Local lawmakers got a taste of the Wisconsin agriculture industry — literally.
State legislators and public officials toured the area's food-processing facilities Wednesday, making stops — and sampling food — at Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese in Rudolph and Del Monte Foods Inc. in Plover.
The legislative tour, a collaboration between two advocacy groups, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and the Midwest Food Processors Association, was designed to give legislators a more thorough understanding of the challenges local food processors face, said Shawn Pfaff of Pfaff Public Affairs.
"We wanted to get policymakers out there that have a lot of decisions to make, to see firsthand — really touch and see and smell — the impact of their decisions," Pfaff said.
Representatives from Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese and Del Monte Foods had opportunities to divulge to officials what obstacles were in their path — and the feedback was not surprising.
"Regulations," said Dennis Moran of Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese, noting that increasing regulations and added testing from government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration were limiting their operations.
Del Monte Foods — which cans and processes vegetables such as green beans, beets, carrots and potatoes at its Plover facility — noted they had to jump through similar hurdles. But in particular, a shortage of workers interested in agriculture careers and securing necessary water sources were major issues of concern.
Wednesday's event was not the first time the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and the Midwest Food Processors Association has worked together. And John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said it would not be the last.
"The industries never talked to each other," Umhoefer said. "And when we did talk to each other, we realized we had the same arguments as them, same possibilities, same technology — same everything."
Dealing with wastewater management is one of the processes that binds the two advocacy groups together.
"We both have wastewater," Umhoefer said. "We wash things down and get that water going out the back door."
"It's just been a collaborative effort," he said. "Two huge industries that never met, working together."
Pffaf also noted that the dairy and food-processing industry's shared characteristics culminate in a unique — and symbiotic — relationship.
"They are both processors, so they work with producers, and also handle water," Pfaff said. "They also employ a lot of people and they also have similar environmental issues."
The tour, comprised of about 30 people, consisted of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. State Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, D-Milladore, state Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, state Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Ben Brancel, Department of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Matt Moroney and Republican Lt. Gov Rebecca Kleefisch were among those at the food facilities Wednesday.
"A lot of states feel that a goods-based economy is passe," Kleefisch said. "Here in Wisconsin, we embrace our roots literally and figuratively, because we know that both manufacturing and agriculture are not only our history, but our future. "