“We're funding town roads as if it were 1986.”
That statement by Wisconsin Towns Association executive director Mike Koles was made to the approximately 125 attendees at the Agricultural Community Education program held at Ruedinger Farms in northern Fond du Lac County. It was one of four similar programs also co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Counties Association and the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin that were held in the state from Aug. 22 to 25.
Koles was referring to the disparity between the state of Wisconsin's funding for maintenance and upgrading of rural roadways and the changes in the size and weight of the farm equipment in the past 30 years — equipment that travels mainly on town and county roadways for crop production and for getting products to market.
“We must raise awareness of this dilemma” which leaves farmers trying to use roadways whose bridges, culverts, and surfaces are often not capable of handling the equipment that they are using today, Koles remarked. “This is a challenge,” particularly in light of the fact that towns have 54 percent of the state's road miles but receive only 5 percent of the state's transportation funding, he explained.
On behalf of the WTA, the issue of inadequate funding has been posed to the Wisconsin legislature, Koles reported. He said there is good support for the WTA's request in the state assembly but that the same is not true in the state senate or from Gov. Scott Walker's office.
“There is no question that our infrastructure is failing,” the WCA's outreach manager Jon Hochkammer agreed. “The public is with us on that and for keeping money raised for transportation in the transportation fund.”
Calling for attention to “the first and last mile” of roadways, Koles asked that the state government upgrade the transportation “infrastructure to 21st century standards.” To promote more public attention to that goal, he announced that meetings for representatives of all government units are being organized in all of Wisconsin's 72 counties on Thursday, Sept. 29.
'Just Fix It' campaign
The agenda for those meetings will focus on how the transportation infrastructure is crucial for safety and economic development in general and to farmers for hauling feed and milk, Koles indicated. It will be an embellishment of the “Just Fix It” campaign that the WTA and WCA have already launched for a long-term approach to fixing the state's rural roadways, he noted.
The two associations provided all town and county boards with a model resolution on the topic, Koles pointed out. He said some 400 have approved it so far and hopes that all of the nearly 1,800 units of local government in the state will do so in order to send a message to the legislators and governor.
Hochkammer observed that he is seeing one sign of progress on that point. It is that organizations that are typically described as “conservative leaning groups” are voicing support for increased transportation fund spending that could be devoted to rural roadways, he indicated.
One purpose of the ACE programs is to make connections with legislators. Attending the session were 6th district Cong. Glenn Grothman, assemblyman Michael Schraa of Oshkosh, and state senate candidate Dan Feyen of Fond du Lac, all who are Republicans.
Impaired waterway concerns
An attendee posed a question about the existence of and policy approaches for the three “impaired waterways” (Fox, Rock, and Winnebago) in Fond du Lac County and hundreds more in Wisconsin.
Koles acknowledged that the goal of the federal 1972 Clean Water Act and a major purpose of the Environmental Protection Agency is to bring an end to such designations. He suggested that the impaired waterway designations have “a rural and urban component” and that a partnership approach is needed to address what is proving to be a long-standing problem.
Des Moines suit
The same questioner also wanted feedback on what he described as “the Des Moines situation.” He was referring to the suit by the city of Des Moines, Iowa against area farmers on the possibility that their cropping practices have resulted in nitrogen pollution of the river from which the city draws its drinking water.
Handling that question was Eric Cooley, the co-director of Wisconsin's Discovery Farms project. The court ruling that is expected in 2017 is sure to be “precedent setting” and “ground breaking” — whether good or bad for the agriculture sector, he remarked. Cooley added that a somewhat similar situation involved the Chesapeake Bay basin on the East Coast.
In describing Discovery Farms, Cooley noted that farming systems and landscape traits are being studied to find answers for reducing sediment and nutrient loss. What's been learned is that Wisconsin has a huge diversity in cropping practices, animal raising, and landscapes and that any thought of “one size fits all” is definitely not in order, he emphasized.
Cooley said Discovery Farms strives to collaborate with farmers to solve problems regarding runoff and protection of water quality. He invites everyone who is interested or concerned to review the documented research at www.uwdiscoveryfarms.org.
Water quantity concern
In his remarks before the opening of the question and answer portion of the ACE program here, Koles observed that vegetable growers and dairy operations in Wisconsin's Central Sands are worried about possible restrictions on water supply.
Such restrictions would be the result of “a public that does not get it, a public that would be shocked to learn about the use of science” for the benefit of agricultural production, Koles said. He praised ACE meeting host John Ruedinger for how scientific and technological advances are being used on the dairy farm with 1,400 cows.
Calling on support from the ACE meeting crowd, which included many members of the local volunteer Van Dyne fire department, Koles said “we need to get more people onto farms like this. This is science, just unbelievable.”
In his opening remarks, Hochkammer, who was once a dairy and beef farmer in Manitowoc County and is the mayor of Verona in Dane County today, said the public needs to be aware of the economic value of Wisconsin's dairy sector. He also mentioned immigration policy and regulatory factors as other concerns for both farmers and the WCA and WTA.