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POYNETTE - One of the issues being addressed by a state Dairy Task Force relates to resources (or the lack thereof) in rural communities. Dairy farm numbers have been dropping in Wisconsin for decades but the pace has been accelerating as dairy farmers have been coping with a fourth year of sub-par farm-gate milk prices. In many cases farmers have been selling their milk below their cost of production and burning up equity to stay in business.

As more dairy farmers leave the industry, it leaves fewer farm owners to support rural communities and their businesses. The loss of more dairy farm businesses can signal the decline of rural communities.

The first sub-committee meeting as part of the state’s recently convened Dairy Task Force 2.0 began discussing these issues of rural community support and infrastructure.

Meeting at the MacKenzie Center outside of Poynette, the group included task force volunteers from the main group of appointees. On this smaller panel are several dairy farmers, farm group leaders, a veterinarian, a milk hauler, a cheesemaker, several lenders and ex-officio members from the Legislature and the University of Wisconsin.

Early in the meeting they noted that farmers need more help on financial literacy and business management. One banker on the panel noted that many farmers don’t know their cost of production — a key element in knowing where they are financially and what they can do in the current climate of poor commodity prices.

They suggested that technical schools, FFA organizations and University of Wisconsin-Extension services might be called into play to help farmers with this issue. One of the ideas they hit on was to have more collaboration among groups that farmers are affiliated with — watershed groups, cattle breed association and farmer-led forage councils among them.

There are a lot of farm organizations, dairy groups, and associations that serve dairy processors. The sub-committee felt there was a great deal more that could be done to bring all those associations together for the benefit of dairy farmers and the dairy industry as a whole.

They noted that with the loss of more dairy farms, local communities and schools lose a resource that has always been there — farmers to host twilight meetings, parents to help with FFA fundraisers and members for FFA alumni groups. In many cases now, 4-H chapters have more kids from cities and towns than they do from farms, one member noted.

The members also noted that another thing that is fraying the fabric of rural communities is that they often lack high-speed internet services, also called broadband. People in younger age groups will never move to a community if it isn’t served by broadband, one committee member noted.

Rural roads were another issue that they spent time discussing. Some members who have experience with local town or county boards noted that more money seems to be devoted to roads where new homes or four-season cabins are located than they do to roads where farms are located.

One sub-committee member noted that $90 million was pulled out of local road funding to fund the FoxConn deal and many of those road resources were pulled out of the northern part of the state. If road funding is to be improved, there needs to be more attention paid to how it is divided up in the state, the group agreed. If there are any new funds that state leaders agree to levy on taxpayers there should be agreement on where that funding is to be spent and distant parts of the state should be on equal footing with urban areas, the group agreed.

They noted that if an agreement on road improvements could be reached, it could help farmers, rural communities and local school districts. One member said that as roads become more deteriorated over time, repair costs will increase exponentially.

That road infrastructure in rural areas isn’t the only thing that needs attention. Jerry Schroeder, with the Wisconsin Milk Haulers Association, noted that bridges, especially smaller ones, need to be repaired or replaced and this can affect farms significantly. “If a small bridge is reduced in its weight limit that can add 25 to 35 minutes to use a different route to get to that farm,” he said.

In one instance he is familiar with, he was told it will likely take five years to remove a 1940s-era bridge and replace it with cast concrete culverts to bring the small stream crossing up to date. That delay comes because of regulatory steps required by the Department of Natural Resources.

Another factor is that farmers aren’t very “loud” when it comes to asking for help from legislators or others in state government

Schools in local areas were another area of concern the sub-committee set its sights on. So-called sparsity aid has kept some small, rural schools going, they said, but that doesn’t address the problem long term.

One problem facing rural schools is getting teachers to come to these rural districts to teach. Rep. Don Vruwink, a former teacher and coach who is an ex-officio member of the task force, noted that many rural communities had their own elementary schools for many years, but now they have disappeared as districts became larger and bussed students further to larger communities. As that happens, students spend more time on the bus and school districts spend more money on transportation.

“A lot of schools fight consolidation because it means they lose their local identity,” Vruwink said. “It’s part of the local infrastructure.”

Diversity of farms

As one committee member put it, larger farms will get larger and large buyers of dairy products want to deal with fewer farms or even own their own farms. But the committee highlighted the fact that Wisconsin is home to a diversity of dairy farms and that diversity is needed to maintain the viability of rural communities — especially in the northern parts of the state.

Consolidation and loss of smaller dairy farms reduces the number of people left in a rural area to support local businesses in the same way that a big box store in the next town often has the effect of hollowing out local Main Street businesses.

“We want many-to-many relationships versus few-to-few,” said one committee member.
The bankers on the panel noted that efficiency and profitability are not correlated to farm size — efficiency and making things work can be of any size. “Of the 9,000 or so dairy farms in Wisconsin, I work with 100,” said ag lender Dennis Bangart. “And they are all different from each other.”

One of the outcomes of the original Dairy Task Force, appointed by then governor Tommy Thompson, was that Wisconsin aimed its considerable dairy infrastructure at specialty and artisan cheese. There were 40 to 50 new cheeses that could be made here that hadn’t been made before.

This committee noted that trucking of milk is one of the areas that the industry could find efficiencies. Darin Von Ruden, a Westby dairy farmer who is president of Wisconsin Farmers Union, said that on his ridge there are six milk haulers and five different truckers.

Ag development zones

In order to bring more life to rural areas and farming communities, the committee wondered if something like an agricultural TIF district could be instituted for farms. Such “tax incremental financing” districts are often used to bring business and industry or housing development to communities.

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Fredonia dairy farmer and task force member Don Hamm said that the state already has Agricultural Enterprise Zones but that designation doesn’t come with dollars. For example, a fringe urban county like Ozaukee is considered to be fairly rich, he said, but still can’t find a way to fund road improvements.

Milk hauler Schroeder said that funding that was supposed to go up north ended up being used in the southeastern part of the state. “How do we get dollars back into rural areas?” he asked.

The group agreed that the state will have to take some role in rebuilding the infrastructure in rural areas for things like roads, bridges and broadband service.

Schroeder said the Motor Carriers Association has come out in favor of a gas tax increase to solve the problem of road funding but he wouldn’t want to support it unless and until there was a plan in place for how that money was going to be used — including spending some of it on rural roads.

Equal distribution of transportation funding would be a very good step for rural communities, the committee agreed.

Rural communities also need a revitalization of their social capital. Getting people who leave for an education to come back to their rural communities would help in that regard. The group noted that one of the challenges here is that this approach is not quick and easy. Rebuilding what needs to happen to bring people back is hard to pin down.

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