Planning for the Future of Agriculture and Rural Life

Farmers from across the state gathered in Madison this week to bring their voices together in planning for the future of agriculture and rural life in Wisconsin. The occasion was a statewide gathering of the Future of Farming and Rural Life Project.

Two years ago, I was invited to attend a retreat that served as the beginning of this project. The idea was to acknowledge the challenges we face in agriculture and steer the state towards goals that we all support to strengthen our farms and our communities. The project was spearheaded by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

Six regional forums were held across the state on a variety of topics. Input from many people drove the project’s 90 or so recommendations. Individuals from many walks of life joined together to discuss plans for the future.

We face many challenges in agriculture and some of them are unique to certain parts of the state. Nearby cities, or the lack of them, create opportunities and challenges. Some are mourning the loss of farm land to development, while others are begging for development of any type.

Because of our geography, our crops and our climate differs dramatically in different parts of the state. We sometimes struggle in different ways. I remember this as I look out over the cloudy skies this morning and join others in praying for rain. Some days we just don’t need rain. But today we do.

Although we might not all understand the individual problems faced by farmers who produce different crops and live in different communities – our diversity is our strength.

Innovation is the hallmark of a good farmer and this trait was certainly showcased. Two of the featured farmers were from my county - John Rosenow, a dairy farmer who converts cow manure to compost, and Heather Smith, who operates a community-supported garden in rural Buffalo County.

Some farmers are specializing in one thing and they are doing very well. Some are staying small and moving into organic production and rotational grazing. Others are expanding and bringing in family members. Some are growing products they can sell directly to consumers – like John and Heather. Others are thinking of wind, switchgrass or ethanol.

Our problems are many and the conference did not shy away from them. Poverty affects far too many people. We seek off-farm jobs for grocery money and health insurance. Our schools struggle with some school districts approaching the crisis point. Health care reform and adequate school funding are two important priorities for my office. Poverty is an issue we deal with every day as we help constituents navigate a broken system. A third priority of the conference is saving rural lands.

We are losing farms and farm land. While the number of farms in the area has actually grown, they tend to be smaller and less profitable. We are quickly losing middle size farms (those farms that sell between $100,000 and $250,000 in gross sales a year) - at twice the national average.

These farms milk 40, 50 or 75 cows with, maybe, 250 acres - about the size of our farm and a little larger. This is the size farm most folks think about when they see the big red barn and the heifers in the pasture. Getting health insurance to these farmers is one of the most important priorities. Other ideas include helping both farmers and the cheese companies gain added value from the milk perhaps by creating specialty cheeses.

In addition to losing farmers, we are losing farm land. Statewide, we are losing about 30,000 acres a year to development, with the greatest loss in the southeast and near the Twin Cities. Many are interested in how to preserve farm land. The state has nearly 60 private land trusts – up from five a few years ago.

There is much we can do. I am joining with others to develop legislation to update the state’s 30-year-old farm land preservation program. Other plans include giving local government tools to purchase and transfer development rights and helping farmers join together to preserve larger portions of an area.

One of the greatest values of the conference was the opportunity for people to get in contact with others and find the right people to help move projects along. Now that I am in a different role, I wasn’t looking for someone who had a good round baler for sale – instead I needed someone that could help me figure out how to bring more doctors to rural areas. And I did find someone!

I didn’t want the conference to end. The time and work of hundreds of people needed to live on. I met with our Secretary of Agriculture and he agreed that we need to continue this work. We will gather groups together this summer to do just that.

If you have ideas on the future of agriculture and rural life, please let me know.

Do you have ideas on reform in government or other state issues? Let me know! Call Black River Falls at (715) 284-1730; In Eau Claire at (715) 838-0448 or in Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free); or write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov.