SEWRPC studies have shown that agricultural land use in the Region has decreased significantly over the past several decades. Lands devoted to agricultural use decreased by 22 percent between 1963 and 2000. Despite this decrease, a large portion of the total area of the Region remains in agricultural use, and agriculture remains an important component of the regional economy. Based upon the SEWRPC regional land use inventory, about 1,156 square miles, or 43 percent of the total area of the Region, were in agricultural use in 2010.
The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has classified soils into capability groupings that indicate their general suitability for most kinds of farming. The groupings are based upon composition and limitations of the soils, the risk of damage when they are used, and the way they respond to treatment. Under the NRCS system, there are eight capability classes ranging from Class I, the soils which have few limitations, to Class VIII, the soils which have severe limitations due to soils and land forms so rough, shallow, or otherwise limited that they do not produce economically worthwhile yields of crops, forage, or wood products. In general, Class I soils are more arable and suitable for cropland; Class II soils have some limitations that reduce the choice of plants that can be grown, or require moderate conservation practices to reduce the risk of damage when used; Class III soils have severe limitations that reduce the choice of plants, require special conservation practices, or both, but may be productive with careful management. The soils in the remaining classes have progressively greater natural limitations for cropland, but may be used for pasture, grazing, woodland, wildlife, recreation, and esthetic purposes.
Generally, lands with Class I and II soils are considered “National Prime Farmlands” and lands with Class III soils are considered “Farmlands of Statewide Significance.” Of the 1,156 square miles of land in agricultural use in the Region in 2010, about 887 square miles, or 77 percent, were covered by the very significant Class I and Class II soils. These areas are shown on this map.
Under the Wisconsin Farmland Preservation law (Chapter 91 of the Wisconsin Statutes), counties in the State are responsible for the preparation of farmland preservation plans. The six counties with substantial amounts of agricultural land, Kenosha, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington, and Waukesha, initially prepared farmland preservation plans in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The year 2035 regional land use plan recommended that those counties, in cooperation with the concerned local governments, update and extend those plans. The regional plan recommended that such planning place an emphasis on the preservation of Class I and Class II soils. The regional plan recognized that counties may also consider other agricultural soil classes as well as other factors—such as the size of farm units, the overall size of the farming area, the availability of farm implement dealers, and conflicts between farming operations and urban activities—in identifying farmland preservation areas.
Changes to the Wisconsin Farmland Preservation law enacted by the State Legislature in 2009 effectively required that counties update their farmland preservation plans as one of the conditions for continued landowner participation in the Farmland Preservation tax credit program. By the end of 2013, Kenosha, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington, and Waukesha Counties had prepared and adopted new farmland preservation plans. All of the plans had been certified by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) by the end of 2013 as meeting the farmland preservation planning standards set forth in Chapter 91.
The farmland preservation areas identified in the updated county farmland preservation plans are shown on this map. The largest concentration of farmland identified for preservation in county farmland preservation plans is located in the southwest and south-central areas of the Region—including Walworth County, Kenosha County west of IH 94, and the far westerly portion of Racine County. A relatively large farmland preservation area has also been identified in northern Ozaukee County. Other, smaller farmland preservation areas have been identified in Washington and Waukesha Counties.
While large blocks of Class I and Class II agricultural land have been included in the farmland preservation areas identified in county farmland preservation plans, many farming areas with concentrations of Class I and Class II soils have been excluded. Some Class I and Class II areas were excluded from the farmland preservation area on the basis of non-soil factors, such as minimum farm “block” size. However, the exclusion of much Class I and Class II farmland is attributable to local government reluctance to specifically identify exclusive-use farming areas. In general, the county farmland preservation plans identify farmland preservation areas only where local government support has been demonstrated.
In their local comprehensive plans, many communities have opted for less restrictive agricultural planning districts, often relying on agricultural-rural residential districts, which accommodate more residential development than would be allowed in an exclusive farmland preservation area. While such planning districts serve to maintain rural densities and rural character, they are not as effective as exclusive farmland preservation districts in preserving farmland.
The adoption dates for updated County Farmland Preservation Plans and links to the plans are provided below:
Kenosha County Farmland Preservation Plan (adopted by the Kenosha County Board of Supervisors on November 19, 2013)
Ozaukee County Farmland Preservation Plan (adopted by the Ozaukee County Board of Supervisors on July 3, 2013)
Racine County Farmland Preservation Plan (adopted by the Racine County Board of Supervisors on December 10, 2013)
Walworth County Farmland Preservation Plan (adopted by the Walworth County Board of Supervisors on July 10, 2012)
Washington County Farmland Preservation Plan (adopted by the Washington County Board of Supervisors on December 10, 2013)
Waukesha County Farmland Preservation Plan (adopted by the Waukesha County Board of Supervisors on October 31, 2011)