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State Senate candidate Brad Pfaff calls for change in ‘Rural America’ panel

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Brad Pfaff

Brad Pfaff says farmers and agriculture producers are “the glue that make communities stick” and is calling for increased government support and investment in rural economies.

Pfaff, who is running for a seat in the State Senate representing the 32nd district of Wisconsin, joined a panel Thursday, June 4 to discuss the state of rural America during the pandemic and in the future. Pfaff was fired as Secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in November when the Wisconsin legislature refused to confirm him.

The panel also featured Lieutenant Governor of Iowa, Patty Judge; president and CEO of Cooperative Network, Dan Smith; and president and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council Tom Vilsack.

Pfaff said that things are “out of balance” for Midwestern farmers right now due to the pandemic, unpredictable weather patterns, low commodity prices and a trade war with China. He also said that rural communities need better access to broadband, especially during a pandemic where travel and face-to-face meetings are very limited.

According to the American Farm Bureau, less than a third of American farms do not have access to the internet, and almost 40% of rural Americans do not have access to 25 mbps service, the lowest tier of broadband available.

Pfaff said rural communities need investment in infrastructure, like rebuilding roads and bridges, and he said people need an incentive to move back to rural communities rather than to the city. While one-time payments to farmers are appreciated, he said, they are not enough to sustain a long-term economic plan.

“International trade does not work if the bridge is out at the local farm,” Pfaff said. “Our rural residents cannot be left behind.”

Pfaff said the Trump administration has not kept its promises to rural Americans. Instead of building something new, he said we should work on the resources and structures already there that have been forgotten.

“Farmers and rural residents do more than just grow food and fiber,” Pfaff said. “They serve on our school boards, our town boards. They started as volunteer firefighters, as EMTs.”

Smith also said that local farms and other rural businesses shutting down means the towns around them will also shut down because they can’t survive without a local economy. He said the pandemic has exposed faults in our economic systems and safety nets that prevent us from having a sustainable economy even 5 years down the road.

“It's our rural communities that struggle,” Smith said. “COVID-19 really exposed … that we weren't quite prepared with a risk management plan.”

Judge, who ran for the Senate representing Iowa but lost to incumbent Chuck Grassley in 2016, said rural communities need to see not only good investments, but also good leadership from local, state and federal offices. It’s especially important during a global pandemic which “threatens our livelihoods,” she said.

“Farm income is down by half compared to 2013 and farm bankruptcies are escalating trade disputes that have cost our rural states billions of dollars in revenue and hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs,” Judge said.

Vilsack, who also served as US Secretary of Agriculture from 2009 until 2017, said the government should not focus so much on direct cash assistance, but instead help create markets that generate the cash flow farmers desperately need. He said this is a more effective way of investing in rural America’s farming families that ensures long-term economic viability.

“Farmers are interested in selling, they're not interested in … surviving on government payments,” Vilsack said. “Whatever we do, we should be focused on creating stability in markets and … maintaining markets.”