In a pristine machine shop that included many tractors in the process of being rebuilt, a distinguished group of speakers highlighted National Ag Day at Southwest Tech in Fennimore Tuesday, March 25.
The Dean of Industry, Trades and Agriculture programs at Southwest Tech Derek Dachelet said he was pleased that system officials asked his school to host the event in honor of National Agriculture Day.
Local voters approved a referendum in 2008 to build the new Ag Power center where the program was held. Agriculture is a huge part of the economy in the technical college’s district, he said.
In honor of the school’s special relationship with Case IH, a huge red combine served as the backdrop for the speakers who lined up to talk about the importance of agriculture in Wisconsin.
The whole event was the brainchild of dairy farmer Becky Levzow, who is the farmer representative on the technical college board. She saw that other sectors of the economy – manufacturing, health care -- were continually being recognized for their importance so she suggested the event to highlight Ag Day.
The event was intended to shine a spotlight on the importance of agriculture in the state economy but also to remind people that technical colleges have the ability to train the workers that are going to be needed to move agriculture forward into the future, said Conor Smyth, who helped organize the event on behalf of the state’s 16 technical colleges.
Morna Foy, president of the Technical College System, agreed with Levzow, that agriculture is one of the key sectors of Wisconsin’s economy and was enthusiastic about hosting the Ag Day event at a key school in the system.
Levzow, who is a partner in a 180-cow dairy near Rio, said careers in agriculture are important not only for students who graduate from programs like those at Southwest Tech, they are crucially important for employers.
Gov. Scott Walker told the audience that Wisconsin’s nearly $60 billion agriculture industry, and its leadership in many commodity areas, is something to highlight on National Agriculture Day.
“Agriculture is a vital industry in Wisconsin’s economy, and we are very fortunate to have strong partnerships between our state’s technical college system and the agricultural community,” Walker said.
“We are also phasing in the Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit to allow job creators in this industry to grow and expand and invest in their operations.”
Walker signed legislation creating the Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit in 2011. This credit took effect in tax year 2013, and increases in four steps to 7.5 percent in tax year 2016 and beyond.
The credit, he said, makes Wisconsin a more competitive place to grow manufacturing and agriculture businesses and jobs.
Wisconsin’s 1.27 million dairy cows produce over 27 billion pounds of milk and the state hopes to increase that to 30 billion by 2020, Walker said. “We’ve got to keep up with demand.”
One-quarter of the nation’s cheese and half of all the country’s specialty cheese is made here, he added. The state also leads in cranberry and ginseng production and is near the top in potato and other vegetable production.
Trade missions and new technologies will help the state expand its export capacity and keep up with new developments in agriculture.
Trade specialists from other countries are always interested in our technology and in the education of future leaders in our industry, he said. To keep agriculture a large and growing part of the state’s economy “we’ve got to have people with expertise and knowledge.”
Wisconsin’s 66th Alice in Dairyland, Kristin Olson, said she is a fifth-generation dairy girl and will have traveled 40,000 miles to promote agriculture during her tenure as Alice.
One of the messages she carries all over the state is that “we are all impacted by agriculture. We all eat,” she said.
Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch said that with corn and cows on the state quarter “folks understand we are pretty invested in agriculture” in Wisconsin.
“The state has a tremendous reputation and agriculture is one of our two economic drivers. It is a historic and future industry here.”
There is only one industry that has to be represented on the state’s technical college board and that is agriculture, said system president Morna Foy. (Levzow is that representative.)
“We want to make sure our commitment to agriculture is not forgotten,” Foy said.
Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Ben Brancel told the crowd that everybody should celebrate agriculture every day they eat a meal.
“It’s kind of in everybody’s life,” he said.
In the early part of the 20th century there were predictions of mass starvation, but yields and productivity in the last half of that century more than made up for the growth in the nation’s and the world’s population. Science and technology pushed food production forward to the point where there were surpluses.
Today some of the challenges in agriculture involve having enough trained people to do the work that needs to be done. There are 354,000 people directly employed in the state in agricultural activities, he said.
When Brancel was state agriculture secretary in the 1990s there were a few trade missions but in his second tenure at DATCP there isn’t a week that goes by when there isn’t some interaction with someone from another part of the world.
State agricultural exports were up 9 percent in 2013 to a total of $3.2 billion. Dairy products, including whey are a big part of that export picture, Brancel said.
“Whey used to be a huge problem; it was a waste product. Now it’s one of our largest export commodities.
“The Wisconsin Agribusiness Council had identified 400 separate type jobs related to agriculture that are available to people here in Wisconsin,” Brancel said.
“And another pretty important statistic – four out of four people eat.”
Southwest Technical College has several programs targeted towards agriculture, including the Agribusiness/Science Technology Program, Farm Business and Production Management, the Agricultural Power and Equipment Technician Program, and Dairy Herd Management.