Education, agritourism, rural broadband and funding of local roads are among key issues being tackled by the Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0’s sub-committee on Dairy and Rural Community Vitality.

During a 1½-hour meeting Feb. 12 via teleconference, sub-committee members approved several recommendations aimed at building upon the strength of the dairy industry and better communicating its value at the local level.

While “some recommendations are largely articulated as far as pathways and dollars and cents,” committee member Dennis Bangart said, “some are just a statement for the industry: Here’s an idea, run with it in your own communities, connecting the farm to the industry and the industry to the community.”

The Wisconsin dairy industry has changed dramatically through the decades, and the picture of a farm has changed. As a result, local infrastructure has shifted, but rural Wisconsin still relies heavily on the economic activity generated by dairy farms.

With an economic impact of more than $43 billion, the dairy industry is more important to Wisconsin than citrus is to Florida (at $9.1 billion), potatoes are to Idaho ($3.4 billion) and apples are to Washington ($7 billion), according to figures shared by the sub-committee.

The dairy industry supports one in 10 Wisconsin jobs, and the economic impact of that supports another 1.46 jobs. The average dairy cow in Wisconsin generates $34,000 in economic activity annually.

In an effort to raise awareness of this impact, the sub-committee recommends that the state offer grant funds to study existing or proposed dairy and agricultural infrastructures in communities, counties or other areas, along with the current or potential future impacts.

The sub-committee also passed a recommendation to work on better connecting local chambers of commerce and others to resources on agriculture and encouraging the establishment of ag-based programs emphasizing dairy.

“It’s more of a self-awareness thing in the community,” Bangart said, adding that local chambers in Greenwood and Neillsville host dairy breakfasts, and the city of Marshfield has an agribusiness committee working on job creation and business development in the ag sector.

Another recommendation would offer educational programming for local non-farm professionals to raise their understanding of modern dairy farming practices. Programs would cover the basics of a dairy cow, farming essentials and business management.

Janet Clark said this would consist of a full day of interactive programming for people such as local business owners and employees, town board members, bankers and state Department of Natural Resources officials.

The sub-committee also advanced a recommendation to help farms add value through agritourism with help from a step-by-step process for standardizing and reducing their risk when providing on-site tours. They also called for better centralized marketing, such as state or regional farm listings.

Melissa Haag said many farmers are generating their own marketing efforts and are unaware of options to assist them. Also, many of them are concerned about litigation.

“Any time you have people on your farm who aren’t familiar with how a farm operates, liability is a big concern,” Haag said.

The group also discussed concerns related to official identification of animals and the threat of disease outbreak on dairy farms. A recommendation was forwarded to support creation of a system for unique individual animal ID to create an “efficient paper trail for traceability of animal movement.”

Haag said the industry must be proactive vs. reactive and develop a more organized system of animal ID to help streamline the process and limit disease spread. This also would instill consumer confidence regarding food safety.

Bangart said Wisconsin recently has become a “dumping ground” for a lot of out-of-state dairy herds, and several hundred head of cattle flow into the state’s livestock markets each week from all over the Midwest, raising concerns about disease transfer.

“This could potentially wreck an industry if the wrong one came across the state border,” he said. “We are very open to a lot of exposure.”

Funding local roads

The sub-committee OK’d a recommendation designed to keep more funds at the local level to help pay for road construction and maintenance.

“All of these recommendations are going to cost money somewhere,” Dave Buholzer said. “People won’t mind paying a little bit more for this or for that, whether it’s a fuel tax or a wheel tax ... as long as they know it’s their roads that are getting fixed.”

The recommendation includes mandating that a set percentage of the state transportation budget go toward local roads, supporting a local wheel tax for towns and/or counties, requiring farms over a certain size to partner with local towns to help build roads to major highways and treating Class A trucks used to haul feed and/or manure the same as milk trucks.

Also, a dyed fuel tax for farm equipment would go directly back to townships, not through the general transportation fund where it could easily be siphoned off for other uses.

Buholzer said Green County recently implemented a wheel tax that’s expected to generate as much as $600,000 in revenue for county roads.

“We need to look at how much of what we’re paying ... goes into the general state fund,” he said, as most of it is funneled into big projects in the state’s metropolitan areas and only a small amount actually goes back to locals. “If we can get some coming back, it would be a huge help.”

Bangart suggested the possibility of cost-sharing and a separate pool of money maintained for local road funding: “Otherwise, you’re floating ideas of raising taxes and there’s no guarantee of it getting where it was intended.”

The sub-committee passed a recommendation to continue pushing for broadband Internet in rural Wisconsin. Clark said good progress has been made in the state budget to advance rural broadband access, which affects many farm families both personally and professionally. Some dairy producers want to implement new technology but can’t because of poor Internet access.

“Companies will reach out if they understand there’s enough business that they can get a return on their investment,” Buholzer said. “I hope it’s a sign of things to come — towers going up and services being brought further out in rural areas.”

Full task force to meet

Recommendations generated by all sub-committees will be considered by the full Dairy Task Force 2.0 at its meeting Friday, March 15. Five sub-committee teleconferences remain before the full task force meets.

Teleconferences, which are based out of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection headquarters in Madison, are scheduled as follows:

• Education and Workforce: 2 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20.

• Generational Succession and Transition: 1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21.

• Price Volatility and Profitability: 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26.

• Regulatory Certainty: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26.

• Research and Innovation: 1 p.m. Friday, March 1.

All meetings and teleconferences are open to the public, and people are welcome to make comments in person or submit written remarks at any time.