OSHKOSH – Wisconsin’s declining dairy industry can be saved.
That’s according to members of the Dairy Task Force, which met Thursday at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh for its second meeting.
Governor Scott Walker’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection formed the group earlier this year and dubbed it Task Force 2.0; it comes 33 years after the state’s first task force drew up a plan to tackle the decline in milk production in the 1980s.
Now the group is trying to find a way to save dairy farmers, cheese producers and more amid hundreds of farm closures, stagnant prices and a glut of milk.
Nine subcommittees presented their findings at the meeting, and two presented proposals to stimulate farmers and spur innovation in the industry. In a vote, the two proposals were adopted.
The first proposal would create a new loan guarantee program to ensure that farmers and dairy farmers can take out loans without fear of financial ruin. The program would build on existing farm loan programs that guarantee dollar amounts or percentages set through Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development, or WHEDA.
Some proposed changes include increasing the guarantee percentage of WHEDA and credit institutions from 50 to 90 percent and increasing the reserve of cash available in the event of a dairy farmer’s default (supporters say the default rate on secured loans is low).
A farmer in the audience expressed concern that the loans would further promote the growth of mega-dairies and hurt small family farms. Some members of the task force also feared that the farmers who received the secured loans, full of confidence and extra cash, would buy more cows and increase their production, further exacerbating the excess milk supply.
Those supporting the proposal said the loans would go towards improving infrastructure around the farm or factory. Dairy farmers and producers can be successful if they have the money to fix the barn or buy new technology, supporters said.
“If we don’t make it available, we won’t have the leverage we need,” cheese dairy owner Paul Scharfman said of the loan guarantee program.
Having the capital to build and expand will revitalize the dairy industry, supporters said. A farm or factory will be sustainable if it can innovate, increase efficiency, and make the state’s renowned dairy products even better.
Plus, saving the dairy industry will save rural Wisconsin, task force members argued. Dairy products are labor intensive and require many employees. If farms and factories close, small towns lose their reason for existing, said Dennis Bangart of Marshfield.
Young people don’t want to stay in a dying industry, nor do they have the money to fix their parents’ decrepit barns or update their inefficient technology, the task force said. That is unless they can take out secured loans like those described in the proposal.
The goal isn’t just to save a failing cheese factory, said Beth Wells of La Farge. It is about reopening the three closed cheese factories in the city and bringing back a once flourishing market.
The second proposal discussed by the working group was an education and research initiative.
The goal: invest money in research for the state’s $ 43 billion dairy industry and create a dairy innovation center in the University of Wisconsin system.
The plan proposes to inject $ 7.6 million per year into the Innovation Hub at UW-Madison, UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls – all of which have agricultural programs – to fund new discoveries and innovations in the dairy industry.
Professors, graduate students and research fellows would focus on four main topics:
- land and water resources, such as topsoil, agricultural wastes and emissions issues;
- human health and nutrition, by seeking to improve dairy products and packaging, for example by developing allergen-free alternatives;
- animal health and nutrition, such as improving reproduction rates and reducing disease;
- and agricultural businesses and communities, to develop agricultural technology and a skilled rural workforce.
The sub-committees will continue to meet in the new year. The exact mechanisms for implementing these proposals are still unclear due to the upcoming change of administration. Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at UW-Madison, chairs the task force and said he has no indication that Governor-elect Tony Evers will crush the group’s work.
Secretary Sheila Harsdorf also said she believes the transition will be smooth.
“There is no reason to believe at this point that your responsibilities and your work as a working group will not continue, but it is obviously something that will be in the hands of the new administration,” said Harsdorf to the group.
Ultimately, however, Stephenson hopes Evers will support the task force’s mission to revitalize the state’s once thriving rural communities and dairy industry.
“There has been no political agenda with this group,” Stephenson said. “It’s not about politics. It’s about the problems of an industry and how to (to) create a better industry for the next ten or two years. “