Representative Travis Tranel explains what he has experienced both as a dairy farmer and as a member of the state legislature during a panel discussion Oct. 17 in Platteville, Wis.
Representative Travis Tranel explains what he has experienced both as a dairy farmer and as a member of the state legislature during a panel discussion Oct. 17 in Platteville, Wis. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on the presentation, “Navigating the New Economy Series.”    
    PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Those interested in learning about the difficult economic times facing dairy farmers in Wisconsin and what the future may bring congregated at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Markee Pioneer Student Center Oct. 17 to listen to a panel discussion held as part of’s Navigating the New Economy Series and moderated by Wisconsin farm news personality Pam Jahnke.

    Members of the discussion panel included Brad Pfaff, Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary designee; Travis Tranel, Wisconsin’s 49th District Assemblyman and dairy farmer; Dr. Paul Mitchell, agricultural economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the director of Renk Agribusiness Institute; Dr. Charles Irish, emeritus Volkman-Bascom professor of law and former director of the East Asian Legal Studies Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Anna Landmark, owner of Landmark Creamery.
    “Wisconsin agriculture is very closely related not just to China and southeast Asia but to the world marketplace as a whole,” Jahnke said.
    Jahnke began the discussion by asking Irish to share his thoughts about the potential trade agreements with China.
    “Don’t bet on exports of $50 billion,” Irish said. “The Chinese haven’t confirmed. They haven’t mentioned a number. $50 billion would be higher than ever. The exports peaked at $29 billion about six years ago, and the last 12 months have been running under $10 billion.”
    Irish pointed to the looming additional 15% tariffs on $156 billion of Chinese imports that President Trump has set to begin Dec. 15 if the Chinese do not come to an agreement with the United States.
    Jahnke asked Mitchell to talk about how the trade news about China has affected agricultural markets.
    “Most farmers don’t directly export their products,” he said. “They watch the local markets, and what they are seeing is the prices going up and down. There is a lot of uncertainty this year because of the weather. Last week, the USDA announced their projected U.S. corn yield went up by 0.2 bushels, 168.2 to 168.4. The price dropped 14 cents that day. Then the next day it went right back up because the blizzard that hit North Dakota. The markets are just gyrating around.”
    Jahnke brought up the relationships that are often capitalized on during difficult times, particularly those with trade partners, an area which she said Pfaff brought a great deal of experience to the table.
     “I’ve got some good and bad news,” Pfaff said. “The good news is in the first six months of 2019, we exported over $1.6 billion of high-quality agriculture products from Wisconsin to over 125 nations around the world. Sadly, it is down 7% compared to last year.”
    Pfaff said the top five agriculture export opportunities for Wisconsin are Canada, China, Mexico, Japan and South Korea.
    “We have a value chain and a supply chain put in place to make sure that we can continue to try and move products from Wisconsin, ideally finished products that have gone through the supply chain, and move those to consumers from around the world,” Pfaff said. “We do continue to build on these relationships.”
    Jahnke asked Tranel to share his experiences working in the state legislature and what it is like being a farmer serving in the state house trying to share the story of agriculture.
    “There are 99 members in the assembly and 33 in the senate; Wisconsin agriculture has an over-$100 billion impact and dairy is over 15% of our state’s economy,” Tranel said. “But there are less than a handful of us that honestly know anything about agriculture. When our state started, the legislature was comprised pretty much of farmers and a few attorneys. Now it’s a lot of attorneys and me and a couple of others.”
    Tranel said despite agriculture being in a downturn for the past five years many of his colleagues recently started realizing the agricultural economy is struggling.
    “They see a $50,000 pick-up truck or a $500,000 combine,” Tranel said. “They think things are fine in ag. That is the bridge we have to gap. It’s becoming more and more challenging.”
    Jahnke directed the conversation to the shift in what agriculture looks like and what she called creative farmers; someone took a look at an underserved market to find a way to get into agriculture, much like Anna Landmark did when she created Landmark Creamery six years ago.
    “I had a tremendous benefit because of an organization called the Dairy Business Innovation Center,” Landmark said. “It gave me access to all the consultants I could possibly need to launch a cheesemaking business. They had all of these people with years of industry experience. It was very sad when that program went away. I got in at the very end of it, and I probably could have been growing a little bit faster if I had had more of that support as I was going forward.”
    Landmark continues to use facilities at Cedar Grove Cheese to produce cheese from her herd of sheep.
    “We had hoped that by year six we would be in our own cheese plant,” Landmark said. “Equity is always hard to scrounge up, and there is not a lot of grant programs for food businesses of my size to take advantage of. Banks are obviously reluctant to make loans right now. Growth has been challenging.”
    Jahnke said most involved in agriculture want to continue to be involved in agriculture, and asked Mitchell to talk about the damage done to the agricultural sector and what a recovery might look like.
    “All of the capital is gone,” Mitchell said. “Farmers have been dipping into equity. You see all the numbers; that we are leading the nation in farm bankruptcies as a state. They are just the symptom. There are a lot of others getting out before it gets that bad.”
    Mitchell compared the current agricultural economy to what was experienced in the 1980s.
    “The word crisis is out there now,” Mitchell said. “I’m not ready to call this a crisis yet, but it’s not good. The ‘80s were a crisis. It was hard on the families. There is a lot of stress on these households.”
    Mitchell said it is going to take a while for things to improve.
    “Let’s say something happens and the prices really shoot up here,” Mitchell said. “But the capital has been sucked away, and it’s going to take a while to build those resources back up again. There is no easy answer like wait six months and it will be better. I think it will take us a few more years after the markets recover, assuming that they do.”