Burlington, Wisconsin
Burlington, Wisconsin (Image via Shutterstock)

Farmers and small town economies were already in crisis, and then came a pandemic

Gov. Tony Evers announced Monday the membership of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity, an effort he said is needed to help rural communities and farmers in the state.

Evers first announced the commission during his State of the State speech in January. The governor said the commission’s aim was to help rural areas struggling economically and to help farmers hit hard by continued low milk and grain prices. 

Those challenges have become even more difficult in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the shutdown of many of farmers’ biggest customers and hindered the supply chain to get farmers’ products to processors and then to sales outlets.

In some cases dairy farmers were forced to dump their milk because dairy processors lacked capacity to take their products. Beef farmers have been forced to delay sales of their animals because the supply chain was disrupted. 

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Wisconsin’s rural communities were facing challenges to their very survival,” Evers said in a news release announcing commission membership. “It is more important than ever to listen to the concerns of our rural residents and support them in finding solutions.”

The 12-member commission will develop long-term strategies to support the needs of rural communities in a variety of ways. 

Commission members include: Bob Atwell of Green Bay, Thelma Heidel Baker of Random Lake, Brittany Beyer of Rhinelander, Pamela Boivin of Kenosha, David Falk of Biron, Tom Landgraf of Madison, Rachel Sauvola of New Richmond, Lauren Thompson of Woodville, Gina Tomlinson of Cochrane, Susan Townsley of Viroqua, Jeff Tucker of Eau Claire, and Cheu Vang of Jefferson. 

The commission will hold listening sessions across Wisconsin later this summer to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on rural areas. In addition to challenges posed by the pandemic, the commission will discuss opportunities for rural areas. 

Commission members will devise recommendations to be included in the 2021-23 state budget Evers will introduce to the state Legislature in January. 

Leaders of state agriculture groups such as Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and Wisconsin Farmers Union have said they back the governor providing more assistance to farmers and the state’s rural regions. The need for such help has grown considerably with challenges posed by the pandemic, they said.

Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden said he is pleased to see “strong farmer voices” on the commission. 

“Wisconsin’s rural communities are characterized by high levels of entrepreneurship and home to many small businesses, which economists tell us are key to the state’s economic vitality,” Von Ruden said.

Virtually all agricultural products in Wisconsin have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, Farm Bureau Federation President Joe Bragger said. Those issues and other challenges rural areas face, such as lack of broadband access and the need for infrastructure improvements, must be addressed to help farmers and others succeed, he said. 

“It will be very important for farmers to attend these listening sessions to share the challenges they faced, as well as any opportunities they have found for creative thinking through these trying times,” Bragger said.