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APPLETON

'We in government brag about the $88 billion agriculture sector in Wisconsin, but you create it,' Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection Sec. Ben Brancel told attendees at a workshop on agritourism co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association and the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

Brancel noted that the $88 billion (tabulated before the recent dip in agricultural commodity prices) does not include the value of niche and organic production in the agriculture sector. Even with the slump in commodity prices, the annual farmgate sales value of Wisconsin's agricultural products is more than $12 billion, he said.

International connection

Agricultural production, particularly of wheat, is also crucial in the very unsettled Middle East countries, Brancel said. In the areas controlled by ISIS, he said the group's survival is very dependent on production of wheat.

For example, ISIS sharpshooters station themselves on the top of grain warehouses that are off limits to bombing by the United States and other countries because they contain food, Brancel explained. 'So food controls military actions.'

Citing how the situation affects farmers living in the affected regions, Brancel quoted a published story that included a farmer's statement indicating that 'all I want to do is farm.'

In-state topics

On a topic directly pertinent to Wisconsin, Brancel pointed out that his department will now be handling all food safety inspections within the state through a single contract on a changeover scheduled to occur on July 1. Currently, he explained, there is divided authority between DATCP and the Department of Health Services, resulting in 102 separate contracts and a high likelihood of different responses to similar situations.

Brancel commended the two sponsoring organizations for their efforts in getting legislative approval within Wisconsin for the limited liability provision, which now applies to agritourism ventures and other on-farm activities. As a state legislator in the late 1990s, he said he tried but failed to have similar legislation approved.

'It gives clarity, but you're still not off the hook,' Brancel commented. He agreed that the cost of liability insurance is prohibitive for small businesses.

Farm transition

Within his own family, Brancel said the transferring of farm property is proving 'to be quite interesting.' He suggested that making a transaction work could require valuing a property according to its original purchase price and subsequent inputs while having to ignore the major increase in land values and will require sacrifices by both parties in a transfer.

To a question about the state's appropriation for watershed protection and improvement in projects involving at least five landowners, Brancel said that although it's a producer-initiated program, an evaluation is still needed on the potential benefits of allotting funds.

Brancel said the program is designed for any surface or flowing water regardless of its current quality status. He advised groups of farmers who are interested in such a project to contact Sara Walling at the DATCP as a starting point.

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