POYNETTE – One of the issues addressed by a state dairy working group relates to resources (or lack thereof) in rural communities. The number of dairy farms has been shrinking in Wisconsin for decades, but the pace has picked up as dairy farmers face a fourth year of below-average farm gate milk prices. In many cases, farmers have sold their milk below their cost of production and have depleted their equity to stay in business.
As more dairy farmers leave the industry, this leaves fewer farm owners to support rural communities and their businesses. The loss of more dairy farm businesses can signal the decline of rural communities.
The first meeting of the subcommittee under the recently convened state-convened Dairy Working Group 2.0 began to discuss these issues of rural community support and infrastructure.
Gathered at the MacKenzie Center outside of Poynette, the group included volunteers from the core group of appointees working group. On this little sign are several dairy farmers, farm group leaders, a veterinarian, a milk hauler, a cheese maker, several lenders and ex officio members of the Legislative Assembly and the University of Wisconsin.
At the start of the meeting, they noted that farmers need more help with financial literacy and business management. A banker on the panel noted that many farmers do not know their cost of production – a key part of knowing where they stand financially and what they can do in the current climate of low commodity prices.
They suggested that technical schools, FFA organizations and University of Wisconsin extension services could be called upon to play in helping farmers solve this problem. One of the ideas they stumbled upon was to have greater collaboration between the groups that farmers are affiliated with – watershed groups, livestock associations, and farmer-led forage councils among them.
There are many farm organizations, dairy groups and associations that serve dairy processors. The subcommittee felt that there was much more to be done to bring all of these associations together for the benefit of dairy farmers and the dairy industry as a whole.
They noted that with the loss of more dairy farms, local communities and schools are losing a resource that has always been there – farmers to hold twilight meetings, parents to help with FFA fundraisers, and members of the FFA fundraisers. groups of former FFA students. In many cases now, Sections 4-H have more children from towns and villages than from farms, one member noted.
Members also noted that another thing that unraveled the fabric of rural communities is that they often lack high speed internet services, also known as broadband. People in younger age groups will never move to a community if it is not served by broadband, noted a committee member.
Rural roads were another issue they spent the time discussing. Some members who have experience with city or county councils noted that more money appears to be spent on roads where there are new homes or four-season cabins than on roads where there are farms.
A member of the subcommittee noted that $ 90 million had been taken from local road funding to fund the deal with FoxConn and that many of that road resources had been taken from the northern part of the state. If road funding is to be improved, more attention needs to be paid to how it is distributed across the state, the group agreed. If there are new funds that heads of state agree to take from taxpayers, there should be an agreement on where those funds are to be spent and remote parts of the state should be on a foothold. equality with urban areas, agreed the group.
They noted that if an agreement on improving roads could be made, it could help farmers, rural communities and local school districts. One member said that as roads deteriorate more and more, repair costs will increase exponentially.
This road infrastructure in rural areas is not the only thing that needs attention. Jerry Schroeder, of the Wisconsin Milk Haulers Association, noted that bridges, especially smaller ones, need to be repaired or replaced, which can dramatically affect farms. “If a small bridge is reduced in its weight limit, it can add 25 to 35 minutes to use a different route to get to that farm,” he said.
In one case he is familiar with, he was told it would probably take five years to remove a 1940s bridge and replace it with poured concrete culverts to update the small creek crossing. This delay is attributable to regulatory measures required by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Another factor is that farmers are not very “loud” when it comes to asking for help from lawmakers or other members of the state government.
Schools in local areas was another area of concern the subcommittee addressed. The so-called scarcity aid has made it possible for some small rural schools to function, they said, but that does not solve the problem in the long run.
One of the problems facing rural schools is getting teachers to come and teach in these rural districts. Representative Don Vruwink, a former teacher and trainer who is an ex-officio member of the task force, noted that many rural communities had their own elementary schools for many years, but have now disappeared as districts have grown. grew larger and carried students by bus following larger communities. In this case, students spend more time on the bus and school districts spend more money on transportation.
“A lot of schools are struggling with consolidation because it means they lose their local identity,” Vruwink said. “It’s part of the local infrastructure.
Diversity of farms
As one committee member said, the big farms will get bigger and the big buyers of dairy products will want to deal with fewer farms or even own their own farm. But the committee pointed out that Wisconsin is home to a diversity of dairy farms and that diversity is necessary to maintain the viability of rural communities, especially in the upstate.
The consolidation and loss of small dairy farms reduces the number of people left in a rural area to support local businesses in the same way that a big box store in the nearby town often has the effect of emptying local businesses from the area. main Street.
“We want many-to-many relationships rather than a few,” said a committee member.
The bankers in the panel noted that efficiency and profitability do not correlate with farm size – efficiency and smooth operation can be any size. “Of the roughly 9,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin, I work with 100,” agricultural lender Dennis Bangart said. “And they are all different from each other.”
One of the outcomes of the original dairy task force, appointed by then Governor Tommy Thompson, was that Wisconsin shifted its sizable dairy infrastructure toward specialty and artisan cheese. There were 40 to 50 new cheeses that had not been made before.
This committee noted that milk trucking is one area where the industry could find efficiencies. Darin Von Ruden, a dairy farmer from Westby who is president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said on his ridge there were six different milk haulers and five different truckers.
Agricultural development zones
In order to bring more life to rural areas and farming communities, the committee considered whether something like a TIF farming district could be instituted for farms. These “additional tax funding” districts are often used to bring business and industry or housing development into communities.
Don Hamm, a dairy farmer from Fredonia and a member of the task force, said the state already has farm business zones, but with that designation comes no money. For example, a peripheral urban county like Ozaukee is considered quite wealthy, he said, but still cannot find a way to fund road improvements.
Milk hauler Schroeder said the funding that was supposed to go north ended up being used in the southeastern part of the state. “How do we get dollars back in rural areas? ” He asked.
The group agreed that the state will need to play a role in rebuilding infrastructure in rural areas for things like roads, bridges and broadband service.
Schroeder said the Motor Carriers Association had come out in favor of increasing the gasoline tax to solve the problem of financing roads, but that he would not want to support it unless and until. that a plan be put in place as to how this money was going to be used. – including spending part of it on rural roads.
A fair distribution of transportation funding would be a very good step for rural communities, the committee agreed.
Rural communities also need a revitalization of their social capital. Bringing people back to their rural communities who are leaving for education would help in that regard. The group noted that one of the challenges here is that this approach is neither quick nor easy. Rebuilding what needs to happen to bring people back is hard to pin down.