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Brancel: New DATCP secretary ready for budget challenges

When Ben Brancel was secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection 10-plus years ago, former Gov. Tommy Thompson kept him busy with new initiatives.

This time around, Brancel, 60, has a new boss in Gov. Scott Walker. Burdened with a multi-billion-dollar state budget deficit, the former Assembly speaker says he'll be trimming rather than starting anew.

“The budget challenges will cause us to take a deeper look at the structure of the agency,” he recently told WisBusiness.com. “How many people do we have working in given areas? Is there a need for re-energizing in some areas, move people from one focus to another?”

Brancel said he doesn't plan to abandon any programs but promised to scrutinize DATCP operations closely.

“I’m going to become more aggressive in that regard this time around,” he said. “The deputy I had in the past was more externally focused. So with the support of Deputy Jeff Lyon, we will have a chance to evaluate energy and effort in different areas of the agency.”

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Asked to compare his two bosses, Brancel said Thompson “had a heart-felt feel for people of different backgrounds and what the agency could initiate that would be of benefit to them.”

Walker, however, is “very focused on structurally correcting budgets and making sure that we serve the public for the purpose we were created, that we align our fees to our responsibilities and that we make sure that what we are engaged in provides the services that are most necessary.”

Brancel, a fifth-generation farmer who raises cattle with his son near Endeavor, said that while much has changed in the past 10 years, he can hit the ground running because he's familiar with DATCP’s basic responsibilities and the structure of the agency.

“Coming in the second time helps you in that you understand what the agency is all about,” he said. Those core duties include food safety, environmental stewardship, animal health oversight and consumer protection, he noted.

“Consumer protection is not a sidelight,” he said. If consumers believe they have been wronged by a business, he said his agency will continue to conduct “honest, open and aggressive evaluations of the circumstances. We take that as a serious responsibility.”

While the Commerce Department is getting the biggest overhaul under Walker, Brancel said the new governor has asked all secretaries to eliminate duplication and look toward consolidation of duties.

He said he is not certain what programs will be scrapped, but explained that his agency is now evaluating the Working Lands Initiative, which seeks to limit development of farmland.

“I know legislators have their own opinions, which are quite diverse,” he said. “We want to make sure we are putting our best effort forward to preserve ag lands and we will work with local towns and counties as they put together their zoning and planning efforts."

He also said some councils created during former Gov. Jim Doyle's administration may be dumped.

“We are still evaluating… which of the councils have provided something of essence and value. Or is it just a sound-nice, feel-good activity?”

And he said he is reviewing regulations that he may seek to modify.

As a former legislator, Brancel said he is sensitive to how laws are made.

“I appreciate how the process works,” he said. “I have an understanding of how legislators operate and what makes them tick. That improves communications and ultimately will improve the final product that comes out.”

Brancel said he has not taken a position on raw milk. Though the Legislature passed a bill last year to make its sale legal to consumers, the measure was vetoed in May by Doyle. At the time, Doyle sided with the dairy industry and public health officials who cited health risks from unpasteurized milk.

“I won’t speculate on Governor Walker’s position other than that I know that he has said he would sign it if it has certain parameters,” he said. “But we have not discussed those parameters.”

He said a raw milk task force has put together a draft document that is still undergoing review.

“I know this issue has a totally free market viewpoint and it has a public health aspect concern to it,” he said.

“Some in the free-market world say if that’s what the people choose to drink, then you shouldn’t have anything to say about it. There’s others who say 'look, we’ve been charged with public health and the prevention of risk to the public.'"

Looking broadly at the agriculture industry, Brancel said the state should help farmers by actively marketing outside Wisconsin’s borders.

“We cannot just market internally and survive,” he said. “And we may have to think even broader than just the national market; it has to be an international market.

"We need to look at international markets more than we have in the past. We can’t be successful just by competing with California cheese or dairy products from any other part of the United States.”

Brancel said there is a place for smaller operations to participate in the current push from some interests to "buy local," but said local sales alone aren't enough to sustain the industry.

“I can tell you that if all you are going to do is sell locally, we are going to be in a whale of hurt. ‘Buy local’ is an important ingredient and it will help a certain segment, but it will not take care of the mass quantity of production that we produce or are capable of producing.”

Brancel said he believes biomass energy could be promising for the state’s farmers. In order to wean the state from foreign oil, he said the need for crops to produce ethanol, biodiesel and biomass will increase.

“If they can find the methodologies for harvesting and transporting large quantities of biomass… that allow it to be economical, then I think it will take off,” he said. “We have the topography in our state to support both row crops and vegetative crops, whether they are grasses or small brushes or tree growth for biomass.”

Brancel, who raises cattle with his veterinarian/son near Endeavor, 50 miles north of Madison, said he believes prospects are good for the next generation of farmers.

“There is an expanding world population and a growing need for food,” he said. “There is a lot of the world… where computers mean nothing and food means everything. Food is life. Somebody has to produce that food."


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