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Broadband, meat processing among state's top initiatives

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Gov. Tony Evers, right, looks on as UW System President Tommy Thompson speaks as part of a news conference and tour of the Prevea COVID-19 vaccination clinic Monday, January 18, 2021, at UW-Green Bay's Kress Events Center in Green Bay, Wis.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has announced updates for several of its projects and initiatives, including Governor Tony Evers' fight for rural broadband access, meat processor funding and the COVID-19 response.

Evers recently committed to several promises in the State of the State address, including revising unemployment insurance, abolishing gerrymandering in district mapping and, perhaps most importantly, access to quality broadband in Wisconsin's rural areas. Calling 2021 the "year of broadband access," Evers said he is quadrupling the state's previous budget for broadband funding, from $50 million to $200 million.

$150 million of that will go into a "broadband access program," Evers said, while $40 million will go towards supplemental income for families to afford monthly internet bills. It's unclear where the other $10 million is going.

The lack of reliable broadband in Wisconsin's rural communities has played a big role in the pandemic this year with many businesses having to move online to meet COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. Evers has partnered with the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity to address these issues.

"(Wisconsinites say) that broadband is too darn important to just assume it's going to grow and get to every corner of the state," Evers said. "It's 2021 ... and I know that I don't have to tell you that broadband is no longer a luxury, it's a necessity."

The Governor went on to say that broadband can make the difference for survival of small businesses, and the internet is also important for students, telecommuting and even telehealth visits.

The $40 million in family broadband financing will likely be given in monthly stipends, Evers said, although it's possible the state will also pay internet service providers directly on behalf of those families. Evers also noted that his administration is consciously working to improve the state's broadband response since the Walker administration, which he said did not make this initiative a priority.

"It's been more of a priority for me," Evers said. "We need to make it a priority because it's going to help us return to normal and frankly, hopefully, better than normal."

Meatpacking problems

Evers also hinted that some of the state budget will address problems faced by meatpacking plants and their inspectors with the rampant spread of COVID-19 that has shut the doors of many plants this year, leading to some localized meat shortages. He said he hopes to convince the legislature to reinvest in Wisconsin's local meat processors.

"During the pandemic, it became very clear that we needed a different type of supply line for our meat products in the state," Evers said. "We hope to convince the legislature that there's wisdom in reinvigorating, in various ways, the regional and local processing of meat, and also help those local and regional processors get their product to market in a better way."

However, Evers said we will have to wait for the finalized budget to be made public to find out what funding will be provided.

DATCP has also released their "Wisconsin Agriculture and COVID-19" report, which described the many ways in which the agency responded to the pandemic and helped Wisconsinites face the problems it caused. The report stated that many of the department's activities were shifted entirely to a remote format with conference calls with many agriculture and consumer stakeholders.

Many services to farmers and others were offered (and still are offered), including direct financial aid, mental health support, business planning advice and COVID-19 response, especially when two mink farms in Taylor County suffered outbreaks of the disease, killing many mink. Secretary-designee Randy Romanski said his response has continued to amplify ag voices.

"It was really vitally important for us to build on those relationships (with stakeholders) during COVID-19," Romanski said. "We plan to build on that further as we continue to respond and rebound from COVID-19, but beyond that, our plan is to continue to have that level of connection because we've learned that we're all in this together."

Randy Romanski

Romanski said Wisconsin's food producers and retailers have shown their resiliency this past year, especially since many people in the food industry had already suffered problems in recent years. He said the bridges built with farmers have shown that the industry is the backbone of Wisconsin.

"(We built bridges) across a variety of different agriculture and food sectors, connecting farmers to consumers, whether it's consumers in need through a program, or connecting consumers to a local product," Romanski said.