MADISON — For the past several years, Wisconsin Farmers Union president Darin Von Ruden could count on receiving one phone call a month from a farmer in distress. But he’s found he’s getting those calls a lot more often now. Call are coming in each week instead of each month. Most recently, he received a call from a farmer in Deerfield milking 300 cows; he doesn’t know if he can hang on for another 60 days on the farm.

“There’s a lot that’s happening right now. It’s tough,” said Brad Pfaff, Wisconsin’s new secretary in the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “People are figuring out what to do next.”

It’s the fifth year of low commodity prices across the board, with Pfaff and Von Ruden encouraging farmers at the Wisconsin Farmers Union’s Farm and Rural Lobby Day on Feb. 27 to tell their stories to legislators, share how issues are impacting them and get involved at the state level.

There were four main issues that Wisconsin Farmers Union members were asked to discuss with state legislators during lobby day, which saw about 50 people from all parts of the state attend, even with snowy weather forcing some to stay home. These issues were decided on as they were special orders of business passed at their recent convention.

Groundwater quality

For the past six years, Rep. Katrina Shankland has been talking about water quality, and to her dismay, felt like no one at the state level really cared. However, she said the disconnect between the Capitol and the community is now becoming less and less, and she is even more excited that Wisconsin’s new administration is now making groundwater quality a priority.

“Gov. Tony Evers has announced 2019 as the year of clean drinking water and it could not come soon enough,” she said. “It’s thrilling to see the state finally taking action.”

An estimated 1.8 million Wisconsin residents — more than 30 percent of the state’s population — relies on well water as their primary drinking water source. Unfortunately, a quarter to a half of those wells do not meet safe drinking water standards due to excess bacteria or nitrates, as shown in Kewaunee County and in southwest Wisconsin, where a recent study revealed 42 percent of wells tested positive for nitrates. In Portage County, her home county, one in four wells have tested positive for nitrates.

“We’ve got a real problem,” she said.

In early February, Shankland was named vice chairwoman of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality, a 16-member bipartisan committee that will travel the state investigating groundwater and surface water contamination, listening to stakeholder concerns and eventually making recommendations on assessing and improving the quality of groundwater and surface water in Wisconsin. In her role as vice chairwoman, she plans to listen to the people, collect the data, publish a report to illustrate the issue and act, finding a policy solution that works into the future.

She has also introduced a private well testing and compensation bill that would create a fund to make private well testing more affordable, increase the number of households eligible to participate in the already established Well Compensation Grant Program for contaminated wells and allow well owners to seek compensation from the fund for wells contaminated with nitrates, even if the well is not used for livestock.

Shankland aims to boost efforts statewide to better understand water, commenting that water quality is both “an education and awareness issue.” She not only wants to make sure residents can remediate their contaminated wells, but also to assure that each household in Wisconsin doesn’t have to worry about a contaminated well down the road.

She’s pleased with Evers’ proposed $70 million bonding measure to fund clean water initiatives through the Department of Natural Resources and DATCP and the approximately $30 million allocation for pollution cleanup, but she cautioned that just because these items are in the budget does not mean they will pass.

“We need you,” she said.

She encouraged Farmers Union members to ask their legislators to support Evers’ clean water initiatives, even if those legislators plan to back a competing budget.

“I can’t think of anything more important to the health of those in our state,” she said.

Health care

Health care is something that affects every single person in the state, but Kevin Kane of Citizen Action of Wisconsin argues that Wisconsin isn’t nearly where it should be when it comes to affordable health care. In fact, Wisconsin is one of the top five most expensive places in the country for health care, and for farmers, among others who are self-employed, the cost is a significant roadblock.

Even with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, many farmers and rural residents struggle with high premiums, copays and deductibles, among other issues. Kane used the example of Brown County, where there is only one choice for health insurance through the Marketplace.

It’s why his organization has been working hard to encourage legislators to accept federal Medicaid expansion funds and create a public option for BadgerCare, a health insurance program that 700,000 Wisconsin residents currently use. A 2014 referendum in which voters from 19 counties and the City of Kenosha were asked to vote on whether to accept the federal Medicaid funds gathered an approval of 73 percent.

“We have the chance to demand something we know the public wants,” Kane said.

As for BadgerCare, which is currently available to lower-income citizens of Wisconsin, he argues that if made available for the general public, could provide significant cost savings for both the state and those currently buying private health insurance. According to Kane, it could also break up the monopoly of private health care companies and hold the industry accountable.

“Wisconsin could start leading the way again in health care,” he said.

The Wisconsin Farmers Union also supports federal single-payer health care, and imagines the public option for BadgerCare would look very similar to a single-payer system, but at the state level.

Industrial hemp

To Rob Richard, formerly of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, industrial hemp is “an issue that crosses the entire spectrum,” drawing bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats alike. In fact, it’s been a pleasant surprise to him to see who’s willing to work on legislation around industrial hemp, especially after the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the once-prohibited crop.

It’s no secret that Wisconsin has a storied history when it comes to industrial hemp production, but times are changing, and there is a new focus on high tech, with endless possibilities for hemp products such as batteries, interiors and exteriors of vehicles, home construction, personal care products and more. It’s sustainable and grown annually, and with the passage of Act 100 last session, is going mainstream.

“We blew the doors off,” Richard said of the number of farmers that participated in last year’s pilot industrial hemp growing season. “The interest is there.”

While significant changes to industrial hemp were found in the farm bill, the biggest “game changer” was the removal of hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. It has allowed Sen. Patrick Testin, author of Act 100, and Rep. Tony Kurtz to continue to work with stakeholders from agriculture, industry, law enforcement and the financial sector to craft legislation they’ve dubbed Hemp 2.0, which Richard called “a good, bipartisan bill” that he predicts will receive wide support. Several tweaks to Hemp 2.0 include an option to opt out of DATCP’s confidentiality clause, small changes to definitions to conform to farm bill definitions and the exploration of DATCP using third party testing as interest increases in industrial hemp.

While Richard appreciates the enthusiasm of Testin and Kurtz, he hopes other legislators will show more energy and get more excited about the possibilities when it comes to industrial hemp in Wisconsin.

“In Kentucky, they are proud of hemp and not afraid to talk about it,” he said. “It would be nice to see more of this in Wisconsin.”

Budget priorities

The state budget is front and center for legislators at the moment and is an articulation of the priorities we have as a state, said Kara O’Connor, Wisconsin Farmers Union government relations director. She asked Farmers Union members to select one or two issues that affect them personally and share how those issues impact them, as well as build a relationship with their elected officials and extend a future invitation to events such as farm tours and pasture walks.

Wisconsin Farmers Union supports a number of provisions in the proposed 2019-21 budget, including but not limited to: funding the Farm to School competitive grant program at $350,000 per year; increasing funding for the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program; restoring the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative; increasing funding that will benefit rural schools such as sparsity and transportation aid; funding for UW Veterinary School expansion; a drastic increase in funding for well testing and remediation; an increase in funding for broadband expansion grants; and additional funding for another full-time employee dedicated to antitrust enforcement at the state level.

“It’s our job as citizens to put the pressure on and put them in the hot seat,” said Sarah Lloyd, Wisconsin Farmers Union director of special projects.

“Lots of work is being done today by just being here in person and giving a face to these issues,” added Bobbi Wilson, Wisconsin Farmers Union government relations associate.