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Staff photo by Dan Reiland  

Leather detail work at Hester Saddlery in Rock Falls.

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Weather, policy and disconnect: struggles are widespread in farm country

PLATTEVILLE — During a dry stretch of weather two weeks ago, Representative Travis Tranel, like many farmers across the state, was out chopping into the early hours of the morning. As a state legislator, Tranel is in a unique position — serving in the statehouse and dairy farming with his family near Cuba City.

“It’s a blessing to be able to do it,” he said.

But being a farmer in the legislature can also be a challenge, as he attested to during a recent panel discussion at UW-Platteville titled “Struggles in Wisconsin Farm Country.” The panel was part of WisBusiness.com’s “Navigating the New Economy” series and was moderated by farm news personality Pam Jahnke.

“There are less than a handful of us that know anything about agriculture in the legislature. It’s unbelievable,” Tranel said. “When our state started, the legislature was pretty much comprised of farmers and a few attorneys. Now it’s a lot of attorneys — and me.

“There’s a huge disconnect.”

Agriculture has been in an economic downtown for the past five years, as those in the agriculture industry already know; however, Tranel said his legislative counterparts may only just be tuning in. This summer, legislators visited dairy farms across Wisconsin for breakfast as part of June Dairy Month, and many of them returned to the Capitol wondering what’s going on in agriculture and if their farmer constituents were mad about something in particular.

“In their minds, they see a $50,000 pick-up truck; they see a $500,000 combine. They don’t understand; they think things in ag must be just fine,” he said. “That’s the bridge we have to gap. And it’s becoming more and more challenging.”

To add to the challenge of disconnect, Wisconsin farmers have been faced with a number of hurdles this year and in years past.

“There’s a lot of weather uncertainty this year and a lot of policy uncertainty. Trade is just one of the sources of policy uncertainty. There’s other ones, but adding weather onto it, there’s a lot of stress out there,” said Paul Mitchell, executive director of the Renk Agribusiness Institute. “I think a lot of farmers want to get this year over with in terms of stress. It’s been a bad year.”

Unfortunately, it may be a few years before a lot of the stress in the countryside is lessened. Mitchell said it’ll take awhile to build business back up and the stress will stay with the agriculture community for awhile too.

“The capital has been sucked away, and it’ll take awhile for those reserves to build back up,” he said.

“Ag’s on slow trends up and down, and I think it’ll take us a few more years, even after the markets recover, assuming they do, to get going again.”

The stress isn’t always something people not involved with agriculture understand, as Tranel alluded. The non-agriculture public may be wondering what’s wrong with farmers and assuming their mental health is fine, and that they just can’t afford to pay their bills this year.

“I think we need to separate mental health from not being able to pay their bills because they are two separate issues,” Tranel said. “That stress is so real, but I don’t think the general public understands that.”

A speaker’s task force was recently assembled to focus on mental health in the state, but Tranel was critical of a component specifically to address agriculture.

“Farmers need markets to sell product to at an affordable price so they can pay their bills,” he said. “Short of that, you’re not going to accomplish anything.”

Tranel said he fears it’ll continue to be challenging to get legislators, and the general public, in tune with these struggles as they become further and further removed from the farm with each generation.

While some farmers are exiting the industry due to struggles with weather, ongoing trade wars and low crop prices, Anna Landmark is determined to use her creativity to continue on with her business, Landmark Creamery. Landmark, a cheesemaker that utilizes sheep milk and pasture-raised cow milk, launched her business six years ago. She met her partner in business at a Soil Sisters event, where women farmers gathered to share ideas and have meaningful discussions about agriculture.

Two years ago, Landmark and her partner were able to open their own cheese aging facility, but working in the business hasn’t come without its challenges.

“We had hoped by year six that we’d be in our own cheese plant, but equity is always hard to scrounge up,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of grant programs for food businesses of my size to take advantage of. Banks are obviously reluctant to make loans right now so growth has been challenging.

“I think we could grow a lot faster if we had some more access to both cash and other services.”

Sharing the stories of Wisconsin farmers and connecting consumers with those farmers is top-of-mind for Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection secretary-designee Brad Pfaff, who spoke about several initiatives the department is exploring. The department is partnering with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development to reinstate the Wisconsin Agricultural Education and Workforce Development Council, with goals to assist farmers leaving production agriculture in finding other employment within the agriculture industry.

The department has also participated in several reverse buyer missions in an effort to open more international markets for Wisconsin agriculture products.

“Every farm in the state is an economic engine (and) we should invest in them, just like we want to invest in industry and other high-tech. We should invest in agriculture — on the farm and through processing,” Pfaff said.

The panel discussion was recorded and can be viewed at https://tinyurl.com/y4hzjjyn.

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DATCP board hears livestock siting revisions ahead of Nov. meeting

MADISON — Members of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection board had the opportunity to preview proposed changes to ATCP 51, the livestock siting rule, on Oct. 21, almost three weeks before they are slated to vote on the changes at their regularly scheduled meeting. Board members also received official documentation of the final draft rule later that week, containing over 100 pages for them to review before voting on the rule in early November.

Chris Clayton, DATCP program manager of livestock facility siting, and Lacey Cochart, director of DATCP’s Bureau of Land and Water Resources, spoke to the board via teleconference, as requested by the board at their September meeting. They provided a spreadsheet that outlined the changes incorporated into the final draft rule, walking board members through about 10 changes made after receiving a large volume of public comment on the issue.

Sparking the most concern from the board were changes made regarding local implementation, specifically a $1,000 cap proposed in the hearing draft rule for local fees and a $500 cap for permit modifications, along with a restriction for local governments to require financial assurance in case of a manure spill or in the case the operation closes and clean up of the facility needs to be completed at the local level.

In the final draft rule, it was determined that DATCP has no legal authority to place a cap on local fees and permit modifications, nor does it have legal authority to restrict whether or not a municipality can require financial assurance. Jane Landretti, DATCP chief legal counsel, provided further clarification — in the previous version of the rule, DATCP did not have to comply with Act 21, created in 2011 and requires the department to review their rules and make sure they have explicit statutory authority to enact aspects of rules.

“In a previous version of this rule, we didn’t have that directive,” Landretti said. “That’s the reason we switched course on that.”

She added that local governments will instead have the authority to set up their own fees and/or requirement of financial assurance, but several board members were unsure about the revision.

“When there’s no cap and when the language is fairly vague, I can see local units of government trying to create a cost so high that it would discourage anybody from even thinking of adding on,” said Greg Zwald, board member and berry farmer near River Falls. “I worry about the wide open, top end of this no cap. Those words scared me when I saw this originally.”

Other changes highlighted by Clayton and Cochart in the final draft rule relate to setbacks and odor management standards. The odor score remains eliminated from the final draft rule, but setbacks were adjusted based on feedback collected from the public hearings. For manure storage and high odor housing at expanded livestock facilities, setbacks were reduced from the proposed 600 to 2,500 feet to 350 to 1,450 feet. For new livestock facilities, the maximum property line setbacks applied are 1,450 feet for Category 1 livestock housing and manure storage (6,000 or more animal units) and 1,050 feet for Category 2 livestock housing.

“The reductions to setbacks were in response to a lot of comments we received around the limitations and challenges for expansion on farms that are located on 40-acre parcels, which is sort of the typical way that most facilities began many years ago,” said Clayton.

There will still be opportunity for operators to reduce those setbacks through the implantation of odor control practices, as outlined in the final draft rule. However, added into the final rule is language that allows operators to demonstrate common ownership or control of adjacent parcels to meet property line setbacks from manure storage and high odor housing.

After hearing from agriculture engineers at the public hearings, changes were also reflected in the final draft rule in regards to runoff management standards and waste storage facilities standards.

In the final draft rule, runoff controls are required at new or substantially altered feed storage structures that store or handle feed with 40% or more moisture, excluding low moisture feed, while a provision that states new and substantially altered feed storage structures that are one acre in size and located in areas at low risk for significant discharge into waters of the state are exempt from having to meet the latest vegetated treatment area standard remain unchanged from the hearing draft rule.

The final draft rule also clarifies that waste storage facilities are to be emptied to the “extent possible” for inspection and if emptying or entering an under-barn pit or slurry store is problematic or unsafe, alternative methods can be used to check that the pit is not significantly leaking.

Other changes that made it into the final draft rule include an expanded definition of “livestock structures” to include buildings used to incinerate or compost dead livestock; that construction of the runoff control be completed within 1 year instead of 6 months as indicated in the hearing draft rule; and that permit modifications be submitted either for new or altered livestock structures, or when the facility plans for a one-time addition of 20% or more animal units, but no more than 800 animal units (changed from 1,000 animal units in the hearing draft rule).

Clayton and Cochart indicated that they have been in contact with most of the state’s agricultural organizations and have shared the final draft rule changes with them.

“I think it’s fair to say we made a lot of changes throughout — only a very few things stayed as they were,” Cochart said. “The setbacks were obviously the largest one where everything was reduced from hearing draft.”

“I don’t think we made everyone perfectly happy but I’m cautiously optimistic about the number of supportive comments I’ve heard of late,” she continued. “We’ve certainly been trying really hard; Chris and I and many others have spent a lot of time working on this, listening to the comments, going back to the public comments and we’re certainly happy to explain in more detail to other groups.”

Cochart and Clayton will officially present the final draft rule to the DATCP board on Nov. 7. If the final draft rule is approved by the board, it will move to the Wisconsin Legislature in early 2020.

The final draft rule is available for public reading on the DATCP website ahead of the board’s November meeting.

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Third time’s the charm
Third time's the charm: Roehl family takes opportunity to host 2022 FTD
Roehl family takes opportunity to host 2022 FTD

LOYAL — As a 14-year-old attending Farm Progress Days with his father in 1983, Dennis Roehl started planning for the future.

Thirty-nine years later, Dennis and his family will see that plan come to fruition when they host the 2022 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, July 12-14, 2022, on their Clark County farm west of Loyal.

“The first time Dad took me to the show, we were walking up and down and I told Dad, ‘Now this would be something for us to have.’ I never dreamed we’d ever have a chance at it,” Dennis said during an Oct. 21 introduction of the family as 2022 FTD hosts. “In 2005, we went to that show, and I said to Dad, ‘We can do this.’

“That’s why, when it came around this time — and I didn’t think it was coming around this soon — I said, ‘Yeah, I think we can do this.’”

The 2022 show will be the third time Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, which changed its name from Farm Progress Days to Farm Technology Days in 2003 will be held in Clark County. It will also be the first show back after FTD takes a year off in 2021.

“The Roehls have a beautiful farm,” said Matt Glewen, general manager for Wisconsin Farm Technology Days. “Exhibitors are looking forward to coming back here, because we have traditionally held some very, very successful shows in the central part of the state.”

Plans for the 2022 show include Tent City on the east side of Miller Avenue and field demonstrations on the west side of Miller Avenue, tilling demonstrations on the east side of the farm and tours of the event barn, according to Chuck Rueth, who volunteered both previous times Clark County hosted the show and is serving as executive committee chairman for the 2022 show.

Dennis Roehl’s father, Lowell, and Lowell’s brother, Erlin, have been farming near Loyal since the 1960s.

“I think (hosting FTD is) a great way to show what my dad and Erlin and their families have done all their lives,” Dennis said. “I think it’s a wonderful way to end their careers. It’s a tribute.”

Dennis and Suzie bought their farm in 2005 from Dennis’ father, who continues to help with fieldwork.

“I really appreciate my dad. He stepped back and didn’t look over my shoulder,” Dennis said. “He let me make my own mistakes. And I know there were a few he didn’t even tell me about.”

Erlin, and his wife, Bonnie, farm up the road. In 2017, they started an event barn called Rustic Occasions, which is operated by Erlin and Bonnie’s son Doug and his wife, Kim, and will also be part of the 2022 Farm Technology Days.

“Small farms are becoming a thing fo the past and people are looking for ways to convert their farms into other forms of income,” Erlin said.

“Doug and Kim put in thousands of hours. All the work that has been done in here is absolutely amazing,” Dennis said. “When we decided to have this, I though this should be included in Farm Tech Days. What can you do with an old barn? Rather than tear it down, why not make it into an events center.”

Roehl Acres is home to more than 500 registered Holsteins. The herd is milked in sets of three twice a day in a stanchion barn that is more than 100 years old.

In 2011, the Roehl’s built a free-stall barn, but rather than putting in a parlor, they decided to continue milking in the 114-stall stanchion barn.

“Dad and I talked about a parlor, but in the end, we decided to keep milking in the old barn,” Dennis said. “We bring one group in, milk them, kick them out and bring the next group in.”

The Roehls also crop about 750 acres in corn, hay and some soybeans and wheat, Dennis said. The farm has seven full-time employees, not counting family members.

On-farm production and milk sales account for $339.3 million of Clark County’s economy. The county is home to 16 dairy processing plants, and processing milk into dairy products generates another $1.2 billion. On-farm milk production accounts for more than 1,800 jobs and dairy processing adds more than 3,000 jobs.

Clark County is home to the most dairy cows in the state of Wisconsin, with about 160,000. Average herd size in the county is about 80 cows.

“That’s what I’d call very traditional,” said Richard Halopka, UW-Extension Clark County crops and soils educator. “I want to tie in that tradition with how our producers here in Clark County are using new technology in our traditional dairy farms.”

The 2020 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days in Eau Claire County is set for July 21-23, at Huntsinger Farms, a horseradish farm. The farm’s subsidiary, Silver Spring Foods, Inc., is the largest producer of horseradish in the world. FTD attendees will have the opportunity to learn about horseradish production and see how it is grown and harvested. The show will also offer the opportunity to tour Nellie’s Holsteins in 2020, a neighboring 200-cow dairy farm operated by the Nelson family.

The 2021 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, which was set to be held at Jefferson County Fair Park in Jefferson County, was canceled in early October. Officials cited disappointing turnout at this year’s Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, held at Walter Grain Farms in Jefferson County in July, as the reason behind the cancellation.

“After more than 60 years of on-farm shows, (Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, Inc., state board) felt the combination of a slow agricultural economy, coupled with a non-traditional off-farm site, would not have the level of appeal to attract the large numbers of attendees needed for a successful show,” Glewen said of the decision to cancel the event in 2021.

For more information on the Clark County Farm Technology Days, visit www.facebook.com/FTD2022. For more about Farm Technology Days, see www.wifarmtechnologydays.com.