In a wide-ranging interview with six farm reporters last week, Gov. Scott Walker touched on some of the high-profile issues in agriculture, including raw milk.
A bill that could provide a means for some farmers to sell unpasteurized milk directly to consumers is still alive in the state legislature and Walker was asked how he felt about that issue.
While the governor said he “hasn’t completely closed the door” on the idea of farmers selling raw milk in Wisconsin, he also said he has “grave concerns” about the safety issues and the possible impact of any problems on the state’s reputation as America’s Dairyland.
“If I was governor of Florida I’d be concerned about anything that could affect the reputation of orange juice,” he said, adding that his state’s “brand” as the dairy state is important to him. “Corporations all over the world spend a lot of money protecting their brand.”
Walker said he has some pretty strong reservations about the raw milk bill unless backers can show that there is a way to keep children from getting sick. It is those safety issues that have been raised by opponents that have him concerned.
He said he’s a “limited government kind of guy” and noted that lawmakers from both parties have reasons for backing the raw milk bill. But public health concerns and anything that can put kids at risk are weighing most on his thoughts regarding the bill.
Walker mentioned two state agencies that have the most contact with farmers – the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) which have both turned their attention to better serving state residents.
At the DNR, changes have been made to make the agency more “customer friendly,” he said and top management has been successfully trained in this new attitude.
One of the reasons he hired an independent consultant, James Kroll, from out of state, to analyze the DNR’s deer management programs was to make sure there was a science-based and predictable system in place.
Walker said he has been as frustrated as other deer hunters with sometimes not seeing any deer during the bow and gun deer seasons. His “deer czar” sought input from multiple groups and found some of the best biologists are “out there in the field.”
Even with Kroll’s recommendations, the program “isn’t going to change overnight” he said, but he wants to make sure that any approach is based on good science.
Deer hunting isn’t just a tradition in Wisconsin, he said. “In a lot of rural parts of the state this is a big part of the economy.”
Switching to the topic of high-capacity wells, Walker admitted that the DNR permitting process is backlogged by about 350 permits and said they may have to shift staff to speed that up.
The agency added two positions to handle permitting for frac sand mines, he added.
There are legislative proposals to make it tougher to get high-capacity wells.
“People think it’s just an issue for large farms, but it’s really a water issue for farms of all sizes – livestock, potato and vegetable growers.” Water use is something that has to be balanced, he added.
“For farmers to do well they need to have access to water.”
While quality water is essential to the state’s recreation economy it’s also crucial to the agricultural and agri-business industries. “We think we can find a way to balance it out, working with the Legislature to get something that’s permanently in place so folks in the farming community can have access to water.”
Walker said he always kids the folks in Minnesota that “we’ve got 15,000 lakes and all of ours have fish in them.”
Since becoming Governor, Walker said he has learned a lot about the state’s agriculture that he doesn’t think too many people know. “Everybody knows a little bit about corn and beans and maybe a little about dairy, but I don’t think most people realize how diverse agriculture is our state.”
Wisconsin is the number-one producer of cranberries in the nation and ginseng is an important crop – 95 percent of the ginseng used in China comes from Wisconsin, he added. That’s one of the reasons that the state’s ginseng growers were able to secure a ten-year deal worth $350 million during a trade mission to China.
Walker said most people “think potatoes come from Idaho” and not from central Wisconsin. He has found it amazing the breadth and scope of agricultural products that are produced in the state.
When he was first elected, he knew some of this, he said, and now he “rattles it off all the time.”
The general public also doesn’t recognize the importance of technology and innovation on the state’s farms.
The governor said that when he made some of the “tough choices” he had to make after being elected governor, he was guided by the rural and farm residents who were members of his dad’s church congregation when he was growing up.
“That had a real impact on me,” he said. “My mother grew up on a farm where they didn’t have indoor plumbing until she was in high school.”
Those members of the church and local communities in Iowa sometimes had to make tough decision, he said. “They just had that quiet calm that they were going to get through this.”
Walker said he is proud of the fact that he doesn’t back down on tough decisions.
When it comes to the important dairy industry in Wisconsin, Walker said state processors are still importing 10 percent of the milk they need for manufacturing and agricultural exports are still increasing.
Wisconsin’s ag exports have increased 6 percent in the first three-quarters of the year, he said.
The importance of the dairy industry and all of the state’s ag products underscores the value of a good transportation system. “With good roads and electricity, there’s no end to what you can do. We need to keep growing. There are tremendous markets for us out there.”
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and DATCP are working together to boost international marketing of state products, including those from agriculture.
Walker said he would like to get more money in the state budget for broadband service to rural areas and even in some of the northern forested areas. These days high-speed internet service is “key to economic vitality” and is “critically important,” he said.
The governor said he may lay out some policy ideas for rural broadband during his state-of-the-state address next month.