It's a debate that might well last until the cows come home, but the president of the powerful Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce got it started last week when he suggested booting 'America's Dairyland' as the slogan on the state license plate.
Speaking at a luncheon, WMC president and CEO Kurt Bauer said it is time for the state to move on from its traditional agricultural image, and a new license-plate slogan just might be part of the answer. He later clarified that the WMC would not push or lobby for any immediate change, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
In other words, his suggestion was all hat and no cattle.
Still, his conversation starter, as he called it, got the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association's attention. Put simply, the association thought the idea was a load of bull.
Mike North, president of the DBA, said the suggestion overlooked the importance of the state's dairy industry.
"Considering the dairy community's continuing contribution to the culture and economy of our state, it would be disheartening to make such a change after nearly 80 years," North said. "We are talking about a $43.4 billion impact on the Wisconsin economy and tens of thousands of jobs. There are few single products in this state that provide more of an economic boost."
North said the state's farms, processing plants, and universities are looked to from around the globe for technological advances.
"Innovation and modernization abound in dairy food production and safety, animal care and nutrition, environmental stewardship and numerous other facets of dairying," he said.
North said the dairy community - its hard-working farm families, its cheesemakers and a host of other supporting businesses - has been the backbone of the state for well over a century.
"That heritage, and how far we have come, should be great sources of pride," he said. "Those are things to be celebrated, not hidden."
Late in the week lawmakers started speaking up against the idea, too, as dormant as it might be.
Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) and Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City) said they would support keeping the slogan, observing that taking it off the plate would do away with a slogan that had endured more than 70 years.
"Wisconsin leads the nation in cheese production and is known for its rich dairy history," Novak said. "The current slogan is indicative of our strong agriculture industry here in Wisconsin, and I believe it should remain."
Novak and Tranel said proponents of a new slogan hoped to bring attention to Wisconsin's up-and-coming industries and potential in manufacturing, and that they believed transitioning away from a reputation as a state focused on agriculture would help attract young talent for those new industries.
But not so fast, Tranel said.
"Our dairy industry has a $44 billion impact on our state's economy each year," he said. "I think we owe it to our dairy and cheese producers to continue to promote our state as America's Dairyland."
Not the first time
Given the blowback, Bauer might have wished he hadn't addressed the risks inherent in fostering an agricultural image, but in fact it wasn't the first time he had rung that cow bell.
He first argued his case for the change - and for other image tweaks - in the April 2016 issue of Wisconsin Business Voice, WMC's official magazine.
"Wisconsinites are known as 'Cheeseheads,'" he wrote. "There is a barn, silo and the phrase 'America's Dairyland' on our license plates. We put a cow, corncob, and a wheel of cheese on our state quarter. We also put on that quarter our state motto, forward. But is our agricultural-dominated state image moving us in that direction?"
Bauer said he raised the question after he saw a nationwide perception survey showing that most people from around the U.S. believed Wisconsin had limited and low-paying job opportunities.
"Based on how we market ourselves, they also unsurprisingly think the jobs we do have largely revolve around agriculture," he wrote. "In Wisconsin, we are clearly proud of our agricultural past, present and future and we should be. It is part of our culture and a major economic driver. Agriculture also helps create a pastoral image of our state, which benefits another important economic driver, tourism."
But Bauer said Wisconsin had so much more to offer in addition to agriculture, including good paying jobs in many sectors, not to mention safe and strong communities with good schools and great sports, entertainment and recreation options.
"Unfortunately, the word isn't getting out and that is a problem for a state with a workforce shortage that is only projected to get worse unless we can attract talent from around the country and the rest of the world," he wrote.
Just how big was Wisconsin's perception problem?
"Well, the survey, which was commissioned by the WMC Foundation, showed the most important attributes in selecting a state to live in are job opportunity, crime/public safety and wage/salary expectations," Bauer wrote. "Wisconsin doesn't score well in two out of the three."
Additionally, many people see Wisconsin as intolerant, Bauer wrote, and it was not a pretty picture, not even a pretty pastoral picture.
"But it is particularly bad if you are trying to retain and recruit minorities and members of the large millennial generation who see themselves as very open-minded," he wrote. "Millennials also tend to prefer urban to rural settings and our agrarian image may give them pause."
What to do?
Well, there was that license plate, and that might be a good place to begin an image makeover, Bauer suggested in his column.
"I can't help but think a good place for Wisconsin to start is by updating our license plate design with a more contemporary tagline that highlights Wisconsin's broader quality of life and economic opportunities," he wrote.
Bauer didn't stop there. How about a new state flag?
Right now, Wisconsin mimics 29 other states by using a variation of their state coat of arms, and in 2001, he wrote, the North American Vexillological Association ranked Wisconsin's flag 65th worst out of 72 U.S. and Canadian states, provinces, and territories.
Yes, he cited a vexillological association, whose mission is the scientific and scholarly study of flags.
So far, Bauer has yet to target milk, the state's official state beverage - a recent study shows that millennials prefer beer and wine and drink more wine than any previous generation - or the state's official domesticated animal, the cow.
But maybe the dairy industry should stay on alert, just in case Bauer comes looking to replace the cow with the hedgehog, another popular millennial favorite.
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.