Since the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying measures started over a year ago, unpredictability has been a constant, even more so than usual in the world of agriculture.
Gov. Tony Evers and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee Randy Romanski worked recently to address what rural Wisconsin and agriculture may be able to expect going forward. The discussion, which covered budget proposals and workforce issues among other subjects, was part of an episode of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Dairy Signal on March 30.
Evers’ biennial budget proposal includes $43 million for Wisconsin’s agricultural economy.
“I’ve never seen the kind of investment in our agriculture infrastructure that this budget makes,” Romanski said. “It’s across the board. It speaks to the strength and diversity of Wisconsin’s agriculture industry.”
The agriculture-related portion of the budget is composed of multiple buckets, Romanski said. Highlights include building international and local marketplaces, making “strategic investments” for dairy and meat processors, and furthering investments toward soil and water, including for producer-led watershed groups and county conservation departments. Other initiatives include investing in farmer mental health and support programs and improving DATCP internal functions so they can serve as an effective resource for the agriculture industry.
“Our budget has things that move us into the future,” Evers said.
Romanski said that the way the budget is structured funnels the money primarily to the industry.
Romanski said that they’ve had an opportunity to brief legislators of both parties in both the Assembly and Senate about the ag budget, and so far, there has been a “productive reception.”
Outside of the budget proposal, state and local entities will soon be receiving funding from the recently passed federal American Rescue Plan. Evers said farmers and small businesses will again be on the receiving end of some of the state resources to help recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As soon as we get the final guidance from the federal government, we’ll be getting those resources out the door as quickly as possible,” Evers said.
Expanding broadband access is also part of Evers’ budget proposal, with a $200 million investment in that area. His administration has dubbed 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access.”
Budget negotiations aren’t the only place that broadband funding is likely to come up. Evers said plans are for some of the funds that the state will receive from the American Rescue Plan to be used for broadband expansion as well.
Broadband access is a bipartisan issue, Evers said, and is important for Wisconsin’s economy and for schools because even after virtual learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic lessens, kids will still need internet access for homework.
Still, Evers cautioned that getting sufficient broadband to everyone will take some time, but new money is directed according to need and resources are being directed to places that have nothing first.
Evers’ budget also includes a proposal to increase the state minimum wage to $10.15 by 2024. Currently, Wisconsin’s minimum wage matches the federal minimum wage at $7.25.
The $10.15 mark is lower than the $15 minimum wage that has been floated at the federal level, but Evers said he recognized that a transition to $15 would be “pretty difficult” for farmers and small business owners.
Evers said he was hopeful about the minimum wage but would have to see if the state Legislature will take that up.
“We do have to make some adjustments here going forward,” Evers said.
“I know there’s a need for an increase,” he said, and at this smaller level, he thinks it wouldn’t harm the rural economy.
Evers said the state is also looking at more money for start-ups, especially in rural areas, solutions for workforce housing, which is limited in rural Wisconsin, and ways to incentivize entrepreneurs to get into child care to help address child care deserts.
The Ag Education and Workforce Development Council had also been revitalized to “connect the dots between workforce, education, training and jobs,” Romanski said, and sign-up recently closed for the second round of the Wisconsin Agriculture Youth Council, which recruits high school seniors to connect them with DATCP and others in the industry.
Evers also said that he is a strong supporter of career and technical education at the high school and college levels.
“We understand the importance of building trades or any trades as it relates to agriculture,” Evers said. “They’re connected at the hip, and we’re going to continue to encourage that at the high school level and at the college level through the Wisconsin Technical College System.”
With vaccinations ramping up and hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be under control, many are wondering when and how events, including agricultural events, will be able to come back.
“Everybody wants those things to happen,” Evers said.
Romanski added, “I think we all look forward to those signature Wisconsin events: county fairs, Wisconsin State Fair, World Dairy Expo. When you think about Wisconsin, those are the kind of things that kind of pop to mind.”
Romanski said he’s heard that planning is going on for those events. Evers said he has spoken with World Dairy Expo — which had announced that it was considering venues outside of Madison this year — about the importance of keeping that event in America’s Dairyland. On April 1, World Dairy Expo did announce that it will remain in Madison in 2021.
In general, Evers said they will continue to follow the science, and local public health officials will be making key decisions as well.
Right now, the state is at an “inflection time” regarding the pandemic, Evers said, and while vaccinations are ongoing, people can’t afford to do anything “foolish” with their behaviors that would put Wisconsin in a “bad place” again.
In that vein, Romanski urged people to get vaccinated whenever they can. As of April 5, everyone in Wisconsin aged 16 or older is eligible to receive a vaccine.