Pfaff promises: farmers’ stories will be heard
MADISON – Brad Pfaff is proud to tell people he’s “a farm kid.” His concern for farmers, farm policy and how decisions affect rural communities is something that he has carried with him through life. Now, as Secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, he says he hopes that his farm background and policy experience will help him serve the farmers of Wisconsin and the rural communities of the state.
Policymakers need to recognize the importance of agriculture – one in nine jobs in Wisconsin is related to agriculture, he said. “We all need to eat and there’s a lot of pride, sweat and equity that goes into everything farmers do.
“I will tell their story. I will be their advocate,” he said in an interview with Wisconsin State Farmer. “I will listen and I will share. I want these stories to be told.”
The state’s dairy farmers, he said, don’t just produce a raw product for the processing industry. He believes each of them is an artisan farmer – and no two are the same. “Each is different and I value that.”
Asked about the hard times hitting many Wisconsin farmers with dairy farmers leaving the industry and rising levels of farm bankruptcy rates, Pfaff replied: “I will always say that I’m optimistic about Wisconsin agriculture – we have all the assets we need – climate, cows, water, genetics, processing.
“And all of that is important but we also have inside of us something a machine can’t provide – pride and dedication. That can’t be duplicated or replicated,” he added.
Pfaff’s parents, Ruth, and Leon, both came from farming families. He grew up going to Friday night fish fries and listening to country music on WCOW radio while studying at Melrose-Mindoro High School near La Crosse. “The farm taught me a lot, and gave me balance,” he said. “I was raised with values. The farm shaped my perspective on life.”
He credits his mother for teaching him listening skills and in his new role he plans to visit farms and rural communities to hear what people are saying. “The best ideas come from there. They need to be listened to and they will be. Their thoughts will be heard.”
Pfaff said his father keeps him “on the straight and narrow. He’s my best advocate and my best friend.” His parents are still on the farm and it’s a place he goes to as often as possible.
He said he’s really thankful that Governor Tony Evers selected him for the post at DATCP. “I am really grateful for this opportunity. I promise to get my chores done.”
Wisconsin farmers, he said, have “taken it on the chin” over the last four years but remain hardworking, resilient and optimistic. “They give it their very best.”
But he knows times have been tough. The day before our interview he toured farms in several west central Wisconsin counties where heavy snow loads and high winds had destroyed barns and killed livestock and poultry.
His department stands ready to help farmers. “There is a real desire in this state to farm and we have resources to help,” he said. “They might want to explore lower cost opportunities like grazing or beginning farmer programs.” The Farm Center has been a fixture in the department to help farmers with advice in many areas from financial advice to mental health. Farmers can call the Farm Center at 1-800-942-2474.
There are 650 staffers at DATCP and Pfaff said he is aware of the great base of knowledge represented by those people.
The department is also doing all it can to help build markets for Wisconsin products. “Farmers need all kinds of markets from local to international,” he said.
Continuing the work of the previous DATCP Secretary, Sheila Harsdorf, Pfaff said the agency recently held a reverse buyers’ mission, bringing potential international buyers to Wisconsin to meet with business contacts.
His agency’s International Agribusiness Center staff traveled to Dubai in February to attend the Gulfood Show and provide exhibit space to four Wisconsin companies. At that show, the DATCP team assisted the Wisconsin companies that were exhibiting, held meetings with buyers to promote Wisconsin products, and met with Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) staff. Participating companies reported projected sales of $3.3 million and actual sales of $650,000.
“Sixteen percent of U.S. milk equivalent is now exported and we lead the nation in artisan cheese,” he said. “We are looking for ways to assist those cheesemakers to export their cheese to the world. People want our products.”
He noted that Wisconsin also has a strong, historic place in the artisan meats category and he is looking for ways that his agency can do more to foster that old-world, artisan meat tradition and turn it into more markets for state products.
“When you look at Wisconsin, this is value-added country,” he said.
There are several programs that help DATCP forge stronger links between local customers and local farmers, including the “Buy Local-Buy Wisconsin” and Farm-to-School programs, both of which would get additional funding in Governor Tony Evers’ budget proposal.
“There’s a real connection with consumers who want to know where their food comes from,” he said.
The Evers budget plan would also add funding for the Dairy Processor grant program, add three new hemp project positions and add funding for a new grazing/organics program.
Wisconsin has a big share of smaller, family farms that produce their products with organic standards and Pfaff said he has been watching closely what happens at the USDA with regard to national organic standards. Lack of action there is perceived by many as hurting smaller family dairy operations while helping large dairies in arid states where thousands of cows are milked.
Pfaff said DATCP has its own Wisconsin Organic Advisory Council to keep officials aware of what’s happening in the organic sector – an important part of the state’s agricultural story.
Pfaff congratulated Secretary Harsdorf and former Governor Scott Walker and Ray Cross at the UW-Madison for convening the Dairy Task Force 2.0 to look at policy proposals to help the state’s dairy industry. “It’s more than dollars and cents. They’re looking at rural communities, consumer trends, succession and transition of family farms and skills that are important,” he said. “More needs to be done.”
As dairy farmers face the crisis that has ground on for nearly five years, Pfaff said it seems unfair that people who are producing food for the nation and the world “can hardly put food on their own table. I hear them. I recognize that and I want to be there for them.
“I have no magic wand. I have been in small towns and on farms. I do get it. I think every day about our farmers. This is so much bigger than any one individual – it is our identity as a state.”
After Pfaff graduated from Melrose-Mindoro High School, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, because it was just far enough away from home and provided a small enough environment for a country kid like him to feel comfortable. He studied public administration and business and says the examples he used in the course work were always from the farm. He later earned a Masters in Public Administration at George Mason University.
He worked at the state capitol for State Representative Virgil Roberts (94th Assembly District) and then had the “tremendous opportunity” to work in agricultural policy for U.S. Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) during the mid-1990s. At that time policy proposals they worked on included federal milk order consolidation.
When U.S. Representative Ron Kind (D) was elected to the House, Pfaff got to know him and worked on agricultural policy for him. “He is extremely grounded and in touch with his district. He has a great connection to farms and rural communities.”
During the Obama administration, Pfaff served for six years at the USDA’s Farm Service Agency as Wisconsin State Executive Director; he was then asked to serve as National Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs at the federal FSA office in Washington, D.C.
While there he learned about farm programs in other regions of the country – from peanut growers in Georgia to wheat farmers in Kansas. “I learned from that experience that wherever they are in the nation, farmers are proud of what they produce.”