EAU CLAIRE — The state Assembly’s Committee on Agriculture voted unanimously Feb. 11 to advance a series of bills unveiled the day before in response to Gov. Tony Evers’ call for emergency help for the state’s struggling agriculture industry.
Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, unveiled some of the details of the Assembly Republicans’ agriculture package Feb. 10 during a press conference at Nellie Holsteins, a fifth-generation, 200-cow dairy farm south of Eau Claire. Nellie Holsteins is owned by Doug Nelson, his son, Derrick, and Derrick’s wife, Miranda. In the past two years, the farm has expanded from 56 cows to about 200 as Derrick and Miranda returned to the farm.
The Assembly Republicans’ bills expanded on Evers’ proposals for increasing agricultural exports and added several opportunities for tax breaks, items Republicans said would help farmers in the short-term and long-term.
“We’re expecting good bipartisan support for these bills,” Petryk said. “We’re hoping to go bigger and bolder than the governor even proposed in his package.”
Wisconsin is home to nearly 65,000 farms, and the agriculture industry contributes $105 billion annually to the state’s economy while employing nearly 435,000 people. But many involved in production agriculture have been struggling recently with low commodity prices across the board.
Wisconsin lost a total of 818 milk cow herds in 2019, bringing the total number of dairy herds in the state to 7,292, according the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The state has lost more than 3,000 dairy herds in the past five years.
“One thing that struck me last week was one farmer said, ‘The economy’s booming right now, everything’s great, everything’s going well. But the same is not true for the farmers themselves’,” said Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona. “They don’t get to take advantage of the economy now because of where their pricing is at.”
Evers, a Democrat, called a special session of the Legislature to take up his $8.5 million package, which included a $1 million effort to increase dairy exports and the hiring of more people at the state agriculture department and UW-Madison Extension.
Evers’ $1 million export proposal would have funded a program called the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports and aimed to increase U.S. dairy exports to 20% of the nation’s milk supply in the next four years.
The Republican bill would create an agriculture export program at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation that will focus on increasing ag exports of dairy, meat and crops, according to Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer.
“This is one of the biggest opportunities we have in the State of Wisconsin,” Summerfield said. “With exports being so important to Wisconsin, that’s why it was so important for the (U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement) trade deal and Phase 1 China trade deal to be implemented. We need to keep going down this path and continue promoting our dairy exports.”
In addition to Evers’ proposals, the Assembly’s Committee on Agriculture hearing will address bills requiring a study by the University of Wisconsin System of agricultural programs and issues, an income tax credit that would allow farmers who make more than $35,000 to be eligible for a tax credit for up to $7,500 to pay for about two-thirds of the taxes levied on buildings and other improvements, and a tax break that would allow farmers and other sole proprietors to deduct the cost of health insurance from their income taxes. Evers proposed the health insurance tax cut in his budget last year but Republicans, who are now supporting the tax cut, voted against it then.
“We don’t want to take care of a short-term problem and be left with a long-term problem,” said Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, a member of the Assembly’s Committee on Agriculture. “We have to be bold with what we do to be successful. But we also have to keep in mind if we don’t have markets for everything we want to produce, why are we producing it? We have to have markets for it.”
The bills could be taken up by the full Assembly this week, but it’s unclear whether the Senate and Evers will go along with all of them.
In a news release, Wisconsin Farm Bureau urged farmers and agriculturists to call or email their state senators and representatives and encourage them to support the bills.
“As a general agriculture organization, we see a lot of potential in these bills,” said Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Joe Bragger, citing the bill that creates a refundable tax credit for property taxes paid on agricultural buildings and improvements as particularly helpful. “It takes action right away and puts actual dollars in the hands of our farmers. These dollars will go a long way to help our struggling farmers pay a feed bill, pay for an equipment repair or pay a milker for months. These dollars will be immediately recycled into Wisconsin’s rural economy.”
The cost of the tax cuts would be about $36 million a year. Pronschinske said funding for the bills could come from the $450 million surplus projected for the state’s general fund.
“Agriculture is very, very important,” Pronschinske said. “We do have to look at other avenues out there on where some money should be spent, but at this time I believe that the dairy and agriculture crisis deserves our help.”
Associated Press reporter Scott Bauer contributed to this report.