An empty feedlot at a farm in Manitowoc County where dairy cattle were sold off due to poor market conditions. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)
An empty feedlot at a farm in Manitowoc County where dairy cattle were sold off due to poor market conditions. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)

Evers’ bills get support in first committee hearings

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Republicans in his chamber are prepared to go “bigger and bolder” than the $8.5 million investment put forth by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to address the struggles of farmers in a special session of the Legislature.

“We know Wisconsin farmers are facing difficulties for a number of reasons,” Vos said. “Our goal is to provide short-term and long-term relief. What Gov. Evers proposed was more long-term relief. We want to attack the problem from both angles.”

Vos and other Assembly Republicans gathered to make the announcement on “Ag Day” when hundreds of farmers and producers from across the state descend on the Capitol to lobby and meet with lawmakers. The announcement also came at the same time as the Assembly Agriculture Committee was holding a public hearing on three bills proposed by Evers during his State of the State address in January. 

Evers said he welcomes interest from legislative Republicans in addressing dairy farming difficulties and other challenges faced by Wisconsin’s rural areas. Evers said he was “open to” Vos’ proposals.

“I’m glad all sides are finally taking action on this issue,” Evers told a group of journalists following his address to a Wisconsin Counties Association event in Madison. “We are in a situation now in which people are willing to care (about rural issues).”

Vos said short-term relief will come in the form of two tax breaks; a property tax break and a healthcare tax credit that will allow farmers and sole proprietors to deduct the cost of health insurance from their taxes. Other forthcoming proposals focus on expanding markets for dairy products into India and the Middle East and increasing markets for hemp. 

As for specifics relating to the overall cost Assembly Republicans are willing to spend on farmers, Vos said that figure as well as the introduction of the bills would occur after the members’ caucuses Thursday. 

“We are going through all the proposals,” said Vos when asked if the Assembly would be debating bills proposed by Evers. 

Evers called for a special session to address hardships in the farming communities, a move that put a primetime spotlight on the struggles of rural Wisconsin and the state’s agriculture industry.

The state’s agricultural industry accounts for 11 percent of the state’s workforce and contributes $110  billion to the economy each year. Wisconsin still leads the nation in cheese production and produces 14 percent of the nation’s milk.

Yet between 2011 and 2018, Wisconsin lost about one-third of its dairy farms and led the nation in farm bankruptcies. Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, said for those who stayed in business, income was down by 50 percent. 

Support for the three bills, AB 790, 795 and 796, being debated in the Assembly committee public hearing also were receiving community support. A majority of those who testified spoke in favor of AB 790, a bill that would restore baseline state funding to the counties to employ three conservation officers.

Under current law, the state Department of Trade and Consumer Protection is supposed to fund three conservation staffers per county. The first should be 100 percent funded by the state, the second should be 70 percent funded by the state and the third should be 50 percent funded by the state.

Over the last 10 years, the state has only fully funded one position. Over the past 20 years, staffing is down by 40 percent. 

Matt Krueger, executive director of Wisconsin Land + Water Conservation Association, said county conservationists are being asked to implement an ever-increasing set of programs, without increased funding, and with fewer people available to do the job.

“When combined with the fact that we have not adequately supported baseline funding for the past two decades, we should not be surprised by the contaminated wells and impaired waterways in the news lately,” Krueger said. 

Stan Kaczmarek, a farmer-citizen member of the Brown County Land and Water subcommittee, and president of the Brown County Farm Bureau, said environmental programs are continuing to become more technical. He said having staff to help landowners navigate the technical aspects is “vitally important” to maintaining and increasing participation.

“Farmers know how to farm,” Kaczmarek said. “Having someone there that can point them in the right direction when it comes to bureaucracy is invaluable for Wisconsin’s environment.”