MADISON - While Governor Scott Walker's State of the State address on Jan. 24 may have thrown a wrench into visits with legislators, the group of more than 400 farmers at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation sponsored Ag Day at the Capitol were happy with the message Walker brought.
Gov. Walker announced new initiatives to help boost Wisconsin's rural communities and farm families, including creating a Rural Economic Development Fund, re-purposing the Dairy 30x20 program into the Family Farm Fund and signing an executive order to increase domestic and international markets for Wisconsin.
Aaron Stauffacher, a member of the Dairy Business Association, wasn't surprised by what he heard from Walker, given that Ag Day at the Capitol happened on the same day as Walker's State of the State address.
"I suspected that he was going to announce some pretty bold initiatives to move Wisconsin forward," said Stauffacher. "We have done some great things in the past couple of years. To see him addressing the new issues coming out are really positive things for the state and for the agricultural community."
As Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Jim Holte introduced the governor, he asked farmers to think back to issues that have needed addressing, such as high capacity well legislation, aquaculture reform, industrial hemp legalization, and rural broadband investments—all done.
"While work always remains in some of the larger issues in rural Wisconsin, like schools and roads, you can clearly see we are making significant strides," said Holte. "We are on the offense and our quarterback is our featured speaker today, a true friend to Wisconsin agriculture."
Friend of agriculture
Gov. Walker's mother grew up on a farm in the northern part of Illinois. His grandparents had farms, so personal farm stories were interspersed into his talk, including crooked rows when planting.
Agriculture has an $88 billion impact in the state of Wisconsin, Walker pointed out. When thinking about that economic impact and "what it means for farmers and producers, and everybody else that's a part of it," Walker said he knows from his mother's side of the family, "that farming is a lot more than just a job or a business. It's a way of life."
While Walker pointed out the elimination of the state property tax and the historically low unemployment rate in Wisconsin, he also stressed the importance of having science-based and predictable regulations, along with many other ag issues.
To ensure that every child can get a good education, Walker said the state invested an extra $200 for every student in every school this year and an extra $204 per student increase on top of that the following year.
"We want to make sure that every student, in every district, in every part of the state, no matter where you live, no matter how big or small your district is, that every child has access to a great education," said Walker.
Additionally, Walker said he added extra funding to help rural schools with transportation costs, since that "is a big challenge."
Walker said they heard from many school administrators who said that part of the reason there are opioid problems and other challenges, is "because our kids just aren't getting adequate mental health treatment."
"We put a massive new investment in there that will help all schools, but particularly our rural schools along the way," added Walker.
However, Walker asked for help with an "unfinished piece of business," one item that didn't make it through legislation—sparsity aid. Sparsity aid, funds for small schools in sparsely populated areas and the unique challenges in those districts, could provide another $100 along with other increases, to qualifying rural districts.
One issue that affects 71 out of 72 counties in Wisconsin is broadband access. Only Milwaukee County doesn't have problems with broadband access. Even in Dane County, Walker said, there are problems with broadband internet connections.
Walker said $41.5 million has been invested to expand broadband across the state in the next two years, with the goal to provide every community in every part of the state with access to high speed internet and "access more importantly to technology, not only for themselves, but for future generations."
Walker remembered his great grandparents telling him how electricity transformed farming when the government helped get electricity to farms.
"That's what broadband internet access will do to our rural areas," said Walker. "It will transform it because in today's society, you can do business anywhere in the world, but you can't compete if it takes you 45 minutes to download a PDF file. You can't compete if your tractor, your combine, can't get the signal to make sure that those lines are planted the way they are supposed to be."
Along with promising funds for a broadband network, Walker pointed out the $24 billion investment in transportation over eight years in the state. While about $1.6 million had been spent on the Milwaukee interstate over the past several years, Walker said it's "time to spend those dollars elsewhere around the state."
In this budget he sent more money to local city, county, and town municipal governments to "fix roads, bridges and fill potholes, than they've had in some 20 years," Walker said.
With uncertainty regarding health insurance at the federal level, Walker said people "are scared to death with all the talk about changes."
"Where Washington has failed in the past year, we are going to lead, yet again, here in Wisconsin," Walker said announcing a Health Care Stability Plan in Wisconsin.
The plan is focused on stabilizing rising health care coverage premiums. The plan utilizes the 1332 Waiver process, also known as the State Innovation Waiver, under Obamacare to lower premiums for people in the individual market.
One aspect of the plan would guarantees, "that no matter what happens in Washington," residents in Wisconsin would not have to worry about having access to health insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Walker also requested a permanent waiver to support SeniorCare, the state’s prescription drug program for seniors age 65 or older.
Economic Development Fund
While these issues are important to farm families and rural communities, a big piece of his "Ambitious Agenda for Wisconsin in 2018," involved creating a Rural Economic Development fund, a $50 million a year investment in economic development projects in rural counties in the state.
"A key thing in rural areas is access to capital," Walker pointed out, "to help drive, not be the sole source," but that "little extra bridge to help things happen," whether it's revitalizing a small town downtown or revitalizing communities across the state.
"We want more reason for our children to stay in our communities, more potential for careers," said Walker. "It's about keeping more of our graduates, our sons and daughters."
Walker also announced the new Family Farm Fund, re-purposing the Dairy 30x20 program, which was created in efforts to produce 30 billion pounds of milk by 2020 and achieved its goal four years ahead of schedule.
Following discussions with Wisconsin dairy industry leaders, Walker directed the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to fund a scholarship program. These scholarships encourage students to take advantage of agriculture-related courses of study at a Wisconsin technical college or UW-College of Agriculture that would help someone begin a rewarding career in agriculture.
"We need a surge to have kids take over family dairy farms across the state," said Walker.
The fund would also provide additional resources for "small farms to deal with some of the costs that come with clean water acts in the state," Walker added.
But the highlight of Walker's talk during Ag Day at the Capitol was signing an executive order directing DATCP to utilize existing loan program revenues to encourage research and new dairy product development to increase domestic and international markets for Wisconsin.
"We are going to be fierce advocates for opening up even more markets," said Walker. "We believe in free trade. We believe that is incredibly important."
Looking at the price of commodities shows "pretty big challenges on the horizon," Walker said, "We need to be more aggressive."
"We are doing all right, but we've got to do more. There is vast untapped potential for Wisconsin products and services," said Walker. "We could compete with anyone across the world. This executive order will put resources behind that."
Walker said by opening the door to show the rest of the world "how great agriculture is in the state of Wisconsin," that in turn will help with commodity pricing.
Headed in right direction
Retired farmer Rob Klussendorf, of Taylor County, said Walker is headed in the right direction. Klussendorf thinks the initiative to get more young people into agriculture could go even further, erasing college debt for anyone who has a four-year degree and farms for five years.
"It's too late for my son because he is already established, but for the grandkids," said Klussendorf. "It's hard to get into ag and it's a dying breed."
"He's in line with our philosophy across the board," Klussendorf said of Walker. "Less regulations. Education. If you don't keep advancing, you might as well put the nails in the coffin."
Stauffacher said Walker touched on all positive things - market development, "repurposing old programs into new issues that we're having in our rural economy," such as kids leaving the farm and rural communities.
Programs Walker proposed, like the Family Farm Fund, "to get kids from rural communities interested in jobs back in their communities, I think is a real step forward," said Stauffacher.
Brian Thoner, of Pierce County, was concerned about regulations that are being passed or not being passed.
"It's always good to keep up to date on what is going on," said Thoner. "I think he's (Walker) doing a good job for agriculture and he seems to be concerned about the small farms as well as the big farms. That's important to me coming from a small farm."
Pete Christianson, of Pierce County, who had a dairy farm for 50 years and now raises beef cattle and crops added, "The governor talked to us, not at us, which is important."