The county with the smallest land area in Wisconsin; rapid population growth (more than doubled in the last 50 years); the highest per capita income in the state; urban sprawl fueled by rampant residential and commercial development with municipalities claiming large tracts of rural land to expand their borders.
That is Ozaukee County.
But so is this: A county that devotes half of its land to farming.
Everyone has heard about the decline in agriculture as a contributor to the state’s economy, so the statistic that 50% of the land in the county is used for farming is probably surprising to many. But it should also be heartening. In fact, it’s a statistic that should be protected as a key contributor to the quality of life in Ozaukee County.
Though it is true that relatively few people now work in agriculture here, many Ozaukee residents care about farming, judging from the thousands who showed up for Breakfast on the Farm Saturday at Bob and Cindy Roden’s dairy farm near Newburg. Besides a hearty breakfast, the visitors got a bit of an education in 21st century farming.
One aspect of agriculture they probably didn’t hear about is the one that is its most important influence on the future of Ozaukee County: Farming is a bulwark against the theft of open spaces by unchecked development.
Most of the open space of the Ozaukee County countryside is farmland. Seen from the many miles of county and town roads that crisscross the county, these fields present more than broad vistas. During the growing season, crops of hay, oats, wheat, corn and soybeans offer views of undulating carpets of green. At harvest time, they turn the landscape golden.
Because not all of the land of farms is tillable, agriculture also preserves features that add natural character to the countryside, such as woodlots, areas of rocky outcroppings and banks of waterways.
The value of farming as a counter to urban sprawl is recognized by the Ozaukee County government with a farmland preservation program that offers tax credits and other incentives to keep farms in business.
These inducements are not giveaways. Even with the tax breaks, farms more than pay their way with taxes because their service demands on local government are small compared to residential or commercial land uses.
Ozaukee County farming contributes more than open space preservation. As a part of the great American agricultural enterprise, it helps feed this country and some of the world beyond, while adding more than $60 million a year to the county’s economy.
In a society that has a high regard for small business owners (just listen to politicians extoll their virtues), Ozaukee’s farms are quintessential small businesses with operators who exemplify the admired traits of hard work and entrepreneurial courage.
The term “corporate farm” has become somewhat of a pejorative label, but the fact is that virtually every farm in Ozaukee County is a corporate farm, albeit many of them small corporations. Folks of a nostalgic bent may prefer to think of farming in images of cows lowing in the pasture and red wooden barns and windmills dotting the countryside, but today’s farms are businesses that have to evolve and grow—especially grow—to survive.
Farming can be in conflict with the environment in numerous ways, including tilling practices that deplete topsoil, overuse of chemical fertilizers and negligent handling of the tremendous volume of natural fertilizer farm animals produce, and the bigger the farm the bigger the conflict.
There are responsible ways to deal with these problems, and most Ozaukee farmers practice them. A few Ozaukee farms meet the definition of CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations with huge confined dairy herds. With this factorylike version of farming, the consequences of any lapses in environmental protection measures are potentially so severe that stringent enforcement of state regulations is essential.
Many would hope, with good reason, thatCAFOs do not proliferate here. The reality is, however, that farms of all sizes are fast leaving those fond pastoral images to history.
That’s a price worth paying to keep farming alive and well as the guardian of our open spaces.