Believe in America’s Dairyland

Senator Jeff Smith

Take a moment to imagine living on a small family farm. Waking at dawn to a rooster crowing and cows mooing. You head down to the barn to get the cows milked, collect chicken eggs, clean out stalls and feed all the animals before going back into the kitchen to grab breakfast for yourself.

This all too familiar lifestyle for most Wisconsin family farms is quickly becoming an illusion for our next generation of dairy farmers. Our reputation as America’s Dairyland is our pride, especially in the western Wisconsin and the 31st Senate District.

Oftentimes I’m awestruck at the beauty of western Wisconsin and the scenic farms nestled in the valleys and hills. People come to Wisconsin for a lot of reasons, but they almost always make sure to leave with some Wisconsin cheese. There’s no substitute. My own daughter still finds a way to bring tasty cheese back home after every visit to Wisconsin.

The dairy market crisis is wreaking havoc on Wisconsin farms. We’ve seen 551 dairy farms close in 2019 already after losing 638 in 2018 and 465 in 2017. Small, family farms are the hardest hit. Farmer suicides have shaken our communities to the core. Farmers face the decision to sell the farm or take on more debt to become bigger. Trade wars, access to credit and years of low milk prices make it hard for young folks to see a future in dairy farming.

At the World Dairy Expo in Madison last week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “In America the big get bigger and the small go out.” He doubled-down on his comments about small family farms by saying, “I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.” That statement might help explain why farm subsidies seem to end up in the pockets of the largest operations while the small family farms are left with crumbs. It highlights what we already know. Leaders in Washington don’t have any intention to alleviate the dairy crisis in Wisconsin.

It’s clear we need to step it up right here in our own backyard. Starting in 2018, the Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0 started meeting and learning from professionals in the dairy industry about the challenges we face.

The Task Force offered 51 recommendations to help Wisconsin’s dairy industry. Already, we’ve enacted the Dairy Innovation Hub idea so farmers can learn cutting-edge dairy farming methods at UW-Madison, UW-River Falls or UW-Platteville. But that isn’t nearly enough – there’s a lot more to do. Here are just a few of the other ideas that came out of the Dairy Task Force recommendations:

  • Increase funding for dairy processor grants from $200,000 to $400,000 annually.
  • Enable new startup cheesemakers by evaluating methods for shared cheese production spaces.
  • Reinstate the “Grow Wisconsin Dairy” initiative to help farmers access capital for farm succession and transition planning.
  • Conduct a review of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) for self-employed individuals.
  • Establish and offer model programs for communities, local businesses and education systems in career path development programs targeting the agriculture career sector.

In the recent budget, Governor Tony Evers also offered critical assistance for dairy farmers in his budget by increasing funding for county Ag Agents, organic and grazing specialists, expanding the Farm-to-School program, expanding the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin Program and critical farmer mental health programs, just to name a few. Unfortunately many of these ideas were cut or significantly reduced by Republicans from the final version of the budget.

My colleague Representative Don Vruwink (D-Milton) and I recently introduced SB 453/AB 495 to create a small farm diversity grant program aimed at helping small farms try new agricultural ventures. We also teamed up to introduce SB 455/AB 500 which will help families save money when passing their farm onto their extended family.

There’s no shortage of good ideas, but we can do more. There’s too much at stake to tell dairy farmers to “get big or go out.” The dairy crisis doesn’t stop at the farmer’s doorstep. As policymakers and consumers, we must invest in our small family farms and encourage innovation to preserve our farming heritage in Wisconsin.

The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo and Pepin counties and portions of Trempealeau, Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire and Jackson counties and very small portions of Chippewa and St. Croix counties.

ALEC: Rigging democracy

Some of the most important upcoming fights for our democracy will happen in the states — not in Washington, D.C. And one major threat is a group you might not have heard of: ALEC.

ALEC is the acronym for the benign-sounding American Legislative Exchange Council. Except… it’s anything but benign. This is a group of lobbyists funded by big corporations, working to ram far-right legislation through state legislatures.

ALEC is responsible for some of the most extreme, ultra-conservative laws passed in the last decade: “Stand Your Ground” gun legislation, racially discriminatory and overly strict voter photo ID laws, rollbacks of environmental protections, and blocking the Affordable Care Act at the state level, among others.

As I write, ALEC is getting ready for the 2020 legislative sessions in the states — and eyeing even more extreme legislation in states across the country. Stifling the right to peaceful protest. Advancing a dangerous Article V Constitutional Convention. Making it easier than ever to pollute our environment.

We must mobilize to stop them — and defend our civil rights, voting rights, and every other right you and I hold dear. ALEC’s member corporations pay top dollar for direct access to state lawmakers — who allow lobbyists to write corporate dream legislation into ALEC “model bills.” Then, ALEC-backed legislators rush those bills through their state houses, churning out laws that enrich corporations and hurt the rest of us.

But we have a plan to stop ALEC… and it’s working. You see, major companies don’t want to be publicly associated with ALEC’s overwhelmingly unpopular and extreme agenda. And up until very recently, ALEC has been able to operate from the shadows — quietly pulling the strings to advance their right-wing policies. But in the past few years, peoples’ groups like Common Cause have exposed ALEC for what it is — and put MAJOR pressure on companies to cut ties with them. Just this year, three of ALEC’s biggest funders — AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon — responded to our demands by canceling their ALEC membership. They joined Google, Coca-Cola, and other major companies in a sweeping exodus from ALEC’s toxic brand.

We’re ready to pressure each corporate ALEC member, one-by-one, until they cut ties with this extreme right-wing lobby group. Will you chip in and support this crucial effort?

FIGHT BACK AGAINST ALEC

I’ve seen it firsthand… our strategy hits ALEC where it hurts. They don’t have grassroots members and don’t represent anyone besides major corporations — so if we keep making clear to corporations and their customers what sort of extreme agenda they’re backing (and the public disgust that goes along with it), ALEC loses its power. AND… it’s clear they’re running scared. ALEC has threatened Common Cause and our coalition partners with legal action multiple times. But all we’re doing is putting ALEC’s extreme agenda out in the open and letting it speak for itself — which is a truth they can’t keep hiding from. Despite all this, major companies like Anheuser-Busch, UPS, and Pfizer continue to support ALEC.

We need your help to expose their involvement and hold them accountable. You can make a major difference right now! Chip in to help us expose and defeat ALEC at every turn >> Thank you for your support, Jay Riestenberg, Deputy Communications Director
and the team at Common Cause