Wisconsin farmers face steep challenges as Evers prepares to take office

Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As many Wisconsin farmers cling to their livelihood, hoping for some relief soon from crushing low commodity prices, some are asking what the state agriculture department will be like after Tony Evers becomes the next governor.

Dave Daniels, a dairy farmer from Union Grove, in Racine County, is also a board member of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

Evers didn’t get into much detail on farm issues during his campaign, farmers say, but they’re keenly interested in his views and whom he appoints as secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The department’s work touches nearly everyone in the state, not just farmers, in areas such as state-inspected meat packing plants, enforcement of weights and measures standards, and accuracy of gasoline pumps.

The last Democratic governor to appoint an agriculture secretary was Jim Doyle, who was elected in 2002 and served two terms, followed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. 

Now, it's Evers' turn to name someone to head the agriculture department. 

Evers has pledged to strengthen the University of Wisconsin Extension's support and market assistance for farmers caught in brutal commodities markets.

“Wisconsin farmers are in a crisis as prices within the farm economy have been below production costs for more than three years. Farm families are enduring bankruptcy, health issues and even suicides as rural Wisconsin loses more than one dairy farm every day,” Evers said during his campaign.

“Farm policies have encouraged overproduction, which has resulted in financial stress to dairy farm families, causing many of them to have to exit the industry.”

The current agriculture secretary is Sheila Harsdorf, a Republican appointed by Walker in November 2017. She is the first woman to hold that state office and served in the state legislature for more than 25 years, most recently as a senator for the 10th Senate District in northwestern Wisconsin.

A spokesman for Harsdorf did not return a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel call asking about her plans and requesting an interview.

Harsdorf could be asked to stay on as secretary under Evers.

“But political appointees are part of the spoils of victory,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin farm policy group that closely follows issues in state government.

“Historically, the secretary of DATCP has been quite subservient to the agribusiness interests in this state,” Kastel said.

Blank slate

Evers has spent his career in education. He’s been state superintendent of public instruction since 2009 and held administrative and teaching roles before that.  

“The governor-elect is not known for a background in agriculture, so he’s going to have to tap smart people in the selection of the secretary and for some macro policy shifts,” Kastel said.

“It should be a major shakeup. It would be great to see the power shift back toward the rank-and-file working people and farmers in rural communities,” he added.

A spokesman for Evers did not return a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel call last week asking about his views on the agriculture department, one of the state’s largest agencies.

“I would like to see the same philosophical changes I was hoping for when Jim Doyle was elected governor … and we didn’t get. And that is to create DATCP leadership, policy and funding that would support family farms,” Kastel said.

Will the agriculture department and state attorney general’s office focus on policies and regulations helpful for midsize farms rather than mega-size operations that have drawn criticisms for their impact on the environment?

Dave Daniels, a Racine County dairy farmer and board member of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest farm group, takes a more conservative view of Evers, and says there's room for farms of all sizes in the state. 

“I would like to see what he proposes, and hopefully we can work with him,” Daniels said. 

Manitowoc County farmer Michael Slattery, who in 2016 made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat, says he’s met with Mandela Barnes, the next lieutenant governor, about farm policies.

“He wasn’t there to sell me anything. He was there to listen,” Slattery said.

Slattery said he’d like to see the agriculture department and state attorney general’s office focus on policies and regulations helpful for midsize farms rather than mega-size operations that have drawn criticisms for their impact on the environment. 

Otherwise, “it’s the death knell for local communities,” Slattery said, as midsize farms are squeezed out of the marketplace.

Slattery, who spent much of his career in international banking, is now a grain farmer and an economist for Wisconsin Farmers Union. 

“To retain vibrant and viable rural communities, you need these average-size farms,” he said. 

Small dairy farms have been disappearing from the rural landscape for decades, but the problem has been compounded by a sharp decline in farm-milk prices that's now in its fourth year and has spread across the country.

Bankruptcies abound

Farm cooperatives have urged members to think twice about adding more cows to their operations when the marketplace is awash in milk. Some have offered incentives for members to quit farming altogether and some have even warned about farmer suicides.

Federal court data showed the Western District of Wisconsin had the highest number of Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies in the nation in 2017, and that's only a glimpse into the problem, since Chapter 12 is a relatively rare tool used in bankruptcies. 

Farm milk pricing is a federal, not state, policy matter. But state officials ought to be pushing the federal government for answers, as well as helping farmers in the marketplace, said Pete Hardin, publisher of The Milkweed, a dairy industry publication based in Brooklyn, Wisconsin.

Jon Metzig slices the cheese which will make the curd for a European-style cheese he is making at Willow Creek Cheese in this 2010 photo.

“The status quo is leading us to ruin. And it’s not just farmers bleeding red ink. There are a lot of cheese plants bleeding it, too,” Hardin said.

Hardin said he’d like to see the agriculture department incubate a stockholder-owned corporation, with farmers and cheese plant owners as the principal investors, that would sell Wisconsin cheese direct to consumers online.

“All of the money would stay at home, returning more to the farmer and the plants, and creating jobs in the state filling orders,” Hardin said.

About 90 percent of Wisconsin’s milk goes into making cheese.

“We have to wake up. We are the giant in the cheese business, and yet we’ve been taking it lying down,” Hardin said.

He’d also like to see local governments regain the authority to regulate the expansion of dairy farms that have thousands of cows. 

“When the state took away discretionary powers of the counties and townships, I think it proved to be a pretty sad event for many rural Wisconsin communities,” Hardin said.

However he’s not been opposed to Harsdorf’s leadership.

“This may sound terrible, for an old liberal Democrat, but one of the things I would miss about the Walker administration is Secretary Harsdorf not getting the chance to show what she can do at the agriculture department,” Hardin said.

Jim Holte, president of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation pictured with AFBF President Zippy Duvall, says he expects the agriculture department to be nonpartisan.

Jim Holte, president of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said he expects the agriculture department to be nonpartisan.

“I don’t expect any abrupt changes or significant obstacles in working with the new administration,” Holte said.

He’d favor low-interest loans to beginning farmers, something Evers suggested during his campaign.

“As difficult as the financial situation is in agriculture now, these kinds of programs rise up as having a little more value,” Holte said.

Consumer protection

Besides looking out for the interests of farmers, the agriculture department is supposed to be the state’s consumer protection watchdog.

The agency fields thousands of consumer complaints in a wide range of subjects, from cellphone providers and landlords to business scams and telemarketers. 

It refers some cases to the state attorney general's office for prosecution.

“But overwhelmingly the problem has been that the public resources to enforce the laws have been cut back so dramatically, it’s not sufficient for the task,” said Jeff Myer, director of advocacy for Legal Action, a nonprofit legal aid group in Milwaukee.

“I don’t think DATCP has any enforcement personnel. They are an information gathering repository. But that’s all,” Myer said.

The attorney general's office doesn’t have enough resources dedicated to consumer protection either, according to Myer.

“It’s not anywhere close to what’s needed for the number of scams that go on in this state,” he said.