Dairy Task Force 2.0: Group lays out a path to a stronger Wisconsin dairy industry
An increased focus on exports, funds to repair rural roads and even a mobile app for farmers are among the suggestions made by a group tasked with finding ways to bolster Wisconsin's embattled dairy industry.
The group, known as the Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0, approved a final report that lays out 51 recommendations to help a state dairy industry that has stumbled in recent years amidst an extended downturn in the price of milk.
The task force was created in June 2018 as a joint effort between the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the University of Wisconsin System.
The task force's 51-page report outlines how the price of milk has become increasingly volatile over the last few decades, making it difficult for dairy farmers to pay their bills and plan for their farm's future.
As a result, Wisconsin has been losing dairy farms at a faster-than-normal pace, with "recent losses of more than 9 percent on an annual basis," the report says. The state lately has been losing an average of two to three dairy farms a day.
The goal of the task force wasn’t to solve the problem of depressed milk prices, said Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy at the University of Wisconsin.
“The market is going to do that before we ever could,” said Stephenson, who led the 31-member task force of dairy farmers, milk processors, lenders and others with interests in the dairy industry.
Instead, he said, the group focused on long-term issues, hoping to assure the state's dairy industry is thriving in the coming decades.
The task force's recommendations include creating "Dairy Innovation Hub" at the University of Wisconsin to help drive research that could support the dairy industry's modernization and growth in the future.
Janet Clark, who farms with her family at Vision Aire Farms near Fond du Lac, was one of the dairy farmers who worked with the task force.
She had input on several of the group's recommendations related to rural development and consumer confidence in the dairy industry, including a plan to boost agrotourism at the state's dairy farms by creating a document that would help standardize and reduce the risk for farms giving on-site tours.
By exposing more people to the dairy industry, the public gains a better understanding of what happens at farms, Clark said.
“We want to show what we’re doing and how well we’re doing it,” she said.
Other task-force recommendations include:
- Recognize the importance of exports: The report urges Wisconsin to develop a plan to help cheesemakers produce new products targeted specifically for export markets. The U.S. only exports about 5 percent of the cheese produced here, which makes exports a “huge, virtually untapped growth opportunity for our cheese industry," the report says.
- Encourage young people to pursue careers in agriculture: The agriculture industry accounts for about 500,000 jobs in Wisconsin, but "rural communities struggle to retain our youth in an industry that requires high levels of science, technology and skills," the report says. The solution could be to offer model programs for communities, businesses and education systems that develop career paths in agriculture. "The goal is to show that local industries, agriculture companies, manufacturers and farms offer highly skilled and technical careers right in their local communities," the report says.
- Funding for local road improvement and maintenance: The report recommends the state set aside a percentage of the transportation budget to support roads in rural communities. Any farms large enough to generate a lot of heavy vehicle traffic could partner with towns to help build roads, the report says.
- Study the impact of dairy and agriculture on local communities: The dairy industry supports one of every 10 jobs in Wisconsin, while the average cow in the state generates about $34,000 of economic activity every year, the report says. Additional funding should be set aside for the University of Wisconsin to study existing or proposed dairy and agricultural infrastructure to help local and regional planners better identify opportunities in their areas.
- The dairy app: A mobile app would help dairy farmers quickly access important information that could help them answer questions about the industry. "Then if a producer knew that someone wanted to ask about a particular subject, thoughtful talking points could be accessed quickly," the report says.
Clark was clear that the recommendations made by the group won’t fix all of the dairy industry's challenges, but they should help put the industry in a stronger position to overcome its challenges.
“I know it will benefit the next generations to come for those that want to dairy farm going forward,” he said.
As the group's name suggests, this isn't the first time a task force has been formed to help Wisconsin's dairy industry. In 1985, as Wisconsin began to fall behind California in milk production, a 32-member task force was formed to study the issue and make recommendations to the governor.
“Many changes in Wisconsin’s dairy industry, and ultimately a return to growth in milk production, can be traced back to the work of that original task force," the report says.
To read the full report, visit dairytaskforce.wi.gov.