Refreshingly, Gov. Tony Evers recently released plans to invest $43 million in agriculture in this biennium. The brutal COVID-19 pandemic that has hit every sector of our state so hard has taken a tremendous toll on farmers and rural families across the state, especially coming on top of five years of Wisconsin’s highest-in-nation rate of farm bankruptcies.
The state’s $100 billion agricultural industry touches every resident, whether as a direct or indirect employee, an eater, or someone affected by agriculture’s impact on water, land and air. Investing in optimizing agriculture’s economic and environmental role in the state makes sense.
Appropriately, for the state’s flagship agricultural sector, the budget proposes investments in dairy — specifically in dairy processing.
Last spring, COVID-19 also demonstrated both the importance and fragility of local food supply chains; national supply chains left store shelves empty and unemployment swelled the numbers of people needing emergency food, yet farmers lost restaurant accounts and other usual customers. This budget wisely invests in programs like "Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin" and farm-to-school, plus new initiatives to build connections between farmers and nearby non-school entities, and to build connections between Wisconsin farmers and food banks and pantries. It’s also exciting to see a much-needed proposed grant program budgeted to help Wisconsin’s smaller and beginning farms launch, add new products and diversify.
No farming enterprise operates without environmental impacts, good or bad. While certain practices pollute water and release precious carbon into the atmosphere, other practices, like managed rotational grazing, can hold water and nutrients in the soil and sequester carbon. Our planet has less than a dozen years before historic and current climate impacts become irreversible, so this budget is absolutely crucial in correcting our current course.
The budget makes several important investments around practices like organic farming and managed grazing through a value added agricultural grant program. It also funds needed conservation outreach and technical assistance to farmers, expands funding for county conservation staff and the popular farmer-led watershed grant program, and initiates two conservation grant programs.
Budget highlights released last week don’t cover all program details. It’s unclear, for example, whether it funds two important initiatives that received strong bipartisan support in last year’s legislative deliberations around water quality. One initiative would fund a program popular in Iowa and Illinois, providing a $5-per-acre crop insurance premium reduction for acres planted to cover crops. Promoted by Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville and his Water Quality Task Force co-chair, Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, it unanimously passed both chambers’ agriculture committees, the Joint Finance Committee and the full Assembly, before COVID-19 sent the Senate home without voting. Another initiative receiving such bipartisan support was for a state grazing coordinator.
These examples demonstrate how agriculture can incubate bipartisanship. The state needs both parties to put their shoulders toward strengthening agriculture. Last year’s legislative session demonstrated bipartisanship around water quality; hopefully, this budget builds on that example.