A tariff war and other trade uncertainties, and depressed prices for milk and other agriculture products, have hit Wisconsin farmers hard.

Alarms have sounded about spiking bankruptcies and suicide rates. More than 800 farms failed in Wisconsin in 2019, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Now, state lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are talking about helping farmers and producers of agriculture products.

As usual, there are competing proposals. Republicans and Democrats have each introduced state farm bill packages this week. While there are common themes, the two parties remain apart on many details.

When it all shakes out, we hope to see both short-term relief for farmers across the state and long-term initiatives that will help shore up the industry.

Last month, Gov. Tony Evers sent a package of eight bills to the Legislature. Parallel bills were introduced in both the Senate and Assembly on Feb. 7, each amounting to about $8.6 million.

Within that, Evers is proposing to spend $1 million to create a Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports, with the goal of increasing state dairy exports to 20 percent of the U.S. milk supply by 2024. It would include funding for two new Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection staff positions.

On Feb. 10, Republican lawmakers responded at a state Capitol press conference that they’d increase funding for Evers’ proposed Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports to $5 million. And, they proposed that it be a collaboration between DATCP and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Evers’ other proposals, introduced Feb. 7, include:

• Allocating $1 million biennially for grants to produce and market agriculture products, fund start-up agriculture operations and reduce debt related to the purchase of farm equipment;

• Amending state law to give preference to small operations in the awarding of dairy processing plant grants from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection;

• Giving school districts that have a high percentage of low-income students priority in the awarding of state farm-to-school grants that help get locally produce food into school lunches.

• Creating 20 new county-based agriculture positions in the Division of Extension at UW-Madison, at a cost of $2.5 million through 2021. The positions would be “local experts in agriculture who provide free research and technical assistance to farmers.

• Promoting the production of value—added agriculture products, creating new organic farming education, grazing education and farm-to-fork grant programs, and offering more conservation technical assistance to farmers;

• Funding six new DATCP staff positions to help farmers access mental health support, as well as “to coordinate local and regional peer support programming, and to provide confidential, one-on-one counseling and assistance to farmers.” This bill also would create a Regional Farmer Support Training Program, that would “provide trainings to mental health professionals and agribusiness professionals to understand sources of stress, identify the warning signs of stress and suicide, identify effective communication strategies, reduce the stigma associated with mental health concerns, and connect farmers with appropriate mental health resources and other resources.”

• Providing planning assistance to farmers through the creation of 3.5 DATCP staff position to help diversify their operations, “provide farm succession planning, financial and business consulting services, and farmer transition planning and coaching,” and conduct marketing and outreach for DATCP’s farm center program. It would also fund grants to UW-Extension agriculture agents to help farmers hire business consultants to help with their business plans.

Republican lawmakers responded on Feb. 10 that Evers’ proposed bills create too many new bureaucratic jobs in Madison, rather than directly helping farmers.

“Some of his proposals do take us in the wrong direction… simply just adding a bunch of government employees,” State Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) said.

Republicans bills introduced on Feb. 10 include a 2020 tax credit of up to $7,50 for buildings used exclusively for farming. To be eligible, farmers would need a minimum of $35,000 in annual gross receipts, “to make sure people who use the credit are actually trying to make a living from agriculture,” said State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton).

The tax credit would sunset after three years in hopes that “by then the ag economy will have turned around and our farmers will be able to pay their bills again,” Loudenbeck said.

Another Republican bill would allow business owners who are sole proprietors, including owners of small farms, to deduct from their state taxes health insurance costs tied to a job they or a family member work off the farm. Under current law, only health care costs tied to the sole proprietorship can be deducted.

Remaining Republican bills would fund new university research on developing a state agricultural science and technology program and would fund research on other agriculture “programs and issues.”

If a version of these competing packages becomes law, and we have a good bipartisan conversation about how to keep Wisconsin agriculture from slipping more than it has, we might just save a legacy industry.

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