EAU CLAIRE — Every five years, UW-Extension community development economist and professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at UW–Madison Steven Deller updates his study, “Contribution of Agriculture to the Wisconsin Economy.”
In the five years since results from the last study were released, the contribution to Wisconsin’s economy generated by farms and agricultural businesses jumped from $88.3 billion to $104.8 billion and the number of jobs in agriculture jumped from 413,500 to 437,700.
“There is always a demand for agriculture,” Chippewa Valley Technical College President Bruce Barker said March 4 during the Wisconsin Technical College System’s National Ag Day 2020 celebration at CVTC’s Energy Education Center. “For anyone looking at an ag career, there is a future there. Today’s agriculture is high-tech, it’s nutrition, it’s science, it’s production. It’s big business.”
About 300 area high school agriculture students were taking part in CVTC’s Ag Skills Competition at the Energy Education Center, where teams and individuals tested their knowledge and skills with activities like identifying ag equipment and distinguishing between different types of animal rations and plants. During a break in the competition, the students listened to speeches from agriculture industry representatives including the state’s 72nd Alice in Dairyland Abigail Martin; Wisconsin FFA officers Curtis Weltzien, Daniel Clark and Joe Schlies; Wisconsin Farm Technology Days board member Mel Pittman; and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection interim Secretary Randy Romanski.
Becky Levzow, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board and a dairy farmer in Columbia County, said there are numerous opportunities for students looking to pursue a career in agriculture. Levzow said within a 10-mile radius of her farm she has counted at least 28 ag-related businesses ranging from produce stands, wedding barns and wineries to wind turbines to ethanol plants.
“You get an idea of how important agriculture and these businesses are to our county and state economy,” Levzow said. “They provide a strong and diverse group of occupations for agriculture.”
Romanski said one in nine people working in the state of Wisconsin holds a job relating to agriculture. The southeastern part of the state, including Milwaukee, is a big part of that, he said, with a number of production, processing and manufacturing jobs.
“Agriculture touches every part of our state,” he said. “There’s opportunities everywhere.”
Wisconsin’s technical colleges offer about 60 degree and certificate programs in agriculture, food and natural resources, and the number of degrees handed out in those fields has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.
“This is the next generation of agriculture in Wisconsin, so we need to support that,” Romanski said. “There’s opportunity in agriculture, no matter what path students choose.”
Despite well-documented struggles in the agriculture industry in recent years, Romanski said students can feel confident in the industry’s future.
“There’s no question the last few years have been a challenge for agriculture,” Romanski said. “But there’s optimism for the years ahead. Prices seem to be rebounding. There are trade agreements the hopefully mean more Wisconsin products are getting out onto the international marketplace. It’s important that we continue to invest in the future of agriculture.
“Students talk to their friends, family and neighbors, and they know there are some challenges out there in agriculture right now. But it’s important that they see there’s something down the road, and we’re starting to see some good things happen.”
Tessa Pilgrim, who grew up on a dairy farm near Boyd, is in her second year at CVTC studying animal science management and will graduate in May. Pilgrim is hoping to find work as a herd manager or calf specialist after graduation. She said her time at CVTC has given her the experience of working with cows and calves on different farms, and in some cases those farms are looking for herd managers.
“I grew up on a small dairy farm and have worked on a couple different farms, so I know what’s going on out there,” Pilgrim said. “I want to be able to work hands-on with the animals but not necessarily on my own farm. This has given me the opportunity to go see what else there actually is out there.”