MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin dairy farmers and their surrounding communities have been feeling the brunt of hard economic times for several years. Elected officials serving in the state government in Madison all agree something needs to be done to help Wisconsin’s farmers and rural communities, but the ideas and methods of achieving a solution are as diverse as Wisconsin’s dairy industry itself.

    In his State of the State address delivered Jan. 22, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers presented what he calls a three-pronged plan, with legislation calling for nearly $8.5 million in funding, to bring relief and solutions to the problems facing rural Wisconsin.
    “We’re known as America’s Dairyland, but unfortunately, as too many families across our state know firsthand, our state continues to face challenges that we must work quickly to address,” Evers said in his address. “Our state has relied on the resilience and dedication of our farmers for generations, and in this state, nobody carries the burden alone. We need to be better partners for our farmers, agricultural industries and rural communities. So, today I am proud to be unveiling my three-pronged plan to start addressing these challenges, starting with a special session of the legislature to get to work on this issue right away.”
    In a teleconference Jan. 23, Gov. Evers detailed his plan which included calling the legislature into a special session Jan. 28 to look at eight legislative proposals that include increasing dairy exports; expanding grant opportunities available for processing plants, on-farm processing, farm to school, small farm diversity, promoting value-added products and education in organic farming and grazing; providing support and funding for mental health services; providing planning assistance; and creating additional agriculture positions within the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
    “We believe this is a really great step forward,” Evers said. “It’s not the answer to all the problems. There are plenty of problems in the agriculture industry. But we are making sure we are moving forward in a real proactive way.”
    Evers said the issues addressed in the eight bills will impact farmers of all size, scale and scope, helping them to not only survive but potentially improve their bottom lines by increasing efficiencies.
    “The second part of the initiative is to make sure we really connect the dots in relation to long-term strategies not only around agriculture but around rural prosperity in the state,” Evers said in the teleconference. “We will be putting together a Blue Ribbon Task Force to deal with that connection.”
    The third prong of Evers’ plan is the creation of the Office of Rural Prosperity, which the governor said will serve to help support rural businesses.
    “We’re going to be working with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to have that organization play a really important role in creating an Office of Rural Prosperity,” Evers said. “That will be a one-stop shopping area for people to access resources that WEDC has available to them.”
    Wisconsin’s interim Secretary of Agriculture Randy Romanski supported the plan proposed by Evers. He said he has confidence the package of bills will receive bipartisan support in the legislature.  
    “Agriculture is part of our heritage,” Romanski said. “This will help to make sure we make further steps in rural Wisconsin. An investment in Wisconsin farmers is an investment in our economy.”
    While all agree on the importance of creating a positive climate for Wisconsin’s dairy industry, some members of the legislature question how effective the governor’s proposal will be in accomplishing the desired outcomes.
    Sen. Howard Marklein, chair of the senate’s agriculture committee, said he speaks to a variety of farmers from his district nearly every day, and he has heard concerns from those farmers about the plans laid forth in the governor’s package.
    “The idea of adding more Madison bureaucrats is not what the farmers I speak to are looking for,” Marklein said.
    Marklein said there were already over 35 bills dealing with issues in rural Wisconsin making their way through various committees in the legislature before the State of the State address. Those bills reflect a variety of issues that affect dairy farmers and rural communities.
    “Those bills are all ones that have been requested by various agriculture groups about things that are important to them,” Marklein said. “I want to know the opinions and thoughts of farmers. I’m going to keep working to get things done that they want.”
    Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos also gave input about the plan.
    “Farmers are already telling us the governor’s package does more to grow the size of government than actually help our rural areas,” Vos said in a written statement. “We’re open to amending the bills or introducing our own proposals in order to do what’s best for rural Wisconsin.”
    Wisconsin farm groups are encouraged by attention agriculture is being paid by state leaders and the discussions that will be held to find solutions to the problems facing the dairy industry in the state. Leaders of both the Dairy Business Association and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau look forward to working with both the administration and the legislature as resources.
    “The governor and lawmakers of both parties clearly understand the significance of a vibrant farm economy to our state,” said Tom Crave, president of the Dairy Business Association, in a press release following the State of the State address. “DBA’s members heard this time and again as they visited with legislators during our group’s Dairy Day at the Capitol.”
    Wisconsin Farm Bureau president Joe Bragger was present at the State of the State address and was excited by the attention paid to agriculture in the speech.
    “Gov. Evers highlighting our agriculture’s diversity was important because that is what makes us strong,” said Bragger in a press release. “The pride our farmers have in what they do is admirable.”
    Bragger also said the support promised to the state’s farmers was encouraging, and boosting dairy exports and providing additional resources to farmers can only help. And, by working together, a better future can be built for Wisconsin’s rural communities.