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Farmland Preservation Planning

Commission staff aid in efforts to preserve lands with our most productive soils so they may continue to support agricultural uses.

Farmland Preservation

Commission 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% between 1963 and 2000. Despite this decrease, nearly half the Region remains in agricultural use—about 43%—and agriculture remains an important component of the regional economy.


Soil Classification

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 on 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.

  • 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.


National Prime Farmlands

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.” About 77% of land in agricultural use in the Region is covered by the very significant Class I and Class II soils. These areas are shown on this map of agricultural lands.


County Farmland Preservation Plans

Under the Wisconsin Farmland Preservation law (Chapter 91 of the Wisconsin Statutes), counties in the State are responsible for preparing farmland preservation plans. The six counties with substantial amounts of agricultural land initially prepared 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 their plans. The regional plan recommended that plans emphasize preserving Class I and Class II soils. It also recognized that counties may 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, all six counties had adopted new farmland preservation plans, certified by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) as meeting the farmland preservation planning standards in Chapter 91.


Farmland Preservation Areas

Updated county farmland preservation plans have identified farmland preservation areas in Southeastern Wisconsin. 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 I-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 farmland preservation areas, many farming areas with concentrations of Class I and Class II soils have been excluded. Some were excluded based on non-soil factors, such as minimum farm “block” size. However, much of the exclusion is attributable to local government reluctance to specifically identify exclusive-use farming areas. In general, the county 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.

Links to model regulations and ordinances related to farmland preservation and livestock facilities siting and operation are available on the Zoning & Ordinances page.