Sheila Harsdorf

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Secretary Sheila Harsdorf spoke to attendees of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Dairy and Food Policy Summit on Dec. 19. It was one of her last speaking engagements as secretary as she will be replaced by a new appointee of governor-elect Tony Evers.

MADISON — Sheila Harsdorf, Wisconsin secretary of agriculture, wasn’t wearing her barn boots when she spoke to dairy farmers gathered for the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Dairy Food and Policy Summit last week, but she may be returning to those boots soon as governor-elect Tony Evers announced his new pick for secretary of agriculture, Brad Pfaff, on Friday, Dec. 21.

“I’m committed to a smooth transition,” she told those in attendance, adding that she has conveyed the challenges and priorities of Wisconsin agriculture to Evers and his team.

Wisconsin remains the No. 1 cheese producer in the U.S., producing more than 600 types, styles and varieties of cheese, which is nearly double the number of any other state. In fact, 27 percent of the nation’s cheese comes from Wisconsin cheesemakers, who produced more than 3 billion pounds of cheese last year.

“Our cheese is something we’ve got going for us,” Harsdorf said.

Opportunities will continue with Wisconsin cheese as demand and consumption is increasing, and the product is something that can be easily exported. With export opportunities, producers can now start considering what products consumers in other countries may be interested in, along with what consumers want domestically.

There was a focus on markets this year at the Department of Agriculture, with Harsdorf highlighting the first reverse buyers mission in 2018 to showcase Wisconsin cheese. State representatives invited business people from other countries, with Harsdorf commenting that it was neat to see their enthusiasm for a Wisconsin product. Because of her passion for this project, Harsdorf hopes these missions will continue and expand into other agriculture commodities Wisconsin can showcase, adding that it’s even more critical now to invite people here to see the farms and processing plants where these products are made.

Harsdorf is proud to have spent time getting to know John Lucey, director of the Center for Dairy Research, located on the UW-Madison campus. It has been exciting for her to see the product development, both for domestic and abroad, coming out of that facility. Harsdorf is looking forward to hearing more about the creation of new products, new markets and new consumers.

She is also pleased with the creation of the Dairy Task Force 2.0, formed by Gov. Scott Walker, in collaboration with the UW System, earlier this year. The task force includes 31 individuals, including dairy farmers, milk processors and allied organizations, and has been meeting in sub-committees over the past few months with hopes to have recommendations for the state by this coming summer.

Harsdorf has no reason to believe the new administration won’t want to keep the task force from continuing their work. She added that farmers still have time to submit their comments and suggestions to the task force through their website:

While this year was a challenging one for Wisconsin’s agriculture and dairy industries, Harsdorf still believes there are opportunities and an excitement surrounding these industries. However, she stressed the importance of getting involved to make sure the voices of farmers, producers and processors are heard at the state level.

“There aren’t many farmers in the Legislature anymore,” she said. “We need your voice more than ever.”

She shared that she’d never had ambitions to become a legislator; it was only after her brother planted the seed she decided to pursue a career in politics. She said she knew decisions were being made by people in Madison who didn’t know anything about farming and rural communities — and decided it was up to her to make a difference.

“We can have a tremendous impact and it’s how we’ll move the industry forward,” she said.

She also stressed collaboration and working together to accomplish goals for Wisconsin agriculture, recommending that farmers join agricultural organizations that can provide a voice for farmers and also share information important to farmers, especially changes and compliance issues.

“The more we can be united as an industry, with different voices speaking, the better we can be,” Harsdorf said.