January 26, 2023 at 2:49 p.m.
From the farm to the capitol
“It’s super important as an industry that we encourage our fellow farmers and people originally from rural areas to run and serve on town and county boards,” Rep. Travis Tranel said. “I have grave concerns about not only the makeup of state legislature but also county and town boards. The people serving on these boards have few ties to agriculture and don’t understand the interests of ag, and that is concerning.”
During the 2023 Dairy Strong conference hosted by the Dairy Business Association Jan.18-19 in Madison, Tranel, Justin Peterson and Audrey Kusilek shared their experiences of serving in government. The session entitled, “From the Farm to the Capitol: How farmers make a difference as elected officials,” was moderated by Chad Zuleger, DBA director of government affairs.
Tranel is a fifth-generation dairy farmer from Grant County and a state legislator who is serving his seventh term. Tranel is a Republican from Cuba City and was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 2010. He lives on his family’s dairy farm, Tranel Family Farms, with his wife, Stephanie, and their five children. Tranel began taking over the farm in high school when his dad was diagnosed with cancer. Today, the Tranels milk 550 cows, and Tranel also owns a custom square baling business with his cousin.
Peterson lives in Bangor with his wife, Louisa, and four children and is serving his first term on the Bangor Town Board. He bought his first five dairy heifers in 2004 and is now the operating partner in a non-family farm business. A wanted ad in the newspaper brought two families together and Creamery Creek Holsteins was started in 2010. Today, they milk 675 cows, operate cropping and beef enterprises, and also direct market farm products.
“Town government is where it all starts,” Peterson said. “If we don’t have boots on the ground in rural areas of Wisconsin, agriculture could suffer. We have to keep our voices loud and proud.”
Born and raised in Barron County, Kusilek came back to the area in 1999 shortly after she and her husband, Jim, purchased their dairy farm which is home to 1,500 cows and 1,200 heifers. Prior to that, they were both employed in the banking industry. Kusilek chose to enter Barron County politics due to a poor representation of women and farmers on the 26-member county board. She serves as the District 26 supervisor, having been elected in April 2022 and represents two townships.
“I think local government is important for farmers to participate in,” Kusilek said. “Production agriculture needs a seat at the table, and that is why I chose to do it.”
Kusilek was assigned to the zoning committee, land conservation/extension committee and the five-year library plan committee. She also served nine years on the Rice Lake Area School District Board and six years on the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin board.
Tranel was met with defeat during his first attempt at running for office.
“I was young and naïve when I decided to run for office the first time,” Tranel said. “It was not easy. I tried in 2008 and lost even though I outperformed the top of the ticket by 11 points. I knocked on thousands of doors and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to beat a Democrat incumbent. I was 22 years old at the time and don’t know how I got any votes to be honest.”
The loss was tough for Tranel, and afterward, he did not want anything to do with politics. However, by 2010, he said the political climate had changed so much that the people he had asked for support were now coming to him and asking if he would run.
“The second time I put my name on the ballot, I worked pretty hard but not nearly as hard as in 2008, and I ended up beating the incumbent by 14 points,” Tranel said. “I now win reelection with 62% to 63% of the vote.”
Tranel’s original draw to politics is his love for America.
“I think it’s the greatest country in the world, and I just wanted to get involved,” he said. “I’m still quite active on the farm. Politics used to be an escape from the farm; now the farm is an escape from politics. I love going home to farm.”
Peterson was asked to run for the town board by a retired board member – a fellow farmer who had served eight terms. He felt it was necessary to keep the voice of agriculture on the board, which is why Peterson threw his hat in the ring. The rural township of Bangor has a population of 568 people. Peterson said it is easy to get elected in his township, and he ran unopposed.
When discussing the issues they face, Peterson said one of the main challenges in his area is land use.
“We’re located in La Crosse County, and the city of La Crosse keeps encroaching on the rural side,” he said. “They’re pushing us to develop more of our land base, but I’m fighting to keep our township rural and trying to get the right people to assist us in keeping agriculture viable in our county.”
For Kusilek, road issues are going to be a bigger part of future discussions.
“How do we work with the state and township to figure out financing?” She said. “There are not enough funds to maintain the roads.”
With a $7 billion budget surplus in Wisconsin, Tranel said people should be asking for more for their rural areas.
“Agriculture is not a step-child or second-class citizen in this state, but sometimes we get treated that way,” he said. “I’m very adamant to make sure rural Wisconsin has a seat at the table, and there are opportunities right now to change how we do things. We have to seize the opportunity. If we don’t ask, we’re not going to get it.”
By serving on boards, farmers are able to help educate and communicate the dairy message.
Balancing government responsibilities with farm and family life can be tricky, but Tranel, Kusilek and Peterson said it can be done. Tranel has found technology useful in saving time. Meeting on Zoom can save him a day of travel.
“You have to be good with time management, and you have to want to do both – farming and serving,” Tranel said. “Because I represent a rural area, my constituents are pretty understanding that I can’t attend every event. I represent a lot of farmers, and they understand and appreciate that I’m still farming. I’m still very much one of them.”
For Kusilek, the board typically meets at night, and committee meetings are held during the day, which works well for her schedule.
“If you do have time to run, and have an interest in running, get on and get your voice heard,” she said. “There are all kinds of people willing to help you if you raise your hand and say you are interested.”
For those farmers wanting to get involved in some capacity but unable to devote the time to serve, there are options.
“We’re always looking for people to serve on committees at the county level,” Kusilek said. “If you don’t want to run for office, you could make an impact this way.”
“You can make a big difference without serving,” he said. “Know who your town and county reps are. You should have their phone number, and they should answer when you call. If your town or county board is going through a contentious issue, write a letter to your newspaper editor to help these guys out. There are lots of things you can do to be involved and helpful without running for office.”
Both Kusilek and Peterson said they do not field many calls in their positions. However, Tranel does.
“People call me all the time,” he said. “You have to have thick skin at the state level. No matter what you do, probably 40% of the population won’t agree with it. You have to know you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons. I’m happy when certain people don’t agree with me, then I know I’m in a good spot.”
All three panelists said there is a great need for farmer representation at every level of government and consider it a realistic opportunity.
“If you feel you have the desire to serve, I would highly encourage it,” Tranel said. “But make sure your heart is in it and that you want to do it for the right reasons. It’s a lot of work, and you have to be willing to make the commitment. It’s doable, and you can be more effective than you realize.”
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