Proposals designed to help struggling Wisconsin farmers

Associated Press

Sept. 3, 2019

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 Republican-controlled Legislature.

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 starting out.

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 planning.

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.

Wisconsin 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 the media."

Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor quipped that her party learns about Republican proposals through news releases, too. She chided Republicans for squabbling over $200,000.

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 department chooses.