Ag Day at the Capitol: Telling the story for agriculture

John Oncken
Brad Pfaff, new Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, spoke to about 200 members of the Wisconsin Farm  Bureau on March 20.

Some 300 members of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau made their way to Madison last week for the annual Ag Day at the Capitol gathering. The event is aimed at having actual Wisconsin farmers listen to an array of speakers discuss the important agricultural issues of the day and then walk the short distance from the Monona Terrace to the State Capitol and meet with their own legislators and discuss the important issues and how the farming community is impacted by current or potential governmental actions. 

The roads

The first major area of discussion by a four member panel centered on transpiration — more specifically — the condition of Wisconsin roads.

“Maintaining and funding rural roads is a primary need in Wisconsin,” Jim Holte, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau suggested. 

"Maintaining and funding rural roads is a primary  need in Wisconsin," Jim Holte, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau suggested during Ag Day at the Capitol on March 20.

Craig Thompson, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association and Dan Cunningham of Forward Janesville shared their thoughts on new Governor Tony Evers transportation budget and how the transportation projects might be funded. 

Secretary Thompson suggested that an increase in the gas tax was a logical start to funding transportation needs.

“The roads didn’t get into their current condition in just one year and we won’t get out of it in just one year — we must provide the resources. It’s a nonpartisan issue.” 

Big city or rural?

It was also suggested by panel members that the spending of transportation fund road dollars is often a rural-urban issue with big expenditures happening in the big cities and little building or maintenance of rural roads.  

Wisconsin Farm Bureau members walk from Monona Terrace to the State Capitol during Ag Day at the Capitol on March 20.

O’Connell remarked that shouldn’t be an issue because over a period of time all would get done. Holte said “we have to sit down and talk about what roads we need (fixed). Thompson added that “an ongoing source of revenue is the only way.”   

They will listen

Thompson closed by citing the importance of the Farm Bureau members later visits to their legislators.

“They spend much of their time listening to paid lobbyists, they will listen to you.” Cunningham closed by saying, “This is an old issue, the time (to do something) is now.”

The WFBF suggested that members ask legislators to support an eight cents per gallon increase in the gas tax and a $10 increase in the vehicle title fee. 

Bill McCoshen of Capitol Consultants, former Secretary of Commerce with Gov. Tommy Thompson moderated a panel that discussed transportation funding.

Help me

Recently appointed Secretary of Agricultural Brad Pfaff asked the audience for their advice and help as he embarked on his new position.

“I was farm-raised and have farmer values,” he said. "Thank you for telling our story (to the legislators) up the street about our need for cell phone service, roads and bridges, funding rural schools and about agriculture.”  

Pfaff  also told of the progress of Dairy Task force 2.0 formed by Governor Walker last year and how the 31 members have submitted 51 recommendations that will be considered on a state and national level.

“Make sure legislators know that dairying contributes $43 billion to the state’s economy.”  he suggested to the assemblage.

Brad Pfaff, new Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture encouraged farmers to help him in his job.

Innovation Hub

John Holovoet of the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association told of the proposed UW Dairy Innovation Hub $7.6 million funding request. The proposal focuses on four areas: land and water resource stewardship; enrichment of human health; growth of farm businesses and communities and animal health.  

The governor included a request of $88 million of state funding for the expansion of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine that was built in 1983 to see 12,000 patients a year, a figure that has since risen to 27,000. The always top five rated school of Veterinary School in the nation has trained over 50 percent of  the veterinarians practicing in the state. The $128 million project includes some $38 million from private donations in addition to the state funds.  

Hemp: a state program?

The much discussed subject of raising hemp in Wisconsin was a major discussion topic. The governor’s proposal granted authority for the state to take over the now expiring Industrial Hemp Pilot program and convert it to a state managed and controlled program as allowed under the 2018 Farm Bill.  

At mid-afternoon, the group adjourned and many made their way the several blocks to the Capitol to meet with their local legislators and tell their “ag story.”   

A big no to all

That same day, March 20, the Republicans on the State Building Commission turned down all 82 proposed projects in Governor Ever’s $2.5 billion capital budget. Republican leaders urged legislators to move the plan to the budget committee and come up with  a more modest, responsible and sustainable plan.  

Ag Day at the Capitol is a chance for Wisconsin Farm Bureau members to visit their legislators and tell the story of agriculture.

Alliant Center project

With the state building commission rejecting all of Gov. Tony Evers' proposed capital budget recommendations last week, lawmakers will now have to again consider and decide what should/could be funded. The bulk of Ever’s building project list included upgrades to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and Camp Randall Stadium, and rather quietly, $30 million toward a major construction on the Alliant Energy Exhibition Hall home of World Dairy Expo.

The sort of ongoing discussions about remodeling and expansion have been discussed sort of quietly for several years. A recently outlined plan called for a 196,000 square-foot addition to the Exposition Hall at a cost of $77.4 million. The governor's budget included $30 million of those funds. The remainder would come from private developers and a non-state grant program that provides state bonding support for nonprofit or local government projects that have a statewide public purpose. 

Proposed plans have shown the possible addition of hotels, commercial buildings and restaurants at an initial cost of $305 million. The Alliant Energy Center serves as home to many state and regional agricultural events, such as World Dairy Expo and the Midwest Horse Fair but county planners fear that without added space and enmities customers seeking convention and event space would go elsewhere. 

Will they come?

The master plan calls for creating a space more people will want to visit at other times, not just when attending an event according to the planning committee. 

Note — the several proposals shown to the public have filled the current parking lots with buildings — then what?

Whatever the final state budget ends up to be, hopefully agriculture will have been a major part of the decision making  —  maybe even from the thoughts espoused by farmers who participated in Ag Day at the Capitol.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747 or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.