As members of the board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection heard a report on the new Dairy 30 x 20 program, members voiced support for it, but also concern that the department and the state are sending a message that support is only available for one sector of the ag economy - dairy.
The program is also known as the Grow Wisconsin Dairy Producer Grant and Loan program.
Board member Margaret Krome said that she understands that the dairy industry is very important and that the new grant program - which is a revamped version of the old Dairy 2020 program - is a good one. But she added that to her, it's problematic that the agency only offers a program for that one sector of agricultural production.
The department formerly ran other programs that provided grants for projects aimed at agricultural development, but funding has ended for those programs.
"I think the department is sending a very strong signal that it favors diversification and growth, but only in certain areas," Krome said, during the board's Sept. 12 meeting in La Farge.
"I'd like to see us expand our portfolio. We talk about engagement in cranberries, meat, mink, fresh vegetables," said Krome, "but we only have the one grant program."
Marty Grosse, an agricultural program specialist, said that within the scope of the new dairy grant program, there is diversification - from beginning farmers, farmers transitioning to another generation, grazers and organic farmers as well as more conventional dairy farmers.
"It's not just big farmers getting bigger," he told the board.
The new Dairy 30 x 20 grant program - which takes its name from the stated goal of producing 30 billion pounds of milk in the state by the year 2020 - is to not only produce more milk but to also strengthen the state's dairy sector and create more on-farm jobs.
Half of the grants in the program are for business planning, Grosse said, which was the original goal of the former Dairy 2020 program that was administered from the Department of Commerce.
When Governor Scott Walker transformed that department into a corporation last year, the dairy grant program was moved to DATCP.
Department Secretary Ben Brancel said 15 farmers are using the small grants to put together teams that can help them with certain problem areas like milk quality, herd health, nutrition or increased milk production.
Twenty-four of the grants have gone to help with "engineering" - determining things like how best to build free stall barns, milking systems or plan their farm's runoff plan, Brancel added.
"Having one more engineer take a look at some plans may be the difference between just getting it done and doing it right."
Three or four of the grants have been given to beginning farmers for startup plans and a number of young grant recipients are looking for ways to take over their parents' operations.
In March the board approved an emergency rule to get the new program up and running and in La Farge, members approved a final draft rule that mirrors that emergency administrative rule.
The final rule authorizes the department to make grant and loan awards and spells out the procedures and criteria that will be used to evaluate grant and loan proposals.
Under the rule, the department may not award more than $50,000 of grant funding or more than $200,000 in loans to any person or entity in any state biennium.
The rule states that the department may give preference to applicants who have matching funds in the form of capital, land, labor, equipment or cash related to the grant or loan project.
The rule package states that grant funds may be used to reimburse contract and consulting services and equipment rental but cannot be used for real estate purchases, repayment of loans or mortgages or equipment purchases.
The program only has $200,000 to provide grant and loan funding to dairy producers so most of the grants in the first wave of recipients have been small ones.
Following the board's approval of the rule, it was transmitted to the governor for his written approval. After that, the department will submit the rule to the Legislature for review by appropriate legislative committees. If lawmakers take no action to stop the rule, Brancel will sign the final rulemaking order and transmit it for publication.