August 26, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.

New state budget gives nod to agriculture

Money assigned to fix rural roads, provide rebates for cover crops

By STACEY SMART | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment
Staff Writer

MADISON, Wis. — On July 5, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed the 2023-25 state biennial budget into law. With dollars invested in areas including agricultural infrastructure to meat processing, the budget contained a variety of items seen as wins for agriculture and the dairy industry.

Chad Zuleger
Dairy Business Association and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative


“A highlight was certainly the Agricultural Road Improvement Program which allocated $150 million to improve agricultural roads throughout the state,” said Chad Zuleger, director of government affairs at Dairy Business Association and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative. “The whole ag coalition came together in support of this and put together a really good plan.”
The agricultural community also received outside support from the Wisconsin Counties Association and the Wisconsin Towns Association. The plan is not only to repair rural roads used by agriculture but to also improve those roads so that they can no longer be posted once a project is finished.
“This plan will improve roads that our producers and processors use on a daily basis that are subject to weight limits during times like spring thaw, causing detours and reroutes and adding cost to fuel and wait times,” Zuleger said. “It’s a really significant investment — maybe the most significant investment in ag infrastructure in a generation.”
Previously, a provision prohibited federal funds from being used on bridges less than 20 feet long, which Zuleger saw as a problem.
“In a rural community, you can be dealing with culverts that could be 10 or 15 feet and even smaller bridges or easements into bridges,” Zuleger said. “The state program includes those types of roads, bridges and culverts under 20 feet. With these funds, we should be able to do a lot of repairs and really improve the roads that are used to generate more economic activity. We are thrilled to have this enacted.”
Increased funding for the cover crop insurance rebate program was another big win for agriculture. The program provides a $5 per acre rebate on cover crop insurance to incentivize farmers to plant cover crops. The program’s funding was doubled from $800,000 to $1.6 million.
“I’m excited to see that program take off,” Zuleger said. “It’s really changing the landscape as we’re seeing fields go from brown to green with a lot of cover cropping. This is a really good investment.”
The Nitrogen Optimization Pilot Program through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection was established last budget cycle and received $2 million in the current budget. This program provides grants up to $50,000 to individual farmers or groups of farmers to study impacts of nitrogen on cropping and water quality. Done in partnership with the University of Wisconsin, the goal is to use strategies that will minimize the impact of commercial fertilizers on the land.
The dairy processor grant program also received increased funding of an additional $500,000.
“Our partners in the processing world are critical to our producers’ success, and we are ecstatic about the increased funding put toward technology and utilizing best practices,” Zuleger said. “This bolsters a processor’s ability to do business in Wisconsin and continue to grow.”
The new budget also included increased funding for meat processors. Zuleger said capacities and shortfalls in the supply chain were brought to light during the pandemic, pinpointing the need for increased infrastructure within the processing community.
“We saw incredible delays as a result of shutdowns and supply chain breakdowns,” Zuleger said. “This budget includes increased grants to start new meat processing facilities and allow current facilities to improve and take advantage of new technologies. Every dairy farmer is also a beef producer, and we’re delighted about this funding. This is a significant improvement that all of agriculture can applaud.”
The budget will also maintain funding for Wisconsin’s agricultural exports initiative.
“We export a lot of dairy products, particularly in the cheese markets, and this funding helps processors and producers innovate in that value chain as farmers are asked to do more on the sustainability side,” Zuleger said.
Established in the last budget, the goal is to increase exports across commodities by 25% by the year 2026.
“Dairy exports have really taken off and earned over a 30% increase in the first two years of this program,” Zuleger said.
Well compensation and well abandonment grants received an increase of $1 million.
“We advocated strongly for expansion of this program and increasing eligibility of these funds,” Zuleger said. “The problem still is that eligibility requirements are so stringent that very little of that money ever gets allocated. We continue to work with the legislature to expand that eligibility.”
The producer watershed grant program is an area where Zuleger felt the budget fell short. He said the budget for this program was not increased even though farmer participation in watershed programs is on the rise. These programs provide grants to groups implementing sustainable practices like cover cropping and no till to prevent erosion and runoff.
“We want to come back to this in the next session and try to boost funding for this program,” Zuleger said. “The governor signed a program this session to expand the eligibility to farmers who are involved in a watershed so they can participate in more than one watershed group; therefore, we expect greater participation going forward.”
The farmland preservation program did not receive an increase in funding, which was also a disappointment to Zuleger.
“We’re going to continue to work on that,” he said. “If we can’t get it through the budget, then we would like to get standalone legislation. This program hasn’t been adjusted in almost 20 years, and we want to increase some of the rates for protecting agricultural production lands.”
DBA and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative would like to see the credit of $7.50 per acre bumped up to $10, and the $10 per acre category increased to $12.50. The most significant part, however, is to reduce enrollment from 15 years to 10.
“This is a high priority for us moving forward,” Zuleger said. “It’s time to modernize this program and look at incentives so we can keep agricultural lands in Wisconsin in production and protect lands from development or rezoning.”
DBA and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative also advocated this session to support and enhance managed grazing efforts.
“This is generally not something we put up as a priority, but through collaboration with clean water partners, we are advocating for a pilot program of minimal funding for farmers who want to transition acres into grazing,” Zuleger said. “This can provide significant environmental benefits.”
Funding for grazing did not get put into the budget, but DBA and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative are drafting a bill and working with the Legislature for the remainder of this session to provide funding to new farmers for fencing, watering, etc.
“We are looking to get $1.25 million over two years,” Zuleger said. “This is another effort to promote water quality efforts, and we are using an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
One item left on the table was the University of Wisconsin Farm and Industry Short Course program, which has transitioned to the UW-River Falls campus. Zuleger said 24 students are enrolled for this fall.
There was a $700,000 request to help establish the program at UW-River Falls, but this funding became a casualty during budget discussions that cut other university funding. DBA and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative have helped introduce new legislation to provide the needed funds.
“We’re going to see this new bill move this fall and get the additional funding to help transition that program to UW-River Falls,” Zuleger said. “This money will help the school get their infrastructure set up.”
Zuleger said all of these programs are primarily bipartisan in their support. He also said the entire ag coalition in Wisconsin worked collaboratively during this session to get funding for various programs.
“We pushed forward together,” Zuleger said. “As legislators deliberated, they heard from dairy farmers, beef farmers, soybean farmers, potato growers, etc., who were all singing the same tune. There is still work to be done, but a lot of exciting things are going on, and overall, this was a pro-ag budget.”


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