From the farm to the Capitol, farmers advocate for ag in government

Michelle Stangler
Local, county and state elected officials discuss their connection to government and farming during the “From the farm to the Capitol – how farmers make a difference as elected officials,” session at the 2023 Dairy Strong Conference.

From residential development encroaching into agriculture areas, to fears of farmers polluting ground water or ruining local roads, farmers have found themselves in the crosshairs of those who have misconceptions about their rural neighbors who make a living from the land and raising animals.

Add to the stress of skyrocketing input prices, labor shortages, mental health issues and increased rates of agricultural bankruptcies, farmers have had a tough time and need someone who understands their plight to advocate for them. This is especially important as the average American is now at least three generations removed from the farm.

Many farmers now have a seat around the table of all levels of government thanks to farmers like Travis Tranel, Audrey Kusilek and Justin Peterson. The trio of lawmakers were members of a panel during the breakout session at the 2023 Dairy Strong Conference titled: Local Presence: From the farm to the Capitol. How farmers make a difference as elected officials.

The trio who serve at all levels of government – state, county and town governments – discussed the need for farmers to be represented to ensure agriculture continues to grow and prosper.

Throwing their hat into the ring

“Rural Wisconsin has a seat at the table,” said Rep. Travis Tranel, of Cuba City. Elected in 2010, Tranel serves the 49th Assembly District that includes Grant County and parts of Richland and Lafayette Counties. In addition to his duties down in Madison, Tranel continues to dairy farm and was recently appointed to serve as the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture for the 2023-24 Legislative Session.

Dairy farmer Audrey Kusilek opted to throw her hat into the political ring after noting the poor representation of both women and farmers on the 26-member Barron County board. Today she splits her time between serving as the District 26 Supervisor and running the family's 1500-cow and 1200 heifer operation with her husband, focusing on animal health and land conservation practices.

“I just think production agriculture needs a seat at the table,” Kusilek said, adding that it is especially important at the local level. Local governments create many laws and regulations that impact farming operations in their jurisdiction.

When a retiring member of the Bangor Town Board asked Justin Peterson to keep the voice of agriculture on their town board, he said yes. Thanks to a successful run for office, Peterson has added a new role to his already full slate as an active community member, and dairy producer who also runs a cropping and beef enterprise.

“From my point of view, town government is where it starts,” said Peterson.

Tranel, a fifth generation dairy farmer, shares a similar viewpoint.

“I view local units of government as a partner….we’re working with them and not against them,” said Tranel who serves nearly 60 townships inside his district which comprises all of Grant County, as well as the western half of Richland County and a small part of southwest Lafayette Counties.

After all, Tranel said there needs to be more people involved in agriculture serving in government.

As a county board member, Kusilek questions whether there will still be people with an agriculture background or familiarity with the industry in local government 10 to 15 years from now.

Kusilek says board members work together to address issues and help citizens access resources. And in Barron County one of those resources is the delivery of mental health services.

In the township of Bangor, Peterson says there have been many conversations on development in the town to strengthen the tax base.

“…I understand that side of it, but being that all of our income comes from farming, I'd like to try and keep it rural,” he said.

As a dairy farmer and state legislator, Tranel says it is important to make time for both of his roles. By honing time management skills to using technology to create more accessibility for constituents, he’s learned how to balance both responsibilities.

Service to local government is a family affair for Peterson whose wife serves as the town’s clerk. For both Peterson and Kusilek, balancing the roles of farmer and politician are important.

The annual Dairy Strong conference held in Madison, Wis., brought together dairy farmers, professionals, academics and supporters to exchange ideas on the future of dairy.

Why run?

All candidates approach running for a government office differently. Kusilek heartily encourages citizens to run and said, “if you raise your hand, there are people willing to reach out to help you.”

Peterson says his time on the town board has been a positive experience so far. "When I was running I asked myself, 'If not me, than who else?'"

In his first bid for office, Tranel came up short, losing the election. Unsure what his next step was, he pondered whether or not serving in the Wisconsin Legislature was in his future. Today the father of five is on his seventh term in office. Fortunately for him, dairy farming and being a state legislator balance each other with his mental health.

“As an industry, we need to encourage our fellow farmers and people that are originally from and have been born and raised in rural areas to run and serve on these boards,” he said.

Additionally, Tranel encourages others to consider the opportunity to get involved.

“It’s easier to get involved and be more effective than what you realized,” Travel said. “(Citizens) have to make sure that their hearts are in it and that they want to do it for the right reasons and that they are willing to make the commitment. It’s also doable.”

The first step in becoming involved is at a county or local level, and Kusilek. "If you don't want to run, put your name on a committee. There's still an impact to be made on agriculture."

The Dairy Strong conference is hosted by the Dairy Business Association.