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Ben Wideman / Photo by Benjamin Wideman  

A farm is reflected in the Fox River north of Wrightstown.

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Republicans' 'bigger, bolder' ag plan advances

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.

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DNR provides updates on CAFO requirements

EAU CLAIRE — Chris Clayton has only recently started working with concentrated animal feeding operations for the state Department of Natural Resources, but already he can understand some of the concerns farmers have with the program.

Clayton, the DNR’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits program manager, said he has heard from farmers and other agriculture industry representatives that recent turnover within the DNR’s CAFO program has hindered communication between the DNR and farmers.

“I came onto the program two months ago, and half the positions underneath me are vacant,” Clayton said Feb. 12 during a CAFO update meeting. “I’m going to need to fill those programs in the coming months. But until that time, a lot of that work gets put onto other people.”

The DNR held focus group discussions in 2019 with the Wisconsin Association of Professional Agricultural Consultants and the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin in an effort to address what is working well with the CAFO program, what isn’t working well and what the DNR priorities should be with the program in the next three to five years.

The primary concern to come from those focus groups was that DNR staff turnover has led to issues with staff understanding some aspects of operations on the farms they are working with. Ag group responses also included a desire for DNR communications and enforcement need to be more consistent, Clayton said.

From those discussions, the DNR came up with goals of making sure they clearly define and communicate roles and responsibilities involved with the CAFO program; ensure regulatory consistency; make sure DNR staff has the tools and resources to run the program; and proactively building and maintaining relationships.

Clayton said the DNR has recently added or is hoping to soon add to the CAFO program several employees, including an engineering supervisor, an engineer, a hydrogeologist, regional specialists, a permit coordinator and an intake specialist.

UW-Extension and the state Department of Natural Resources hosted a series of the CAFO update meetings in January and February to update farmers on permit requirements and share tips for managing nutrients.

Clayton said the majority of farms the DNR is permitting are in the range of 1,500 animal units, but the number of larger farms is growing and the DNR has permitted 13 farms in the state with more than 10,000 animal units.

The state’s first CAFO permit was issued in 1985. As of the end of 2019, the DNR has issued 313 Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. About 1.15 million acres are covered by nutrient management plans.

“There have been a lot of issuance of permits and a lot of growth in farms in the state of Wisconsin in the last 35 years,” Clayton said.

CAFOs are required to have a DNR-approved WPDES permit in place when they to operate. CAFO WPDES permits ensure farms use proper planning, nutrient management, and structure/system construction to protect Wisconsin waters, according to the DNR.

The permit requires a field-specific, phosphorus-based nutrient management plan that outlines the amounts, timing, locations, methods and other aspects related to land application of manure and process wastewater in order to prevent or minimize manure or other wastewater runoff from fields to surface waters or groundwater and ensures applied nutrients meet crop needs.

Clayton said changes to the state’s runoff-management rules that affect farmers on karst landscapes in eastern Wisconsin were originally being considered for a larger portion of the state. The karst in Wisconsin extends in a horseshoe shape from St. Croix County along the Mississippi River, through the southern part of the state, and northeast along Lake Michigan up to Marinette County.

Karst landscapes may have deep bedrock fractures, allowing water to move through openings, carrying sediment and pollutants into the groundwater.

“There are areas in Wisconsin that have aquifers that are more susceptible to contamination,” said Dave Hart, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. “Some things that make groundwater more vulnerable to contamination are shallow bedrock, shallow water tables, course soils and that bedrock type. Dolomite is more susceptible to contamination than a sandy soil.”

The decision eventually was made to include only counties where the depth to the Silurian dolomite bedrock was 20 feet or less, Clayton said. Nearly 284,000 cropland acres are within that sensitive area, and 18% of that is managed by CAFOs, he said.

Nutrient management requirements in the area apply to both CAFO and small-farm operators in counties that have adopted the standards and include restrictions on timing of applications and vary based on whether the farmer is working with liquid or solid manures and on depth to bedrock.

Clayton said it is taking a collaborative effort between multiple organizations, including county land conservation departments, the DNR, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, to get the restrictions implemented for smaller farms.

“The department has conducted a lot of outreach on this with a lot of different stakeholders to discuss implementation options,” he said. “We are thinking about ways to get the word out and talk to the farm community about options like composting, cover crops, water-use efficiency, rotational grazing and so on to meet these requirements.”

For more information about the DNR’s CAFO program, visit https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/agbusiness/CAFO.

Staff photo by Dan Reiland 

Sydnie Paulsrud, a Chippewa Falls resident, recently was chosen as 2020 American Honey Princess. In her new role, Paulsrud will travel the country visiting with beekeepers and presenting information at schools, conventions and state fairs. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

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Export opportunities available beyond China

WISCONSIN DELLS — With more than 95% of the world’s population located outside the borders of the United States, exports remain a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to U.S. agriculture. And according to Ryan LeGrand, president and CEO of the U.S. Grains Council, it’s where he predicts the growth will be for U.S. barley, corn, sorghum and other grain-related products that include ethanol and distiller’s dried grains.

LeGrand was a participant in an export panel at the Wisconsin Corn-Soy Expo on Feb. 6, joined by Paul Burke, a senior director with the U.S. Soybean Export Council; and Maria Zieba, director of international affairs with the National Pork Producers Council. Willie Vogt, editorial director for Farm Progress, served as the panel’s moderator.

Burke said the big question on everyone’s minds at the U.S. Soybean Export Council is what will happen with China now that Phase I of the U.S.’s trade deal has been signed. China is a huge market for U.S. soybeans, and while no one single market can replace China when it comes to soybeans, it was important for the council to diversify and double down on new markets like India and countries in the sub-Sahara region of the world.

Reception to U.S. soybean exports into India wasn’t so good at first, Burke said, but the Indian market “has all the earmarks China did in the 1980s.” Over the past 10 years, the U.S. Soybean Export Council has made significant progress in India — and it’s had ripple effects on nearby countries such as Pakistan, which increased its domestic crush capacity to feed its chicken and fish industries.

North Africa, specifically Egypt, comes in as the third largest export market for U.S. soybeans, and it’s growing fast, Burke said. The council keeps an eye on Nigeria as well; it’s an emerging market as it already has a soybean industry, but as animal agriculture grows in that country, there will be a need to support those animals with feed. Growing that market could be a win-win for everyone, Burke said.

While Canada, Mexico and Japan remain important trade partners for U.S. soybeans, it’s also important for the Council to shift a bit of its focus to markets that aren’t as mature in countries that have more population and where the economy is predicted to grow.

Similarly, India is a priority for the U.S. Grains Council as well.

With programs in more than 50 countries, the U.S. Grains Council is about to open their 10th office, this one in India. The nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the use of U.S. grains is also interested in “horizon markets” like Myanmar and countries in Africa that have a renewed interest in improving animal agriculture.

Mexico and Japan remain the top U.S. corn customers and are of immediate focus for the council, but in the short to medium term, LeGrand said there is a reason there is a high concentration of U.S. Grains Council offices in Asia.

“We really see the growth potential there,” LeGrand said.

The National Pork Producers Council represents 60,000 American pork producers and 42 affiliated state associations across the country. And while Zieba admitted there were “very big wins in 2019,” there is still some more effort needed in 2020 to ensure U.S. pork is exported around the world.

What has really helped U.S. pork are free trade agreements; more pork is exported to countries with a free trade agreement than countries without one. However, over the next few years the U.S. Pork Producers Council aims to recapture lost markets that include Mexico, Japan and China.

Japan remains the largest export market for U.S. pork, and while China remains a large market for pork as well, countries like Canada and Mexico are also big for pork exports with 40% of U.S. pork going into those countries.

Each country has particular interest in different parts of the carcass, with large amounts of ham and shoulders going into Mexico, large amounts of loins going into Japan and various parts treated as delicacies in China and countries in southeast Asia. If those markets weren’t available, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to get as much money from the hog carcass.

To Zieba, it pays to have a well balanced portfolio when it comes to U.S. pork, which is why the U.S. Pork Producers Council has been exploring other markets for U.S. pork.

“Some of the focus for us is to open markets that we haven’t traditionally been in and a lot of that is in southeast Asia — the Philippines, Thailand — these are big pork consuming countries where we have limited or no market access and we’re focusing on those markets,” she said.

Vietnam has been a priority market access country for years as well, and with African swine fever in Vietnam, there will be a need for protein there as they cull their herd, Zieba added. Vietnam is in a position where they are willing to talk to the U.S. about access and market concerns as it relates to pork.

On the soybean side, Vietnam has been a fairly open market for the U.S. as they have had a lot of animals to feed. Along with a large pork population, Vietnam is also the largest catfish producer in the world, so LeGrand said there are opportunities for U.S. grain exports to feed those animals too.

Photos by Courteney Jacob  

Troy Amelse, director of Klinger Farm Market, is the fifth generation to work at the family business that began in 1904 as a dairy farm.