The complex evolving issue of farm equipment use of roadways drew the most attention at the first session of the 2013 Agricultural Community Engagement twilight meetings, being co-sponsored by the Professional Dairy Producers (PDPW) of Wisconsin and the state’s towns and counties associations.
Held at Holsum Elm Dairy in Calumet County, the first of the year’s six meetings around drew a crowd of nearly 50 from several counties in east central Wisconsin.
Included in the group were dairy farmers, local government officials, and government agency employees.
Presiding at the event were PDPW president Shelly Mayer of Slinger, towns association president Lee Engelbrecht of Two Creeks in Manitowoc County, and the association’s legislative lobbyist Jon Hochkammer.
Mayer told the attendees they could propose any topic or ask any question relating to agriculture and community involvement.
Mayer urged attendees to realize that the open forum format "is for you. What’s on your mind? Don’t let things fester." With that approach, she quipped that she was "showing a PDPW culture bias."
Four similar meetings were held during the summer of 2010. Six were held this year -- including the final four for 2013 at dairy farms around the state earlier this week.
No Easy Answers
In referring to the farm equipment issue, Mayer pointed out that the change in length, width, and weight of vehicles using a roadway infrastructure dating to the 1940s in many cases is creating a problem that doesn’t have an easy solution - in part because local units of government are coping with a budget squeeze.
Hochkammer mentioned the report of a 20-member "implements of husbandry" task force of stakeholders, which could do no better than "compromise" on some of its recommendations.
Because some of the proposed changes, such as a definition of what constitutes "an implement of husbandry" for agriculture production, would have to be acted on as statutory revisions by the state legislature, Hochkammer sees another challenge.
He noted that very few of Wisconsin’s legislators have an agricultural background and that more 50 percent of the 99 members of the state assembly are in their first or second term.
Regarding tight budgets, Hochkammer predicted that no relief is likely from the federal government because of the likelihood that funds appropriated as transportation aids will not be increased in the foreseeable future.
He noted that Wisconsin’s recently approved biennial budget allocates an increase of $80 per mile to local units of government for road maintenance and general transportation services.
Unless new fees or taxes are approved or the use of vehicle fuel increases rather than decreases, Wisconsin will face a shortage of $1.1 billion in its transportation fund at the start of the next biennial budget, Hochkammer warned.
In the meantime, there is little doubt that roadway damage will continue because of weights and driving habits, he added.
Engelbrecht reported that his township has successfully arranged for temporary one-way traffic on roadways to accommodate farm vehicles and that draglines could be put under roadways to distribute liquid manure.
Mayer pointed out that occasional allowances for a 15-percent overage on load weights are in place. Engelbrecht noted that bridges continue to be a problem with excessive vehicle weights.
Mayer endorsed the practice of irrigating liquid manure, noting that a study group had addressed the topic. That’s another way to reduce roadway traffic with heavy vehicles, she observed.
To a question about the proposal in the Wisconsin legislature to exempt utilities from liability in cases involving stray voltage on farms, state Sen. Joe Leibham (R-Sheboygan) said he could not share a view on the matter until he knows the specifics of the legislation.
Regarding the fate of a federal Farm Bill, Hochkammer said one of the challenges is that a significant part of the public sees it as primarily giving "handouts to farmers."
Because that is not close to being true, he called for improved education on the topic to correct the public’s beliefs.
On natural resource conservation program funding in Wisconsin, Hochkammer pointed out that counties are receiving less funding from the state’s general program revenue.
However, an additional $1.8 million was transferred from a Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection segregated fund to support conservation staffing and programs.
Reflecting on the major changes within agriculture during the past 25 years, Mayer pointed out that "not everyone is comfortable with them."
She emphasized, however, that because of how important agriculture is for Wisconsin’s economy it is necessary to promote dialogue about change in order to learn about and grow with it.
But, instead of involving only second and third parties, supporting interactions can also be between farmers, Mayer stated.
She disclosed, how in the wake of the forage and other feed shortage as a result of the drought in 2012, her family’s farm with a milking herd of 90 cows received feed from a dairy farm with 1,300 milking cows.
Without that help, Mayer doubts if her family would still be milking cows today.
She said such lateral support also extends to keeping milk truckers, veterinarians, and other dairy sector service and product suppliers in business.