Agriculture for Tomorrow
“We can revitalize rural Wisconsin by making a real commitment to the economic sustainability of family farmers, while protecting our clean water and productive land.”
Establish a Midwest-led carbon offsets market. Working in collaboration with other Upper Midwest states, Wisconsin farmers could sell carbon offsets to area businesses. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection would set the total number of offsets to be sold each year and the market cost for each. This would reduce the cost of emissions reductions for industry, and farmers would be paid to emphasize sequestration and land stewardship.
Provide grants, loans, and technical assistance for sustainability. Protecting Wisconsin’s water, air, and soil is critical to human health, our economy, and our environment. Family farmers are often deeply connected to, and great stewards of, the land, but because it is so difficult to make ends meet, few family farmers have the resources to invest in modern technology or sustainable practices that could improve their land and the soil, air, and water quality of the region. Restorative and sustainable agricultural practices can enhance yields and improve quality of life for farmers and animals, but they are often too expensive for farmers, and not able to be financed by traditional lenders. Micro-loans and small grants (even a few thousand dollars) can help farmers implement low-cost but significant sustainability practices, such as buffer zones between fields and waterways, crop rotation, installing solar panels or wind turbines, or upgrading a barn to provide more daylight to a dairy herd. Larger investments could help farmers transition to organic certification, build cooperative manure digesters, or diversify income streams with capital investments. We should also increase funding for the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grants under DATCP and Farm-to-School programs that help support smaller family farmers and healthier school children.
Increase state R&D money into the dairy industry. Only a handful of Wisconsin’s dairy producers have the facilities to perform research and develop new products. The Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research has helped cheesemakers expand into the specialty cheese market, and can additionally be leveraged to help dairy producers develop innovative processes and products. To date, the Center for Dairy Research has been funded through dairy farmer checkoff dollars. Wisconsin should invest in the Center for Dairy Research so that every dairy producer in Wisconsin can take advantage of the center’s research. In addition, we should relaunch the Dairy Business Innovation Center within DATCP, which helped create 43 new dairy plants, helped 72 existing dairy plants expand, launched more than 50 new cheese varieties, and sparked $1.2 billion in industry reinvestment between 2004 and 2012. Wisconsin should also leverage federal grand funds by providing matching or additional funds to USDA grant recipients, including Value-Added Producer Grant, Specialty Crop Block Grant, Farmers Market Promotion Program, and Rural Cooperative Development Grant.
Promote entrepreneurialism and agricultural startups. Reinstate the Ag Development and Diversification Program, which generated $13 of economic activity fo every $1 invested in mini-grants to agricultural startups. Wisconsin should support the UW Center for Cooperatives in expanding technical assistance to new cooperative startups, which are essential to the farm economy. We should also promote income diversification for farmers, including agri-tourism (pick your own berries, Christmas trees, family farm lodging, etc.) Coordinating with the Department of Tourism, we can highlight and market farm sites across the state, promoting our states agricultural heritage. Many families can’t afford to travel far and are looking to vacations close to home and create unique memories.
Initiate a rural energy savings program. Provide low-interest loans to rural homeowners to help pay for energy-efficient home improvements. Similar programs exist for homeowners in some urban communities, and older, less energy efficient buildings cost Wisconsin farmers thousands of dollars each year in higher energy bills. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection can provide farmers low-interest loans to weatherize homes and buildings which would be paid back through utility bills or attached to their property taxes.
Offer student loan forgiveness for individuals going into farming. Student debt is one of the biggest barriers of entry for new dairy farmers. Successful beginners must build their equity in cows, land, and equipment. The vast majority of beginning dairy farmers did not inherit farmland from family — they are often starting from scratch. The State of Wisconsin could encourage young people – especially those without a farming background – to pursue a career in agriculture by forgiving a portion of their student loan debt for every year on Wisconsin-based farm.
Enable easy transfer of farmland to reduce the need for family farmers to sell to multinational conglomerates or real estate developers. Create a land contract advising system for farmers to pass on their legacy to the next generation and retire successfully. Some banks won’t take the risk, but Wisconsin farmers will and have found land contracts a useful tool to finance a successful hired hand or young farmer to purchase their operation.
Legalize cannabis as a cash crops. Hemp has a long history of success in Wisconsin, and since legalization in 2017, it can be used to make paper, textiles and more. Hemp and cannabis can strengthen Wisconsin’s farming industry. Wisconsin farmers will benefit from the opportunity to grow cannabis and industrial hemp, which are some of the most versatile cash crops in America. Cannabis and hemp farms provide jobs in farming, processing, manufacturing, training, and sales – particularly in rural communities.
Modernize benefits and infrastructure so that farmers and rural communities have economic security. Our economy is changing – many people move in and out of the workforce over their working lives, to go to school, care for children or loved ones, and because of general economic instability. Many of the jobs available now pay low wages and do not come with benefits. We need to spur entrepreneurship, small business growth, and support family farmers and lower wage workers by ensuring universal access to benefits. In the state senate, I will work to ensure paid family and medical leave, Badgercare as a public option to buy in, and the ability to opt into a stable public pension system like the WRS. Ensuring that basic needs are met will help family farms survive economically, reduce farmer suicides and depression, and allow families to continue working the land rather than being forced to take outside work to provide benefits to the family. We must also provide adequate funding for local roads to transport food and commodities to market, and connect every part of Wisconsin to high-speed internet so everyone can participate in our modern economy.
Acknowledge the importance of immigrant workers in farm economies. Most farms required significant labor. Due to the shortage of workers in Wisconsin, many farmers employ immigrant workers who may or may not be documented. Theses workers are essential to our economy, and they pay taxes and are part of our communities. They should be able to get proper driver training, apply for driver cards, and purchase insurance, to keep all of us safe on the roads.
For more of my plans to support Wisconsin’s dairy industry, click here.