin, just southwest of Columbus.
Photo: Doc Will

More than two and a half years ago the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters set out to create a “new vision for agriculture and rural life” in the state. This week, the academy released its lengthy report, The Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin: Findings, Recommendations, Steps to a Healthy Future.

(To download a PDF version of the 240-page report, go here.)

Headlines mostly emphasized the vast amounts of agricultural land being lost to more urban or suburban kinds of development. The report, however, is extensive, and although it will be of most interest to those in Wisconsin, the study can be read broadly as a status report on rural America in general.

rural schools in Wisconsin

The report did include a long list of recommendations. Few of them, however, were detailed. For instance, here is a recommendation about rural education from the executive summary:

Wisconsin’s educational institutions ““ K-12 and higher education ““ need continuing refinement to meet the rapidly changing needs of agriculture and rural communities.

Okay, it’s hard to know where to go with that. Generalities may be what you get from a lengthy process that had hundreds of Wisconsinites meeting and talking over a two-year period.

But deeper in the report there is an entire chapter on education that gets into the gritty of what’s happening in the state’s rural schools. There we learn that 21 rural Wisconsin counties expect school-age population declines of ten to 20 percent between 2000 and 2015; 27 counties are projected to have declines of 15 to 40 percent. Only seven rural counties are expected to see increases in the numbers of school children. After 2015, interestingly, there is a slight increase projected. The report recommends Wisconsin-centric solutions, like forming a state school board that could advocate for small school districts.

Wisconsin acreage

Much of the report deals with the loss of farms and farm acreage. “In the time it takes to pick up a copy of this report and thumb through its chapters, it’s likely that a dairy farm somewhere in the state will go out of business,” the study says near the beginning.

The report does show that farms in Wisconsin are consolidating. The size of the average Wisconsin dairy herd has more than doubled since 1970. Meanwhile, the number of dairy farms has dropped from near 30,000 in 1993 to 16,900 in 2003.

Land prices are rising and all farms are growing larger — a phenomenon true across the Midwest. In 1974, according to the report, there were 118 farms of 2,000 acres or more; by 2002, there were nearly 500. There has been an increase in very small farms, but the overall number of farmers has continued to drop. Meanwhile, those who are managing to hang on to the land face other risks. The Farm Bureau found in 2006 that a third of the state’s farmers lacked comprehensive health insurance.

Much of the report concerns the transformation of farm and pasture land into subdivisions. “Wisconsin is losing vast amounts of agricultural land yearly,” the report stated. “Most recent reports say the state loses farmland at a rate higher than other states in the Midwest — 30,000 acres a year, the equivalent of a township and a quarter. Five percent of the state’s cropland was lost between 2000 and 2005.”

The Wisconsin study makes several recommendations for preserving farm land, including a state-wide program for buying development rights in order to keep acreage in agricultural production. The report also promotes various ways to increase the consumption of local foods and to bolster the production of organic goods.

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