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The recent appointment of Brad Pfaff as Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture by Governor Evers and Pfaffs’s subsequent non-confirmation by the state Senate has created considerable discussion among farmers and non-farmers alike.  These things just don’t happen to state cabinet appointees, especially to Ag Secretaries, a relatively non-controversial position, at least as history seems to show. 

But, it’s all legal although offering fertile discussion.

As the somewhat acrimonious discussions continued, I realized that I and most other people never really paid a lot of attention to the Department, so I did a bit of research.

The beginning

In 1929, the state merged the Departments of Agriculture, Markets, Dairy and Food Commission, State Treasury Agent, Department of Illuminating Oils, and the State Humane Agent to form the Department of Agriculture and Markets. The new department was overseen by three commissioners appointed by the governor.

In 1939, the department was renamed the Department of Agriculture and overseen by a seven member board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. All seven members were required to have an agricultural background.

This Board of Agriculture continued to appoint the department's Secretary which became a major discussion issue as reigning governors wanted that appointive power.

Consumers enter

In 1979, the Department became the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the law was changed to have one of the seven members on the board a consumer representative.

Governor can appoint

In 1995, the state legislature and Governor Tommy Thompson changed the law allowing the governor to appoint the department Secretary and expanded the board to eight members, including two consumer representatives.

Two years later, the state legislature again expanded the board to nine members (with six-year terms), including seven members with agricultural backgrounds and two consumer representatives where it remains today.

Help grow, partner and regulate

The stated mission of DATCP is “to partner with all the citizens of Wisconsin to grow the economy by promoting quality food, healthy plants and animals, sound use of land and water resources, and a fair marketplace."  The state mandate says the department is “responsible for regulating agriculture, trade, and commercial activity in the state.“

To do so, the department has seven operating divisions:

  • Division of Agricultural Development  - new businesses, expansions
  • Division of Animal Health - preventing and combating
  • Division of Agricultural Resource Management  -  manure management, environment
  • Division of Food Safety  -  keeping people healthy
  • Division of Trade and Consumer Protection - computer scams, false advertising
  • Office of the Secretary  - overall management
  • Management Services

These divisions cover subjects from agricultural promotion to animal disease control to food production regulation to consumer protection. The Department operates on an approximate $100 million dollar budget with some 700 employee, many living out of the Madison area.

The secretaries

The first Wisconsin Secretary I got to know was Don McDowell who held the position from 1950 to 1969 (the longest tenure of any going back to 1915). He was followed by his deputy Don Wilkinson who served for six years until 1975 before joining the USDA in Washington. (Note: Don is now 97 and lives in Green Bay where he was interviewed in April on TV as a veteran  B-29 Pilot in WWII with 28 combat missions).

Gary Rohde, a Greenwood farm boy served from 1976 to 1981 and then became Dean of UW-River Falls Ag School.  LaVerne Ausman an Elk Mound farmer was Secretary from 1981 to 1986. He was followed by another farmer, Howard Richards of Lodi (1986  to 1990) then by Alan Tracy from Tracy Seeds at Janesville (1990 to 1997) who later joined a wheat promotion organization in Washington DC.

In 1997, Ben Brancel, beef farmer and long-time politician began his first term that ended in 2001. He was followed by Jim Harsdorf, state senator and Polk county dairy farmer who served from 2001 to 2003 to be succeeded by Rod Nilsestuen (2003 to 2010) who died while in office and was replaced by his deputy Randy Romanski  (2010 to 2011).

Ben Brancel returned as Secretary under Governor Walker for six years 2011 to 2017 and was followed by state Senator Sheila Harsdorf who served 2017 to 2019. Brad Pfaff was nominated by Governor Evers and held the position from January 2019 until recently when the Senate refused his confirmation.

Deputy Ag Secretary Randy Romanski was selected by the governor to serve as Secretary last week, thus returning for his second interim term in the position. I would suspect he would be confirmed by the Senate as the politics has somewhat changed.  

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Long government history

Romanski previously served as former Gov. Jim Doyle's deputy chief of staff and also held staff positions in both the Senate and the Assembly, working directly on agricultural, rural affairs and natural resources issues. He then served as deputy Ag secretary from 2007 through 2010 until the untimely death of then-Secretary Rod Nilsestuen in July of that year.

Randy then took on full responsibility of the agency as Secretary for the final four months of Doyle's term. After Scott Walker was elected governor, Romanski served as the safety program chief in DOT's Division of State Patrol. 

Meanwhile, former Ag Secretary designee Brad Pfaff has been hired by the Department of Administration as its new director of business and rural development by DOA Secretary Joel Brennan. “Pfaff will leverage his extensive experience at the federal, state and local levels to support and advocate for Wisconsin small businesses and rural communities.” Brennan says.

Big involvement

Although I’m sure most of us seldom think about any involvement of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in our lives, it’s there. Think: siting a new barn; the Farm Center; do not call registry; commercial fertilizer and pesticide application; food quality, dairy and restaurant licenses; growing hemp;   acreage and production data; CWD;  state and county fairs; Alice in Dairyland; Something special from Wisconsin; Cybersecurity month; Emerald Ash Borer and on and on and on. 

Almost everything has rules, regulations or recommendations overseen by DATCP.  Look at datcp.wi.gov – you’ll see.

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

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