MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Wisconsin’s Democratic governor introduced a package of bills Thursday aimed at giving a hand to hurting farmers in America’s Dairyland, including measures to boost exports, create grant programs and provide enhanced mental illness resources for farmers burdened by bad times.
Governor Tony Evers put his plan into motion with the signature of two executive orders, one of which called for a special session of the Legislature next Tuesday to address eight farm aid bills. The other order creates the Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity, designed to be an advocate and resource for the state’s agricultural industry and the communities that depend on it.
“We need to be better partners for our farmers, agricultural industries and rural communities,” Evers said in a statement Thursday. “So, today I am proud to be unveiling my three-pronged plan to start addressing these challenges, starting with a special session of the Legislature to work on this issue right away.”
That special session appears to be in question, however, as Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, put out his own statement less than two hours after Evers’ throwing cold water on the idea of a special session.
“The Assembly will not be on the floor next week,” Vos said. “The bills will be referred to committee and hearings will be held. We’re currently reviewing the legislation and gathering input from farmers, including farmers from our own caucus.”
The partisan sniping between the Badger State’s Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature is nothing new, nor are the tremendous struggles weighing on Wisconsin’s dairy farmers, particularly over the last decade.
Fueled by changing market tastes, a global surplus of milk driving down prices, growing economies of scale, and costly tariffs and trade wars, Wisconsin’s flagship dairy industry lost about one-third of its dairy farms between 2011 and 2018, with farms shuttering at a rate of more than 500 per year since 2015.
Wisconsin also leads the nation in farm foreclosures and has seen a troublingly steady rise in farmers dying by suicide in recent years.
Dairy farmers in the state often find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle. In order to keep the lights on, they have to produce more and more milk without knowing how much they will be paid for it and when at the time it leaves their farm. At the same time, the increased milk output adds to the surplus already causing milk prices to sag, and on and on.
Evers announced his three-prong plan to help out dairy farmers during his annual State of the State address Wednesday evening and began making moves right away Thursday.
The prongs include the special legislative session, expansion of the state’s Farm Center and the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison extension supporting local farmers, and the creation of a mental health program that will include a boost to peer support and confidential, one-on-one counseling resources.
One of the bills Evers introduced Thursday creates the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports, which will work with farmers in the goal of increasing the state’s milk exports to 20% of the nation’s total by 2024. Wisconsin currently exports about 14% of the nation’s milk and 26% of the nation’s cheese.
Another bill eases the load on small farms by creating a Small Farm Diversity grant program, which provides such farms with an exemption from emergency rule procedures in favor of their own rule-making authority.
In order to better connect small farms with the communities they serve, the proposed legislation package further bolsters Wisconsin’s farm-to-school program and creates a farm-to-fork program, both of which help strengthen the channels between farmers, the food they produce and local universities, technical colleges, hospitals and businesses.
While the fortune of Evers’ legislative proposals remains to be seen, Republican legislators’ response to promises made during the governor’s State of the State address and corresponding aid package Thursday has been lukewarm at best.
Immediately following Evers’ speech Wednesday evening, Vos put out a statement taking the governor to task for essentially blowing off the trials of rural Wisconsin in favor of his more liberal base in the state’s urban areas during his term.
“Governor Evers is finally acknowledging the needs of rural Wisconsin,” Vos said. “He has basically ignored our rural areas his entire term up to this point with an agenda focused on Madison and Milwaukee.”
Evers also announced Thursday that he will work with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a public-private hybrid jobs agency formed during the tenure of Republican Governor Scott Walker, to establish the Office of Rural Prosperity in order to provide assistance to Wisconsinites navigating state programs and resources designed for rural communities, businesses and workers.