Future of Farming Project Releases Recommendations

The Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin project has issued recommendations for taking actions to help assure healthy and sustainable agriculture and rural life in the state.

The recommendations address health care, land use, rural labor issues, profitability, education, regional economic strategies, innovation, needs of rural communities, rural infrastructure, research and numerous other areas.

Eighty-three recommendations are contained in four general categories – community life; land use and conservation; food systems; and production agriculture and forestry. The recommendations are a product of two years of study, including extensive citizen input at six regional forums held in 2006, presentations by experts from throughout the state and nation, roundtable discussions among a broad range of stakeholders and review by a 23-member coordinating committee. The Future of Farming and Rural Life Project is the current Wisconsin Idea public policy initiative of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

The recommendations will be aired at the statewide Future of Farming Conference, “Our Future, Our Heritage,” scheduled for May 14-15 at Monona Terrace in Madison. The recommendations will also be contained in the project’s final report to be issued this summer.

“These recommendations are action steps for policy-makers, communities and citizens interested in preserving and enhancing Wisconsin agriculture, rural communities and the resources that support them,” said Project Co-Chairs Stan Gruszynski and Tom Lyon. “They encompass a broad range of strategies that address many of the key concerns raised during the course of the study. That said, we don’t pretend to have touched every base. The recommendations are meant to spur further citizen action in what we believe to be a perfect climate for a rural renaissance in this state.”

Some key recommendations follow:

Create a state-funded purchase of development rights program to assist local governments and counties in protecting working lands. The study also recommends establishing agricultural enterprise zones to protect agricultural areas from non-farm development, enhancing efforts to maintain large blocks of working forest lands, concentrating development in urban areas and strengthening existing strategies for preserving working lands.

Address the needs of the most threatened segment of agriculture – middle-sized farms – by providing grants, tax credits and investment capital for modernization, expansion or conversion to alternate systems.

Provide all citizens in Wisconsin access to affordable, high-quality health care. The study recognized that this issue addresses common needs of rural and urban residents, but also noted that farm families statistically lag well behind the general public in availability and quality of health-care coverage. The study recommends convening a summit of stakeholders to develop solutions to the rural health care dilemma.

Take steps to address rural labor issues, including advocating for an effective documented worker program, providing for basic training of farm works and managers for the 21st century, and creating a favorable environment for agricultural career opportunities for migrant and nontraditional workers.

Review school financing formulas and revise were appropriate to provide equitable opportunities for all children. Also, provide school districts incentives to combine resources and take other steps to address the needs of rural schools, many of which are facing declining enrollments and rising costs. The study also recommends creation of an appointed state school board and empowering the state’s regional Cooperative Educational Services Agencies to meet 21st century educational needs.

Consolidate all programs that promote and address the expansion of agricultural food production and processing in the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Take steps to meet the 21st century needs of rural communities, including conducting a statewide assessment of transportation, energy and telecommunication needs in rural communities.

Provide incentives for regional economic development approaches that recognize the distinctive economic strengths of various regions.

Increase emphasis on “Wisconsin grown” and locally grown food systems, including more government purchasing of these foods.

The study recognized the potential and challenge of the bio-economy, and its recommendations call for developing broad-based bioenergy potential in rural communities while focusing research on the impact of bioenergy on other sectors of agriculture and the state’s resources.

In the area of federal policy, the study advocates a market-based approach that provides safety nets for milk and other commodities. It recommends the “greening” of the federal Farm Bill through programs that reward producers for land and water stewardship.

It calls for targeting state grants and other financial incentives to new and beginning farmers and producers who are making adjustments in their operations. It also recommends new strategies to assure the viability and growth of Wisconsin’s cooperatives.

It also advocates for educating Wisconsin citizens from all backgrounds about the interrelationships between healthy communities and healthy countrysides.

Recommendations are posted on the project Web site at http://www.wisconsinacademy.org/idea, along with registration and background information about the state conference. Public comment is invited through June 30, 2007 when a final version will be approved for publication by the project coordinating committee.