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Supporting research and water quality efforts and expanding broadband top the list of agriculture related items on Gov. Tony Evers 2019-21 state biennial budget, signed into law on July 3. 

Exercising his "broad constitutional authority to reshape" the budget rather than veto the entire budget, Evers signed the budget, now 2019 Wisconsin Act 9, into law with 79 partial vetoes. 

"This budget is a down payment on The People’s Budget and the priorities of the people of Wisconsin," Evers said. "Today I am signing a better version of the Legislature’s budget with the understanding that we are nowhere near where we need to be, and there is more work for us to do."

Evers said he made "promises to the people of Wisconsin" to put them first "and that is why I am proud we were able to do as much as we did with the budget we were given."

Investing in research

One item dairy groups like the Dairy Business Association (DBA) pushed for was investing in a Dairy Innovation Hub at the University of Wisconsin System. 

The budget allots $8.8 million over the biennium in the Hub, an investment that will "draw dairy farming researchers to our state and ultimately help our dairy farmers grow their businesses," said Evers. 

"“Keeping our dairy community healthy requires investment — by farmers, by processors, by lenders, by the state and by many others who play vital roles in America’s Dairyland. Budgets demonstrate priorities," said Tom Crave, president of the DBA and a farmer and cheesemaker in south-central Wisconsin. "By including the Dairy Innovation Hub in the newly signed spending plan, state leaders have made a strong statement that our dairy economy, our rural communities and our identity as the Dairy State matter."

The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA) applauded the investment in the dairy community.

“Wisconsin’s dairy industry – both producers and processors – have faced challenges posed by stagnant prices, labor challenges and limited international trade, but we firmly believe that product innovation and world-class research hold the key to dairy’s future success and profitability,” said John Umhoefer, WCMA Executive Director in a press release. “State of Wisconsin support offered through the Dairy Innovation Hub will keep Wisconsin dairy farming on the cutting-edge, and link milk production to new product development through our great University system working hand-in-hand with industry partners.”

According to WCMA, the budget designates $1 million in Fiscal Year 2019-20 and up to $7.8 million in the following year for the Dairy Innovation Hub. The second year of funding must be approved by the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, following review of detailed plans from the University of Wisconsin System.

State funding will be directed to three University of Wisconsin campuses: Madison, Platteville, and River Falls for dairy industry research and development projects focused on human nutrition, land and water use, animal health and welfare, and rural development efforts. The Dairy Innovation Hub will also work to offer industry training opportunities.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF) President Jim Holte said the investment in research is "extremely needed." 

"Increased funding for other agricultural resources such as the UW System’s Dairy Innovation Hub are important," Holte said in a press release.

Supporting water quality efforts

Because Evers declared 2019 as the Year of Clean Drinking Water in Wisconsin, the budget invests more than $32.65 million in improving water quality throughout the state.

Supporting that pledge to clean water included providing $750,000 annually for farmers to engage in best management practices under the producer-led watershed protection grant program.

"More than two-thirds of Wisconsin residents use groundwater for their drinking water, whether through a private well or public water system," said Evers. "Working collaboratively, the leaders at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Department of Health Services, and Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) developed evidence-based statewide groundwater standards to protect and ensure clean groundwater resources. The standards we have set are among the most comprehensive in the nation and are used for regulating facilities, practices and activities that can affect groundwater."

Applauding Evers and the Joint Finance Committee for recognizing the value of empowering farmers through the Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant Program, Crave said the program is one of the best ways the state can support farmers’ efforts to protect and improve water quality.

"The grants, which nonprofit farmer-led conservation groups must match, will go a long way in supplementing things like cost-share programs for scientific research and innovative manure management practices," said Crave. “Wisconsin’s dairy farmers are taking the lead on addressing water quality challenges in our state. A growing number of voluntary watershed-based groups are making remarkable progress in identifying solutions that make sense for their regions. Farmers are challenging each other to continuously improve through innovation and to scientifically measure results. Keeping our water clean takes a community-wide effort, and farmers are demonstrating a commitment to doing their part. We all want clean water."

Holte said the "program is essential to keeping farmers proactively involved in local water quality discussions."

Expanding broadband

Providing the "largest amount ever," the budget includes $48 million throughout the biennium, to expand the Broadband Expansion Grant program to reach more underserved areas of the state, funding supported by the WFBF.

"Rural residents continue to struggle with limited or no access to broadband across much of the state," said Holte. "We support the much-needed funding for the Broadband Expansion Grant to bring updates and upgrades to rural areas."

Other ag items

The budget also provides more than $465 million overall for transportation projects across the state and provides an historic 10 percent increase ($66 million over the biennium) in available funding for general transportation aids, paid to counties, towns, villages, and cities, along with other transportation investments. 

"Transportation issues continue to be a large concern for our rural residents," said Holte. "We are happy to see extra funding for our town roads and appreciate that the Governor and State Legislature understood the importance of sound infrastructure for our rural businesses."

Additionally, the new state budget provides additional staffing and equipment to DATCP to speed up the approval process for growers of industrial hemp. An additional $200,000 will go to the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant program to continue promoting the sale of Wisconsin foods to local buyers. 

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Research on chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin also received $100,000. An automatic license renewal option will also be created for hunters and anglers. 

"For several years, Wisconsin farmers have faced a triple whammy of low commodity prices, trade uncertainty, and challenging weather," said DATCP Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff. "These conditions have caused significant financial and emotional stress for the agriculture community across our state. Governor Evers and I recognize that, and the budget he signed today is a better budget for those family farmers and the rural communities they call home."

Pfaff continued, "As farmers know better than anyone, there is always more work to be done. Thanks to the work of the people of our state and Governor Evers, the budget he signed is a solid step forward on the road ahead. I look forward to continuing to work with the Governor and the people of our state who are counting on us to roll up our sleeves and get things done."

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.

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