April 26, 2021 at 5:59 p.m.
Hosted by the Dairy Business Association, the virtual conference included appearances from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, members of the budget-writing Joint Committee on Finance, and the secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.
Gov. Tony Evers’ biennial budget includes a historic $43 million investment to support agriculture in Wisconsin. Key policies cited in the budget include plans to bolster international trade for Wisconsin products, investments in dairy processor grants to support innovation and expansion, land and water funding, regional farmer support programs, and investments in the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection which include the hiring of additional meat inspectors and permanent staff in the hemp program.
Baldwin, chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies, supports the Dairy Innovation Hub and preserving Wisconsin as a leader in the global dairy industry.
“Taking an innovative idea and putting it into action is what this program is all about,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin also showed her support for Standards of Identity for dairy and promised to make sure this issue remains high on the agenda.
“I will be reintroducing the DAIRY PRIDE Act very soon,” Baldwin said. “Dairy was one of the first industries to have nutritional standards written into federal law. Terms like milk, cream, ice cream and yogurt are being hijacked by products that don’t meet the standards of identity for these dairy products. These fake products are using dairy’s good name in the dairy case, and this violates the law. Dairy has taken a hit from this, and there’s a concern that consumers are unaware these products don’t have to meet the standards dairy does. We want the FDA to do its job and enforce the standards of identity.”
A rise in plant-based products that imitate meat and lab-cultured meat products are just around the corner, according to the DBA, which feels the same labeling protections should be offered to meat products.
A legislative panel including Sen. Kathy Bernier and Reps. Mark Born, Amy Loudenbeck and Greta Neubauer – all members of the Joint Committee on Finance – shared their thoughts on dairy-related items within the proposed state budget.
All committee members support the continuation of the Dairy Innovation Hub, which operates on the University of Wisconsin River Falls, Platteville and Madison campuses. The committee also showed support for the Wisconsin Initiative on Dairy Exports.
“Both the Dairy Innovation Hub and the dairy exports initiative have support in our caucus,” said Born, co-chairman of the committee. “I don’t view either as one-time things. We need to do better in the area of exports and get more Wisconsin products out in the world.”
“I absolutely support these initiatives,” she said. “I’m an advocate for the Hub. It’s an important driver for economic growth in Wisconsin.”
Committee vicechair Loudenbeck would like to see the Hub show its value, however.
“We took a big leap of faith in supporting the Dairy Innovation Hub, and we need to highlight what it means long term,” Loudenbeck said. “We just started it, and I don’t want to see it go away. Yet at the same time, how do we pivot and use the center to respond to consumer needs and feed the world?”
Loudenbeck said the producer-led watershed grant program has shown success, and county conservation and extension agents are being well-leveraged.
“Those specialists are important, and keeping and growing things that work is a priority,” Loudenbeck said. “Exports are important too. We want to do a little bit of everything, but we won’t be able to afford it all. We’d like to retain the things we have and also work on some new items.”
Transportation remains a hot-button issue in Wisconsin, and fixing the state’s transportation funding problem continues to be a policy priority for the DBA. The association is asking for a long-term, sustainable fix for the state’s transportation funding needs.
“We packed a lot of money into roads in the last budget,” Bernier said. “We worked on a bill utilizing sales tax and dividing that out among county and local governments. I still think that is an answer to funding our county and local roads. We overutilize income tax and property tax and underutilize sales taxes. A balance to state tax/income tax would be a good option for road improvement.”
Loudenbeck said with the influx of significant federal funds, she does not see the committee looking at new resources for transportation at this time.
“We voted on two bills in the assembly on April 13,” Loudenbeck said. “One is to send $308 million to counties, cities and towns to utilize immediately for local roads and bridges. There is also a proposal to use some of the federal dollars coming in to pay down transportation bonding. We need to have the right mix of how much we borrow and how much we pay for with cash.”
When the capitol shut down last year because of COVID-19, it left behind a lot of unfinished business. Neubauer wants to see bills that were left on the table put into law.
“I’m feeling ambitious with this budget and hoping we can accomplish a lot,” Neubauer said.
Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, is a believer in expanding the state’s agricultural exports and helping Wisconsin’s rural businesses and dairy farms thrive.
The WEDC was involved in deploying over $240 million of CARES act funding to 65,000 Wisconsin small businesses during the pandemic.
“Exports can help grow Wisconsin’s economy,” Hughes said. “We’re looking at the dairy export bill and working closely with DATCP to understand how our expertise in trade missions can lend support to DATCP’s work in supporting dairy and all ag exports.”
Hughes is also working on the Office of Rural Prosperity which is designed to create a one-stop shop for communities, businesses, farms and processors to get help with projects and access needed resources.
The WEDC also approved an industrial revenue bond in northeast Wisconsin for $34 million – the goal of which is to assist in the production of natural gas from manure digesters.
“This is groundbreaking technology,” Hughes said. “It would move natural gas from anerobic digesters through a pipeline and get gas into the marketplace. This is something we’ve seen happening on California dairies and something we need to be thinking about in Wisconsin. This project has real value-add potential and addresses environmental challenges.”
The legislators want to hear from their constituents on policy issues and urged farmers to attend hearing sessions, call or write.
“We’ve held hearings and are actively seeking input,” Loudenbeck said. “As the legislature, we are accessible. If a farmer wants to give me his comments about budget input, he can call, or the finance committee also has a website where people can upload comments. We want to know the details of how to solve a problem. As a farmer, where do you need help? Is it with exports? Branding? The supply chain? How can we fix it?”
Realizing the challenge of virtual hearings for some, Neubauer encourages people to call and write letters.
“Writing a couple letters really can make a difference in what rises to the top for us as a priority,” Neubauer said.
Bernier would like to see more farmers show up at listening sessions.
“Constituent input is important,” she said. “Farmers generally don’t come to listening sessions, but conservation groups do. We would like to get farmers there to delve into the details. For example, Chippewa County has nitrate issues with its wells, and we’re trying to work with farmers to address this. We want people there who generally don’t come, and we perk up when farmers enter the room.”
“It’s important to tell your story so we can see how that ties in with the direct request,” he said. “We want to know how an issue impacts your family, your farm, your business.”
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