Ag Bills Await Wisconsin State Senate Floor

Published online: Mar 20, 2020 Articles Lynn Grooms
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Source: The Clay Center Dispatch

Several Wisconsin agriculture organizations on March 12 urged the Wisconsin State Senate to pass bills important to Wisconsin farmers and the state’s agricultural economy. The next step before moving to the Gov. Tony Evers’ desk is passage of the bills by the senate. The senate was expected to reconvene for its last floor session the week of March 23. Given the many postponements and closures being announced on a daily basis around the state and country the date is uncertain.

"We haven't heard a clear indication of support for the bills in the senate, which is surprising given that in January the state projected an $800 million surplus for the biennium," said Kara O'Connor, government-relations director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. "Some of these bills, such as the truth-in-labeling bills, wouldn't cost taxpayers anything. Others, such as the grants to small dairy processors, will almost certainly generate many times more economic activity than they cost. As for the water quality bills, it will cost us far more to try to find new sources of drinking water than to protect existing aquifers and wells."

The dairy industry – on-farm and processing – contributes $45.6 billion to the state’s industrial revenues, according to “The Contribution of Agriculture to the Wisconsin Economy,” a report published in 2019 by the department of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension’s Center for Community Economic Development.

According to the report 154,000 Wisconsin jobs are created and $1.26 billion in state and local taxes are generated by the dairy industry. Every dollar generated by Wisconsin’s dairy industry generates another $1.73 in additional revenue for the state. Dairy processing accounts for about two-thirds of dairy’s total contribution.

Wisconsin agriculture organizations also urged the senate to pass bills related to water.

“Five of the bills originated from the bipartisan Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality,” O’Connor said of the task force launched by Wisconsin Speaker Robin Vos, R-63-Rochester. “And there was a real feeling of collaboration. It’s a promising package of bills and has support from the governor’s office. We’re hoping the senate will take note of the consensus. The bills had overwhelming passage in the assembly.”

Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis.

Assembly Bill 789 and Senate Bill 724 and Assembly Bill 800 and Senate Bill 722 provide increased assistance for rural-well remediation.

Assembly Bill 790 and Senate Bill 723 would increase funding for additional county land and water conservation agents.

Assembly Bill 795 and Senate Bill 715 fund producer-led watershed protection grants and incentives to try innovative conservation practices such as cover cropping. Senate Bill 715 also would create a grazing-education specialist position at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

At one time there had been such a position, said Kirsten Jurcek, owner of Brattset Family Farm in Jefferson County. She rotationally grazes about 140 head of grass-fed and finished beef cattle on a 300-acre grass-based farm. She began rotational grazing cattle about 15 years ago and had relied on agency staff for resources and education about grazing.

“Now in my role as a grazing educator through Glacierland Resource Conservation District, I see growing interest in grazing among my fellow farmers,” she said. “Meanwhile funding for positions dedicated to grazing-education is decreasing. All of the agencies I looked to for livestock and grazing technical assistance have experienced significant staff cuts.”

Creation of a grazing-coordinator position at the agriculture department would begin to fill the void left by those vacancies, she said.

“Grazing has been a win-win for my operation in terms of both farm profitability and soil and water quality,” she said. “With the right support from the state it could be a great option for other farmers as well.”

“It holds soil and nutrients, keeping waterways cleaner,” she said. “It improves soil health, increasing nutritious feed for livestock and, in turn, people. It holds water, storing it for periods of drought and reducing water-scouring damage to roads, bridges and other taxpayer-supported infrastructure during extreme rain events.”

Assembly Bill 790 and Senate Bill 723 would increase funding for additional county land and water conservation agents. State support for county conservation staff also has declined in the past decade, Jurcek said.

“Senate Bill 723 would begin to reverse that trend,” she said. “County land and water conservation staff across the state assist farmers with best-management practices such as grassed waterways, buffer strips, cover crops and some even with grazing which are all imperative to reducing runoff.”

Several agricultural organizations also are supporting bills related to truth-in-labeling, refundable tax credits, increased funding for UW-Extension state specialists, and wildlife damage-abatement.

If the senate doesn’t bring the bills to the floor they will die,” said O’Connor. “In that case the agricultural organizations supporting the bills will have the difficult task of explaining to their members why. And there won’t be good answers.”

Organizations supporting the bills are the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, Cooperative Network, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, Wisconsin Hemp Alliance, Wisconsin Pork Association, Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, Wisconsin Soybean Association, Wisconsin Association of Professional Agricultural Consultants, GrassWorks and Farm Credit.