Democratic state Rep. David Considine gathers with
supporters of three measures designed to help struggling
Wisconsin farmers, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, in Madison,
Wis. Lawmakers, farmers and other supporters spoke in
favor of the bill at a Capitol news conference Tuesday.
MADISON, Wis. — Young
farmers hoping to make a living in Wisconsin as well as those
nearing retirement who want to hand off their operations to the next
generation would benefit from a package of bills unveiled Tuesday
designed to help stem the tide of farm bankruptcies in the state.
The three proposals are sponsored by Democrats but have bipartisan
support, increasing their chances of being considered by the
Between 2012 and 2017, the number of Wisconsin farms decreased by
more than 7%, more than double the national average of 3.2%,
according to the Census of Agriculture. Total farm acreage in
Wisconsin also shrank by 2% over that time.
Wisconsin's signature dairy industry has been hit particularly hard.
Nearly 700 dairy farms closed last year, with hundreds more going
under so far in 2019 due to a decline in the price of milk.
The new bills don't target dairy farms specifically, but are
designed to help farmers to remain viable when they are just
One proposal by Democratic Rep. Mark Spreitzer would create a
program to forgive up to $30,000 in higher education debt for
college graduates who commit to farming in Wisconsin for at least
five years. The awards would be given based on financial need, the
likelihood of success and the use of sustainable best practices.
Only $120,000 would be available the first year of the program,
increasing to $600,000 annually in five years.
The program will help to recruit younger farmers, which is a
particularly urgent need given that the average age of a farmer in
Wisconsin is 56 and getting older, Spreitzer said.
"We need excited, smart young farmers entering the field as soon as
possible," said Danny Werachowski, a supporter of the bill who
graduated from college in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in English
and later found his calling as a farmer.
The idea has broad support, with both the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and
Farmers Union backing it, along with the Dairy Business Association,
the Cooperative Network and the National Young Farmers Coalition.
Another bill, by Democratic Rep. Don Vruwink, would create a
competitive grant program to award up to $50,000 for small-scale
farming operations no larger than 50 acres. The money would have to
be used to start a new operation or add a new product. Over two
years, $500,000 would be available.
Meghan Snare moved with her husband from the Chicago suburbs to tiny
Plymouth in Rock County and purchased a 10-acre farm in 2016. They
now operate the Field and Farm Co. as a community supported
agriculture operation, or CSA, while still holding down corporate
jobs for tech companies.
Snare said the proposal would help people like her who "come in from
left field" and want to farm.
"We think there's a lot of opportunity for young farmers and people
leaving other jobs to come into the agriculture industry," she said.
A third bill, by Democratic Rep. Dave Considine, would fund two
positions within the University of Wisconsin System to help farmers
plan how to pass their operations off to younger family members.
Considine, a former dairy goat farmer, said some family farms that
have been lost might have been saved with proper succession
While all three bills have at least one Republican signed on in
support, Considine said he has received no assurances from
Republican leaders that the ideas will be voted on. Assembly Speaker
Robin Vos was reviewing the bills, his spokeswoman Kit Beyer said.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had no immediate comment.
committee releases $200K for farmer mental health
MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Legislature's
finance committee voted unanimously Wednesday to allow
state agriculture officials to spend an additional
$200,000 to help struggling farmers deal with depression
and mental health problems.
Wisconsin farmers have been wrestling with a combination
of problems over the last few years, including an
industry transition toward a factory farm model, falling
milk prices and President Donald Trump's trade war.
Nearly 700 dairy farms closed in Wisconsin last year,
which was the highest number of closures since 2011.
Total statewide net cash farm income in Wisconsin
declined 22% between 2012 and 2017, according to data
from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Wisconsin milk prices have dropped from $26.60 per 100
pounds in September 2014 to an average of $16.76 from
January 2018 through June 2019.
Meanwhile, the suicide rate for male farmers that
managed their operations was 44.9 per 100,000 in 2012
and 32.2 in 2015, according to data released in November
by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The
suicide rate among all working-age adults, by
comparison, was 17.3 per 100,000 in 2016.
The Joint Finance Committee set aside $200,000 as part
of the 2019-21 state budget to help farmers struggling
with mental health issues, but the panel didn't release
it to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and
Consumer Protection. Republicans who control the
committee said Wednesday that they want oversight of
agency spending because their constituents expect
accountability and they wanted to wait to see what
recommendations a suicide prevention task force Assembly
Speaker Robin Vos appointed might provide.
DATCP Secretary Brad Pfaff issued a blistering news
release in July accusing the committee of abandoning
farmers after the panel didn't consider releasing the
money at a meeting that month.
Pfaff asked the committee for the $200,000 during a
hearing Wednesday. He said his department wants to use
the money to offer farmers counseling vouchers, set up
workshops to help farmers learn stress management,
coping and grieving skills, and teach mental health care
providers about challenges farmers face. According to
the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, DATCP had only $1,300
left for counseling vouchers as of Aug. 21.
Republican committee members immediately attacked Pfaff,
a member of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' cabinet. They
accused him of never communicating to committee leaders
the immediate need for the money, failing to tap other
DATCP accounts to fund counseling vouchers and
embarrassing them with his news release.
"I do believe somebody was playing politics with farmers
and that's really unfortunate," Rep. John Nygren, one of
the committee's co-chairs, said.
Pfaff repeatedly said he has been communicating with Vos'
suicide prevention task force, which only seemed to
annoy Nygren further.
"How can we work with you if you actually aren't
providing us the information?" he said. "I'm not sure
how there's a trust there when communications go through
Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor quipped that her party
learns about Republican proposals through news releases,
too. She chided Republicans for squabbling over
In the end, the committee unanimously approved a motion
to give Pfaff the money.
The motion also pulled $100,000 from the state
Department of Health Services and placed it in the
committee's holding account. The motion allows the
health department to petition the committee to release
it as suicide prevention grant to recipients the