Young farmers share ag industry concerns with elected officials
ROSENDALE - As a large animal veterinarian, Cassandra Gewiss has the opportunity to see firsthand the challenges facing her clients.
From those desperately searching for a processing plant to pick up their milk, to farmers frustrated over the lack of labor to help keep their farms running, along with the effects from years of depressed milk and grain prices.
"It's very challenging for farmers out there," she told Wisconsin legislators sitting in the audience during the Fond du Lac County Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Agriculturist Panel on Aug. 14.
"I want to make sure that we're doing everything that we can in the state of Wisconsin so you guys can succeed at what you do," said Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville.
Stroebel along with Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac, Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum and U.S. Congressman Glenn Grothman, gathered at the Rosendale Village Hall to listen to YFA panelists Chris Pollack, Ripon area farmer, Janet Clark, Lamartine area farmer and member of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and Gewiss, a veterinarian with Waupun Veternary Service.
"I look at you not just as farmers but as business owners. It's key that people understand that you are a business and vital part of this economy," Feyen said. "Manufacturing and agriculture are two of the top businesses in our state and we need to make sure that we are nurturing those industries."
DNR vs. DBA
Legislators listened carefully as the panel discussed the recent lawsuit filed by the Dairy Business Association against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for its alleged overreach of authority,
The litigation focuses on how the DNR implements new regulations, sidestepping the approval process required by state law. At issue is a rule change on how farmers manage rainwater that comes in contact with feed storage or calf hutch areas.
For years, farmers were directed to run the leachate from storage pads across a grass waterway where it would filter through the vegetation. The DNR, however, is about to change that.
Pollack said that many farms have made significant investments to manage runoff.
"Farms that made those investments were suddenly told it wasn't fine anymore and that any runoff from a feed pad including rainwater has to go into a manure pit which has to be hauled out," Pollack said. "There was no science to back up this suggstion from the DNR. Show us the science and give us time to comply."
Fond du Lac County Farm Bureau President Richard Julka says the about face came as a surprise to many farmers.
"I don't have a problem with change," he said, "but they changed their minds without holding any hearings."
Gewiss said finding good, reliable labor that shows up on a daily basis is a big challenge for farms of all sizes. The issue has become even more pressing as undocumented workers fear deportation.
"I can't count how many farms I visit where they can't get their employees to and from work because police are constantly waiting outside the farm for employees to get off work and then pull them over for not having a drivers license," Gewiss said. "Every year it gets harder and harder for farmers to find workers to do these jobs that no one else wants to do."
Gewiss says smaller, family-run dairy operations that need only part-time help may find themselves at a disadvantage against larger farms competing for workers.
"A lot of these employees are working a minimum of 50 hours a week. If offered 30 hours a week, most will say no thank you," she said. "Without these employees we will lose the foundation of the dairy industry," she said.
Pollack asked legislators if there was a middle ground to help good workers become documented in a reasonable amount of time.
Rep. Ripp responded, saying state legislators were looking into a visa program currently being used by some states.
"We're looking into a worker visa program recently introduced by Congressman Ron Johnson," Ripp said.
Under Johnson's plan, states could run their own guest-worker visa programs. Visas could be granted for a period of up to three years, and could be renewed at the end of the term.
When introducing the bill in May, Johnson said legislators need to recognize that a one-size-fits-all federal model for visas or guest workers won’t work.
While Clark's dairy operation is run by family members, the family does appreciate the workers who fill in for them on a part-time basis.
"People need to realize that these farms are supporting workers' families whether they are documented or not," she said. "These are families and we're helping to give them and the next generation an opportunity to grow their families and be successful in America and that starts with us as business owners."
Clark told elected officials that reliable internet service is critical to farmers using more and more technology to run their businesses.
"I use an internet-based program where I can look up data on my cows using my smart phone," she said. "We have dead spots all over our farm and it's not unusual to see me out there with my hand up in the air trying to get a signal."
Grothman asked producers how they were faring in the current milk market with low milk prices.
"Low prices are a part of the business and frankly there are a lot of farms just happy to break even," said Pollack referring to falling grain and milk prices."The only way to have a profit with this year's corn crop is to have a one heck of a yield out there."
Panelists also weighed in on the current milk surplus in Wisconsin and surrounding states.
"The Ag industry is very much a free market industry. Obviously it rides high when demand is high and goes the other way when there's a surplus," Pollack said. "Right now there's more milk produced in this state than processors can handle,"
Gewiss said former milk producers that lost their contract with Grassland Farms often made great concessions in finding a new processing plant willing to take their milk.
"A lot of them had to sign deals taking the base price offered with no additional premiums," Gewiss said. "Others were told if they went went 1 to 2 percent above their (specified production goals), they would not be paid for the surplus product."
Leahy said farmers are counting on elected officials to support additional export markets for their products.
"We have more product than we can consume domestically," Leahy said. "We need more exports and more bilateral agreements at the federal level."
"Just a 1 to 2 percent difference in those exports is the difference between farmers breaking even and us making a comfortable profit," Pollack pointed out.