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Cliff looks back on full career

Dec. 11, 2013 | 0 comments


Roger Cliff leaves behind him a legacy of impact on issues that have affected farmers across the state of Wisconsin — and will continue to have an impact on them for years to come.

Cliff, who served as Wisconsin Farm Bureau's top lobbyist for 30 years, helped shape legislation on eminent domain, the right to farm and use value taxation of farmland.

He also recalls that getting the College of Veterinary Medicine established at the University of Wisconsin was an important milestone that is important to farmers.

"Looking back it's been a two-part career," he said as Wisconsin Farm Bureau prepared to kick off its annual conference in Wisconsin Dells. "There were the years as a lobbyist and the last 10 years were as chief executive officer."

Cliff announced his retirement earlier so the farm organization could search for a new CEO. He took a victory lap of sorts at the convention as organizers worked a campaign to raise $40,000 from members and supporters to endow programs that are dear to Cliff's heart — the three collegiate Farm Bureau chapters that were established under his tenure.

He said he's happy with the way the organization earned the top national award, called the Pinnacle, under his leadership. "I can't go out much better than that," he said.

One thing Cliff won't miss is the change in tone that has happened in politics over the years. There's less building of relationships, which means there's less chance of bipartisanship and compromise.

"I always put an emphasis on building those relationships with people on both sides of the issues. Now there's no association, no friendship.

"In the old days you could fight all day over policy and then go across the street and have a beer together. Even if you absolutely had to disagree over the issues, you could still be friends with your opponents."

Cliff said he believes the loss of those kinds of connections has affected the atmosphere at the Capital.

Even with a more uncivil climate among lawmakers and staff, Cliff said he has always observed that agriculture maintains a good image there. "One of the strongest parts of Wisconsin's economy is agriculture and most of them understand that.

"But we as a farm community are going to have to do a lot more explaining as there are fewer and fewer lawmakers who have an agriculture background. We need to explain why farmers do what they do and the way they do it because there isn't going to be that general understanding."

Even observing some of the changes that have happened politically, Cliff said he's going out on a high note and "it has been a blast. Not many people get to work this long in one place and do as well."

He recalls the debate on use value taxation to be one of the toughest and most intense in his career, primarily because it pitted rural against urban representatives. He remembers one lawmaker yelling at him and poking him in the chest as the debate wore on. He just took it and smiled.

Cliff — called Mr. Use Value — by some in Farm Bureau, said farmers need to be very cautious and remember (if they can) what it was like before farmland was taxed based on its value to farming. He noted that many farmers are too young to recall the crippling property taxes that came before use value was enacted.

"The farm community must continue to reinforce to lawmakers how important this law is," he said, adding that he has concerns about reopening the law in any way in front of the legislature.

Without the law, farmers would pay taxes that are 10 times or 20 times more than they pay now. In the more urban areas of the state, farmers could be paying 100 times more than they do under use value.

In a couple of weeks, Cliff will finish as CEO of Wisconsin Farm Bureau and take some vacation in warmer climates, knowing that the organization has transitioned to his successor, Steve Freese.

Freese takes reins

Freese originally served as a legislator from southwest Wisconsin, a district of more than 300 square miles and was in the state Legislature for the use value fight that Cliff was so intimately involved in.

In 1990, Freese was the first candidate to be endorsed by the Volunteers for Agriculture — Wisconsin Farm Bureau's political action committee — and he sees coming to work as CEO to be a natural fit.

"It's not unlike Circus World where you are managing an ongoing organization and looking to ensure a quality way of life," he said, referring to his most recent career as manager of the circus museum at Baraboo.

While he worked in the legislature Freese also took an interest in historic preservation and restoration. When he lost a re-election bid to the Legislature in 2006 he noticed that a search for the top executive at Circus World was open for one more day and applied.

When he came to Farm Bureau he knew membership was growing and that there has been a recent push to add new and younger members. He's pleased with the way the organization has continued to grow and prosper.

He visited 22 county annual meetings to introduce himself earlier this fall and understands that there are lots of young members joining.

Freese was first elected to his town board at the age of 20, bringing the average age of board members down to 70, he quips. While he values the knowledge and experience of older members, his experience has shown him the value of younger members too.

"It's important to start very early with young leaders. As the number of us who farm gets smaller, we have to bring in those young members. I'm absolutely so excited to see the young people coming into the organization."

Wisconsin Farm Bureau is going to be focusing on a strategic plan for its future over the next five years, leading up to its 100th anniversary.

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