7 Investigates: Farmers have mixed reactions to Dairy Task Force's proposals to save industry

By  | 

MEDFORD, Wis. (WSAW) -- Six months and numerous sub-committee meetings into their mission, Governor Scott Walker’s Dairy Task Force 2.0 has released two proposals aimed at restoring the future of America’s dairyland.

With 638 Wisconsin farms shut down in 2018, it is no secret the state is battling a dairy crisis. A joint effort between the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the University of Wisconsin system, the task force’s goal is to ensure a successful and profitable future for the industry, much like the first dairy task force tried to do in 1985.

Ryan Klussendorf sits on two sub-committees of the task force, while operating Broadland Grass Farm in Medford with his father. For him, it is about making sure there is a future for the state’s dying industry and protecting his farm to pass on to his three sons.

“We’re trying to put the pieces in place to help stabilize it for the future,” Klussendorf reflected. “We want action sooner than later, but it takes time to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

The new proposals, passed December 13, hinge on state funding. The first plan recommends an expansion to Wisconsin Housing & Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) loan programs that farmers currently use, essentially giving farmers access to more capital when applying for loans.

“The state would use funding to guarantee a loan for special purpose facilities in rural communities,” Task Force Chairman Mark Stephenson explains. He adds that what is available to them now is considerably less than what is being proposed—and that those current limits often are not enough to help them move forward with expansions.

"We just would like to have the state to be willing to stand behind the collateral value of a building and structure,” Stephenson told 7 Investigates.

“If a business goes south, the lender would have to fall back on collateral value of facilities, and if they can't cover collateral value, they may be unwilling to make the loan.”

That is where the task force wants the state to step in, by increasing the amounts by which WHEDA would guarantee loans for rural farmers.

The second proposal—ranked by task force members as their highest priority—involves an injection of $7.6 million annually into the UW system to fund a dairy research innovation hub on three of the system’s agricultural campuses. The research hub would focus on four topics, including better stewardship of farming land and resources, new product development for human health, improved animal health, and boosting farm businesses in rural communities.

“Right now, when farmers are hurting, our rural communities are hurting,” Klussendorf noted.

The proposals are not being met with unanimous approval in the farming community, however. Pleasant View Dairy farm owner James Juedes feels he speaks for many farmers when he says the task force is not addressing the true needs of Wisconsin farmers.

“It doesn’t do anything to solve the problem we have of over-supply. It just kind of throws money at it,” he said.

Investing money in research is already being done by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and other groups, Juedes told 7 Investigates. He feels the true need of the industry is addressing what he identifies as the root of Wisconsin’s dairy problems: supply and demand.

“Until that stuff gets settled,” he explained, “One way or another, all the rest of the stuff isn’t really going to matter.”

And he cites the biggest part of that problem as falling milk prices—something most farmers agree on, as is evident in the public comments submitted by farmers across the state in the task force meetings.

Klussendorf recognizes some farmers are concerned task force members are not doing enough to address the milk price issue. But Stephenson says the task force cannot prioritize fixing milk prices, because the market controls costs. Instead, he believes increased demand combined with fewer dairy farms could eventually fix the milk price problem on its own.

“The milk price will recover before the task force implementation could ever claim credit for it,” Stephenson explained.

Ultimately, concern for the next generation of farmers is both Klussendorf and Juedes' biggest priority. They both have children they hope will continue their farming legacy.

“If we could work together to come out with a common goal to make Wisconsin the dairy state and keep it that way—it would be great,” Klussendorf added.

The proposals–along with any future plans that will come out of additional sub-committee meetings of the task force–will be forwarded to incoming Governor-elect Tony Evers to implement, should he choose to do so. His team told 7 Investigates they do plan on working with the task force, once newly-appointed DATCP secretary Brad Pfaff has the opportunity to review their ideas.

Review the task force recommendations:

Access to Capital Proposal
Dairy Innovation Hub Proposal