Proposed bills aim to increase agricultural opportunities, help farmers
A package of bills aimed to strengthen opportunities for Wisconsin farmers at every stage of their careers was introduced by a group of legislators on Sept. 2 in Madison.
Three proposals, a package touted as "Our Farms, Our Future," would benefit young farmers launching their careers, established farmers looking to innovate and diversify their operations, to retiring farmers hoping to pass their operation on to the next generation.
One bill would forgive a portion of higher education debt for college graduates who commit to farming in the state. Another would fund two positions within the University of Wisconsin System to help retiring farmers create succession plans. A third would create a competitive grant program to support farmers wishing to diversify.
Helping young farmers
Democratic Rep. Mark Spreitzer introduced a program to forgive up to $30,000 in higher education debt for college graduates who commit to farming in Wisconsin for at least five years.
“Recruiting and retaining beginning farmers from diverse backgrounds is essential to continuing Wisconsin’s strong tradition of family-supporting farms,” said Spreitzer. “This bill addresses that need by awarding grants to qualified beginning farmers to pay down their student debt. Farmers are the backbone of our state’s economy, and this bill will help beginning farmers launch their farming career and continue this Wisconsin tradition.”
The awards would be given based on financial need, the likelihood of success and the use of sustainable best practices. Only $120,000 would be available the first year of the program, increasing to $600,000 annually in five years.
"We need excited, smart young farmers entering the field as soon as possible," said Danny Werachowski, a supporter of the bill who graduated from college in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in English and later found his calling as a farmer.
Democratic Rep. Don Vruwink, proposed a competitive grant program designed to help farmers diversify. According to the proposal, up to $50,000 would be awarded for small-scale farming operations no larger than 50 acres. The money would have to be used to start a new operation or add a new product. Over two years, $500,000 would be available.
“Wisconsin is blessed with an abundance of well-educated, energetic people who want to start new farming operations or grow their existing farms,” Vruwink said. “While cows, corn, and cranberries will remain a cornerstone of our agricultural economy, we have a tremendous opportunity to diversify. The Small Farm Diversity grant will spur innovation and grow our ag economy. It is a competitive grant where the best and brightest proposals will rise to the top.”
Meghan Snare moved with her husband from the Chicago suburbs to tiny Plymouth in Rock County and purchased a 10-acre farm in 2016. They now operate the Field and Farm Co. as a community supported agriculture operation, or CSA, while still holding down corporate jobs for tech companies.
Snare said the proposal would help people like her who "come in from left field" and want to farm.
"We think there's a lot of opportunity for young farmers and people leaving other jobs to come into the agriculture industry," she said.
Farmers looking to retire could benefit from the bill proposed by Democratic Rep. Dave Considine. The bill would fund two positions within the University of Wisconsin System to help farmers plan how to pass their operations on to younger family members.
“As members of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture, we hear about the very real barriers that Wisconsin farmers face,” said Considine. “I also know from personal experience about some of these barriers, such as farm succession planning. Since farming looks different today than it used to, passing down the family farm is no longer as simple as it once was.”
Considine, a former dairy goat farmer, said some family farms that have been lost might have been saved with proper succession planning.
“It’s important for family farmers to have a succession plan in place, but that can be difficult in today’s society,” said Republican Sen. Patrick Testin who introduced the bill with Considine. “Our bill gives farmers the resources they need to ensure a smooth transition between generations so that today’s family farm will still be thriving decades from now.”
As of Sept. 2, the “Our Farms, Our Future” package is circulating for co-sponsorship.
Scott Bauer of the Associated Press contributed to this article.