By: Margaret Krome, The Cap Times
Something hopeful happened two weeks ago. The Wisconsin Assembly’s Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality issued its report and recommendations.
Convened last spring and co-led by Reps. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, and Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, the Task Force conducted 14 hearings around the state last summer. Among its recommendations are some important proposals, like increasing funding for county conservation offices, which provide direct technical assistance to farmers, and to the state’s growing list of farmer-led watershed groups, where farmers together explore and exchange ideas about how to advance water quality.
The Task Force also proposed funding a pilot program like one that has been very successful in Iowa since 2017 — reducing farmers’ crop insurance premium by $5 per acre for acres planted into cover crops. Last year, Iowa’s program enrolled 700 farmers on nearly 170,000 acres. Last May, Illinois launched a similar three-year pilot program, committing $300,000 per year, which in its first year was subscribed within two weeks. Given that new information, the Task Force’s proposed $200,000 is likely significantly low, but it gets the state going. Details are subject to determination by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, which would implement the program.
Cover crops matter. They have been demonstrated to reduce soil erosion and related nutrient runoff, reduce nitrogen leaching, increase crop diversification and resilience in the face of adverse weather, increase soil health, increase soil carbon and increase water infiltration — and they can be established successfully and profitably in Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin, fewer than 10% of farmers plant cover crops. In 2017, approximately 6% of acres were planted to cover crops.
In 2019, Wisconsin farmers surveyed expressed interest in creating a crop insurance premium reduction program similar to those of Iowa and Illinois. Sixty-eight percent of farmers who had already planted cover crops said that such a program would increase their acreage or frequency of planting cover crops, and 64% of those who had not planted cover crops.
A spirit of bipartisanship has been strikingly absent among Wisconsin policymakers in recent years. Wisconsin spent the better part of a decade with Republicans in charge of both the governor’s office and the Legislature, and during that time, not many efforts contributed to water quality — but a few did, including launching the state's producer-led watershed groups program. How gratifying, then, that this bipartisan task force addressed an issue that Gov. Tony Evers highlighted in declaring 2019 Wisconsin’s "Year of Clean Drinking Water," and that it supported proposals across party lines.
If Evers’ administration and the Legislature can work together on the important issue of water quality, giving each other credit for sound ideas and avoiding partisan triumphalism, is it possible that they could take on another urgent concern in Wisconsin’s rural communities? I urgently nominate the economic and social cataclysm striking our farming communities.
The farm crisis shows no sign of abating, with 818 more Wisconsin dairy farmers going out of business in 2019, which was more than 10% of the state’s dairy herds and the largest decline in the state’s history. Surely, this ongoing crisis argues for a major bipartisan focus — perhaps a special legislative session on the farm crisis, with a commitment to identify bipartisan recommendations, funding and administrative follow-through. Just as water has no partisan affiliations, now is the time for bipartisan heavy lifting and collaboration to help farmers reclaim our heritage as The Dairy State.