Wisconsin Assembly Reps. Todd Novak and Travis Tranel represent districts in southwest Wisconsin — the 51st and 49th, respectively — that are arguably two of the biggest agricultural districts in the state. With strong agricultural backgrounds, both said they were honored to attend this year’s Legislative Agriculture Chairs Summit in Kansas City, Mo., in early January.
The three-day summit featured guest speakers who covered a variety of topics, from affordable rural housing to the renewable-fuel industry to rural education to rural infrastructure. Both legislators agree that many of the topics that pertained to Wisconsin also pertained to other states across the country.
“Headlines in Wisconsin are the same in other states,” Novak said. “It was interesting knowing we all have some of the same issues.”
About 150 legislators attended the summit, representing all 50 states and every province in Canada. Another 300 legislators showed interest but were unable to attend, Novak added.
Novak arrived on the first day of the summit, taking in tours of both the Ford Kansas City Plant and the Mars Petcare plant in Kansas City, which produces Greenies pet treats. Both companies stressed how important agriculture is to their business, he said.
Tranel, who is a farmer himself, was especially attracted to the summit because it focused on both rural and agricultural issues.
“Even in Wisconsin, where agriculture is an $88 billion industry, we have less than a handful of ‘real farmers,’” Tranel said. “It was nice to meet other real farmers who are also legislators.
“Farmers can talk about farming forever. They have a common connection that binds them. Being in the Legislature is the same,” he added.
The summit was very bipartisan, with Novak commenting that there was no discussion about whether Democrats or Republicans do something better. The summit was so focused on agriculture and what each state does, he said.
States are all facing the same types of rural-related issues: It is becoming harder and harder to farm and to find help; land and machinery prices are getting expensive; and rural roads are taking a beating. But there seems to be a much bigger issue that sometimes goes unnoticed.
Tranel recalled the moment when five millennials with no agricultural background but were the primary grocery shopper in their household were asked a series of questions about rural America, farms, farmers and food.
“We take it for granted here,” Tranel said. “But the panel made it clear that most people have no idea where their food comes from.
“Agriculture affects so many more people than those that just farm,” he continued. “We need to do a better job talking about agriculture, our community and the impact it has on everyone.”
Novak echoed his comments: “We have a great story, but we need to start telling it,” he said. “We need to tell people where their food is coming from.”
The establishment of food councils in Wisconsin could be one way to help tell that story, Novak added. Many states already have them, and they are composed of agricultural groups who work to sell ag-related products.
“They seem to work, and I’m interesting in exploring them here,” Novak said.
There also seemed to be a common theme of small farms and big farms.
“It’s an issue in every state,” Novak said. “We had a good discussion on how to bring them all together. They are all doing the same thing, just in a different way.”
Tranel added that part of the issue may be the perception of a “big farm.” Many times, a farm may look like a “big farm” when in fact it is owned by several families and not a corporation.
“It’s part of the story we have to tell,” he said.
Wisconsin farmers can help tell that story, too, maybe even better than a legislator can.
“We need to encourage farmers to tell their story and go beyond why agriculture is important to them and their family but tell what agriculture means to the rural community as a whole,” Tranel said.
“Each individual farmer needs to tell its story,” Novak added. “We think people know, but people really don’t know the impact of agriculture.”
Both Novak and Tranel serve on the Assembly Committee on Agriculture. Novak serves as the vice chairman and Tranel is a ranking member of the committee.