A Closer Look at Wisconsin Agriculture

For decades, farmers have produced abundant and inexpensive food but at great environmental cost.

Impacts of conventional agriculture in Wisconsin

To reverse the decline of our water resources and address the challenges posed by climate change, we must work with farmers to chart a new course for our food system. This is why: 


Soil erosion & nutrient runoff 

  • Commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, are most often produced in annual, monocropping systems (an intensive practice of cultivating a single crop with the same nutrient needs on large tracts of land), which requires intensive applications of fertilizers to replenish the soil) 
  • Monocropping leads to nutrient depleted soils  
  • Exposed ground leads to erosion without plant roots to hold soil in place  
  • Over-application of fertilizer creates nutrient runoff into groundwater, streams, rivers and lakes 
  • Tens of thousands of private wells in WI are polluted with unsafe levels of nitrates, 90% from agricultural sources  
  • Conversion of grasslands and other natural landscapes into intensive agriculture removes continuous ground cover like perennial grasses, shrubs, and trees that hold carbon in the soil 
  • Only 8% of agricultural fields in WI use cover crops 


Overgrazing & waste accumulation 

  • Livestock farms are increasingly concentrated to increase number of cattle in a herd, but improper management leads to overgrazing of pastureland 
  • Overgrazing compacts the soil, leading to loss of oxygen for beneficial soil organisms that fix nutrients into the soil in forms plants can utilize most effectively
  • Efforts to improve efficiency of management of large numbers of livestock have led to concentrated animal farming operations (CAFOs) 
  • Overgrazing and CAFOs intensify waste accumulation, which when improperly managed, releases methane 
  • CAFOs increase food miles for grain and silage (increasing carbon dioxide emissions in transport of livestock feed) 


Systemic barriers 

  • Current subsidies provide financial incentives for intensive systems such as mono-cropping and CAFO’s, that deplete the soil 
  • Between 1995-2020, Wisconsin farmers received $10.1 billion in subsidies, the vast majority (62%) were for programs incentivizing commodities such as corn, soybeans and dairy products 
  • Only 11% of subsidies went to support conservation programs
  • Small family farms are disappearing 
  • Unable to compete with larger agricultural operations that have higher output at lower costs, most of these farms have been consolidated into larger operations (concentrating emissions of methane from manure of large dairy or cattle operations) or sold off to developers to build new homes
  • Wisconsin has lost over 40,000 dairy farms over the last four decades. 


Aging farmers 

  • The average age of farmers in Wisconsin is 56 years old.  
  • As farmers age and seek to retire, the rising cost of land, equipment and feed keep farming out of reach for many new and future farmers 


Limited access and opportunity for next generation farmers 

  • While many thousands of homes are sold each year, only a small fraction of the state’s agricultural land changes hands on the open market in any given year 
  • The average price of agricultural land sold in Wisconsin in 2022 was $5,416 per acre, a 21.6% increase from 2020 
  • Many young people opt out of agriculture altogether, seeking more lucrative careers in urban areas, creating a brain-drain in rural areas where we most need modern innovation applied 


The large depletion of surface soil organic carbon on farmed land indicates a huge potential for enhanced rates of carbon sequestration through purposeful, climate-smart practices. The next generation of farmers, mentored under experienced farmers, are the future of farming. We must help our farmers access the resources they need to transform our agricultural systems into regenerative, vibrant, rural economies that feed our families and our communities, while protecting our precious natural resources.