Local Foods and Grazing Are Casualties in Budget Battle

The budget battles in Madison continue as the Assembly rejected the work of the governor, the Joint Finance Committee and the Senate, and passed a very different version of the state budget. On July 17, the state Senate acted to send the entire budget to Conference Committee. This phase of the budget war is expected to last at least through the end of the summer.

Two important agricultural initiatives were among items the Assembly removed from the state budget. Local foods and grazing are programs with strong public support.

Removed from the Assembly budget was the popular “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” program. “Buy Local” encourages citizens to learn of and buy locally-produced foods and helps to develop the distribution and marketing systems so needed by farmers who produce food for local consumption.

The program offers $225,000 in grants annually and provides full-time positions at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to promote projects that increase the local sales of agricultural products, create food and cultural tourism trails, develop regional food systems, and offer technical and marketing assistance.

This very popular program developed by many people through DATCP and championed by chief sponsor Sen. Julie Lassa (D – Stevens Point) and passed our Senate Economic Development Committee as Senate Bill 89 with strong bipartisan support. I serve on the committee and am a proud co-sponsor of the legislation. The committee hearing reflected the work of city and rural people coming together to grow Wisconsin agriculture.

Unfortunately, the bill’s progress was stopped because the bill had an impact on the state budget. No bill with money attached can pass without the review of the budget committee if the budget has not yet passed.

Senate sponsor Sen. Lassa correctly advocated for placing the plan in the state budget. Senators agreed and passed the program as part of the Senate version of the budget. With the Assembly action to remove the program, senators will again be advocating for the program but we need support from Republican Assembly members to succeed in the next phase of the budget - the Conference Committee. 

A similar fate awaits the “Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative” introduced under the leadership of Sen. Decker (D - Weston). This program provides $400,000 annually in grants to improve and expand the use of grazing-based livestock systems.

The grazing program helps farmers use pastures as part of “management intensive rotational grazing.” Because of budget struggles at the federal level in Washington, D.C., it appears likely that Wisconsin will lose federal funds both this year and in the coming year for the support of grazing. The proposed state money helps fill the funding gap.

These two programs are connected as grazing animals produce local “grass fed” and “pastured” meat and dairy products. The benefits are great, as consumers taste the homemade goodness of local food and farmers capture the profit of direct consumer sales. Our land and water benefit from the lowered petroleum inputs and the health of the soil from extensive and careful pasturing.

As a farmer myself, I know the pleasure the animals feel being on pasture. I share their joy as the old cows kick up their heels and race out to the pasture every spring

It is still possible to save these programs. Both could be returned to the state budget as part of the delicate negotiation sure to take place in the Budget Conference Committee.

The Budget Conference Committee is made up of a small group of senators and representatives and includes the leaders – minority and majority – of both houses. The committee only moves forward through compromise. Finding common ground is essential for the state to make progress in solving the wide differences in the two budget proposals.

Healthy food – high quality, produced by farmers we know, and good for our environment – this sounds like a place to start when looking for common ground.

Do you have comments about the state’s priorities? Please feel free to contact me: Black River Falls at (715) 284-1730; in Eau Claire at (715) 838-0448 or in Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free); write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov. Check our my new website - http://www.legis.state.wi.us/senate/sen31/news/