Farm groups tell senate: Time for action is now
MADSON – Time is of essence down at the State Capitol, especially for a slate of bills that would not only benefit the state's agricultural industry but would go a long way in supporting water quality efforts.
In a show of solidarity, over a dozen agricultural groups hosted a press conference on March 12, urging the state Senate to take up farm and water quality bills that have already passed in the Assembly with bi-partisan support and now await state senators to take up these bills and lend their stamp of approval.
"The state Assembly has come together and this coalition of agricultural groups has has come together and it will now take the state Senate coming together (to pass these bills)," said Jefferson County farmer and grazing educator Kirsten Jurcek. "In the past these ag groups haven't always been able to come together and collaborate on bills, so it's encouraging to see that. I hope the Senate will follow suit."
The Senate was expected to reconvene for its last floor session during the last full week of March, however, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announced that the Wisconsin Senate will not convene for its final regular session day of the year as originally planned next week due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Fitzgerald said Tuesday that the Senate will meet sometime later in the spring, but did not set a date. He said the delay was done “out of an abundance of caution for Senators, their family members, and staff members who may be vulnerable to coronavirus.”
The Senate planned to convene on March 24 for its last session day of the year. There are numerous bills in flux awaiting Senate action that will be further delayed now.
Those include seven bills designed to combat homelessness in the state; 13 bills to improve water quality; tax cuts and other measures to help farmers; and delaying the bar closing time during the Democratic National Convention to 4 a.m.
Gov. Tony Evers on Monday suggested the Legislature may need to meet to take action in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak that has resulted in mass closures across the state affecting schools, bars, restaurants, theaters and hundreds of other businesses.
"Our farmers and our processors need senate action to strengthen and stabilize our industry," Rebekah Sweeney of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association told the media. "We are united in our hope for action. The list is short, but the list is very important."
Water quality bills AB789 and AB800 would provide increased assistance for rural well remediation. AB 796 provides funding for a pilot program to study the reduction of nitrates in groundwater. AB 795 funds producer-led water shed grants and incentives to try innovative conservation practices such as cover cropping. And AB 790 would increase funding for additional County Land and Water Conservation agents.
For efforts in passing Truth in Labeling, Senators will consider AB 515 to require any food identifying as a dairy product to include a milk-based source. AB 516 requires any product identifying itself as milk must be sourced from the secretions of a mammal. And AB 518 requires any product identifying itself as meat must be sourced from the flesh of an animal.
Dairy processing bills include Special Session AB 6, which allocates up to $5 million in state investments to a new export initiative designed to help cheesemakers sell more dairy products abroad. And Special Session AB 7 invests $1 million in the impactful dairy processor grant program at Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture.
Tax credit bill AB 873 would allow a producer to claim an income tax credit up to $7,500 on farm improvement taxes assessed on their business.
The University of Wisconsin Applied Ag Research bill, AB 556, would properly account for time spent by UW integrated state specialists working with producers in the field to develop innovative farm practices. AB 627 would further increase funding for UW Extension state specialists conducting applied agricultural research.
And AB 695 relates to Wildlife Damage Abatement. That bill would allow the DNR to administer the current wildlife damage abatement program directly and lifts the monetary cap on individual damage claims. The measure would also encourage participation in the program by allowing bear traps to be placed on rented acres without opening the land for public hunting.
Jurcek said the passage of the 14 bills is very important to the agricultural industry which has been struggling on many fronts for the past five years.
"Ag producers are under fire from all directions, as is our environment. We've lost so much funding over the last decade, that restoring funding for conservation practices is critical to the health of our surface water, groundwater and soils in our state," Jurcek said. "Truth in Labeling is also crucial to the livelihood of Wisconsin's meat and milk producers."
With both the Governor and the Assembly taking decisive action to support farmers and improve water quality, the spotlight is now on the state Senate.
"If these bills fail to pass in this session, I believe conservation and ourj state water quality will continue to decline, and we're at a point now where that's just not acceptable," said Jurcek who moved back to the family farm after working as a hydrologist. "Our producers – whether they be meat, milk or cranberry producers – will suffer even more and I don't know how much more they can take. Agriculture and our environment are at tipping points. We need action now."
Ag groups that were part of the lobbying effort included Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, Cooperative Network, Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, Wisconsin Hemp Alliance, Wisconsin Pork Association, Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, Wisconsin Soybean Association, Wisconsin Association of Professional Agricultural Consultants, Grassworks, and Farm Credit.