Food for Thought

Photo by ZDA, Inc.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are foundational to a healthy diet and lifestyle. Still, as urban centers expand, the barriers to healthy food become increasingly problematic. Fresh and local is touted across the country, yet the pressures of development make it economically challenging to preserve farmland near cities. What is happening to our farmland, and can we keep food production near our urban centers?

Thousands of farms have gone out of business over the last few years. Wisconsin alone lost 560 farms in 2019. According to the American Farmland Trust May 2018 report, Farms Under Threat, almost 31 million acres of agricultural land was irreversibly lost to development between 1997 and 2012. Even more concerning is that 11 million of these acres were rated as the highest-value land for intensive food and crop production. Living at the edge of the city and watching this land-use shift has given plenty of food for thought resulting in our barn story, an experimental model for preserving productivity on highly developable land.

Photograph provided by ZDA, Inc.

The experiment began with the purchase of a two-acre split with a house on it from our neighbor’s farm. The thought was to provide land and housing for intensive food production to feed the next generation’s farm-to-table dreams. The reality was not sustainable. Next thought, if labor intensive organic food production on a microfarm is a bust, is it possible to subsidize a food-pantry garden by turning the home into a vacation rental? This has worked. Over the last five years, the home rental covered the costs, and the land has produced thousands of pounds of food for Middleton Outreach Ministry’s (MOM’s) food pantry in Middleton. But why stop there with most of the land around us at risk for development?

Photograph provided by ZDA, Inc.

The 1914 dairy barn on the farm adjacent to our, ZDA’s, land was slated to be torn down for housing. Saddened to see these iconic symbols of Wisconsin’s dairy land disappearing, we decided, against our better judgement, to do a barn rescue. In the early morning of a chilly March day, third-generation barn movers lifted the little barn off of its foundation and moved it across the street to its new home. The barn sat up on cribbing for over a year while we thought about how we could make its new life self-sustaining. We gave the barn a new foundation and a new roof to stabilize it for the next 100 years, but what about the land surrounding the barn? With 14 acres and an old barn, we began to think about what would be the best sustainable land use to protect the majority of land’s productivity for the future. We lobbied to keep the land in agricultural zoning and were granted an agricultural entertainment conditional-use permit. This allows the land use to expand from growing field crops and food to agricultural programming, farm-to-table dinners, and events. The hope is that diversity will provide the resiliency and community necessary to preserve the land’s future productivity.

So is it possible to protect agricultural land on the fringes of our cities from development? The most productive agricultural land is also the most desirable land for housing, transportation, and energy production. Long-term planning goals continue to favor residential development of agricultural farmland in many Dane County townships. Our land and the farmland around us are targeted for an airport runway expansion. Thirteen hundred acres of agricultural land in the Driftless region are already being converted into a solar energy farm with another 495 acres approved for conversion. Land is needed to support urban expansion, but thoughtful, comprehensive urban planning should work to protect our best farmland from development.

Photograph provided by ZDA, Inc.

Access to fresh food is fundamental to health and well-being. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that by 2050 the world will need to increase food production by 70 percent to feed a world of over nine billion people. According to Farms Under Threat, this makes it critical to “balance the demands for energy, housing, transportation, and water to ensure our best agricultural land remains available for food and other crop production.” Technology has made our best farmland more productive, but irreversible development of farmland is an unspoken threat that could eat at the very foundation of future food securities for cities.

Joan W. Ziegler is a horticulturist and garden designer and winner of the 2015 Perennial Plant Association Merit Award for Residential Landscape at ZDA, Inc. Landscape Architecture, 4797 Capitol View Road, Middleton. Call (608) 831-5098 or visit .

Photograph by Betsy Haynes Photography