A Wisconsin farmer works his field outside Marshall in early August. (Photo © Andy Manis)
A Wisconsin farmer works his field outside Marshall in early August. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Convention group outlines what hasn’t worked and what’s needed before it’s too late.

Already struggling rural regions in Wisconsin have been further put at risk during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but policy changes at the state and federal level that would boost investments could revitalize those communities, a panel of Democrats said Tuesday.

Participants in a virtual event titled the Wisconsin Rural Issues Roundtable said the policies of Republican President Donald Trump’s administration have left farmers and many others living in the state’s less-populated locations behind as federal and state policies have failed to address their needs. The session was held in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention, which began Monday and concludes Thursday. 

Event speakers were particularly critical of Trump’s policies that favor corporate agriculture, his trade tariffs that have curtailed many agriculture sales, and his mismanagement of the pandemic. They have devastated rural areas, widening the gap between them and urban areas with greater access to resources, the participants said.

Trump “has no idea what it takes to support rural communities,” said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a longtime incumbent Democrat from La Crosse who served as panel moderator. 

Rather than continue current policies under which rural locations continue to lag their urban and suburban counterparts, panelists said government must embrace new approaches, such as creating new jobs and opportunities for farmers and others while making food systems more local, and harnessing green energy opportunities. 

Investments in broadband internet access, transportation, education, and lock-and-dam upgrades called for in Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s rural plan would help revitalize rural areas, as would incentivizing farmers to adopt environmentally friendly practices. 

“It’s a bold plan, a big plan, and it has the opportunity to improve rural areas,” said panelist Tom Vilsack, president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council who served as agriculture secretary under former President Barack Obama and was Iowa governor before that.  

In stark contrast to Trump’s failed actions toward rural regions, Kind said Biden’s proposal to address rural needs lays out specific measures to bolster the small communities that make up much of the nation.

“We need a plan now more than ever to address the challenges our rural areas face. Only one (presidential) ticket has a plan to attack this virus and take America forward,” Kind said in reference to Biden. 

Kind and other panel speakers were critical of what they termed Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic. They said his downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19, his failure to adequately boost production of much-needed personal protection equipment, his flouting of the need to wear protective face coverings in public, and his lack of a cohesive national plan to slow the spread of the virus has led to unnecessary illnesses and deaths. 

Nearly 67,000 people have contracted the virus in Wisconsin, and more than 1,000 have died from it. The number of cases has surged this summer as people have come back together after safer-at-home rules intended to slow the virus’ spread were overturned in May by the state Supreme Court.

That mismanagement, in turn, adversely impacted the economies of rural communities, panelists said. For instance, COVID-19 outbreaks at food-processing plants forced some to shut down, meaning farmers had nowhere to sell their cattle, hogs, and poultry. Dairy farmers were forced to dump milk when prices dairies had no room to take their products. 

Farmers have experienced additional struggles in the wake of Trump’s imposing tariffs as part of trade wars with China and other nations. Those tariffs have shrunk markets for farmers to sell their goods, making it harder for many to stay in business.

During the Obama administration, Vilsack said, the U.S. trade surplus typically was about $25 billion annually. During Trump’s time as president, that figure has shrunk to about $3 billion, he said, and this year might be a deficit. 

State Sen. Patty Schachtner, a Democrat seeking re-election to the 10th Senate district, remembers her family being forced from their farm in the 1980s when they couldn’t make a go of it any longer. Farming for small- and mid-size producers has only gotten more difficult since then, she said, noting that last year more than 800 Wisconsin farmers lost their farms.  

“Rural communities are really struggling,” Schachtner said. “We need a president who cares about the people living in rural areas.”

Schachtner and other panelists discussed the need for significant investment to boost broadband internet access. Many rural parts of Wisconsin lack that access, leaving them further behind in a world in which business increasingly is conducted online.

Kriss Marion, a Lafayette County Board supervisor who is running as a Democrat for the 51st Assembly District seat against incumbent Republican Todd Novak, said some school-age children must sit in school parking lots to do homework because they lack internet access at home. 

“We are crying out for real investment in our communities,” she said. “But we’re just not seeing that.”     

Without such investment, Marion said, more farmers will be forced out of business, leaving Wisconsin’s rural regions and small communities without the resources they need to thrive. But it doesn’t have to be that way, she and other panelists said.

The investments called for in Biden’s rural plan could help farmers and others, reversing the migration from rural to urban areas and creating stable jobs while improving the environment.

“That plan casts a vision,” Marion said. “Farmers can be the heroes of the rural renaissance that we need.”