WisBusiness: Wisconsin farmers optimistic about 2007

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – Wisconsin farmers are upbeat about making a profit this year, but remain worried about their ability to obtain affordable health insurance.

And, according to a survey by the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the overwhelming majority (82 percent) say they are better off financially than they were five years ago. They say they are also strongly optimistic (87) percent about the future.

“They’ve had some good years with commodity prices, but farmers are always somewhat guarded, like Cubs fans,” said Tom Thieding, a spokesman for the federation. “That’s because while they always hold out hope, they know from experience that things could go wrong.”

Thieding said interviews conducted state agriculture shows this winter also showed that farmers see the expansion of renewable energy as one of the top ways to keep agriculture strong.

Affordable health insurance is one of their major worries, with 60 percent listing it among their top three concerns and 33 percent saying it was their biggest worry. But Thieding said he does not believe they would support a government-run program.

“We have been gauging member’s attitudes about that over the years and farmers continue to say they want to have control over their insurance,” he said.

“They are not adverse to buying insurance, but they are concerned about affordability and level of coverage. They don’t want a government-run program though, in part because of their experience with (federal) ag programs.”

Thieding said the survey showed that in 44 percent of the households surveyed, wives work off the farm. On 20 percent, both men and women have outside jobs and in 10 percent, the husband works off the farm.

The survey indicated the need for health insurance was the primary reason that two-thirds of those with non-farm jobs are working away their dairies and farms.

“I believe most of these folks would not work off the farm if they did not have to for insurance reasons,” Thieding said. “We haven’t asked that question, but we are trying to get the university’s rural sociologists to look into that question.”

Thieding said the federation is considering support of the Wisconsin Health Plan, which aims to offer affordable health insurance alternatives to all Wisconsinites while preserving the current employer- and insurance company-driven structure.

The survey also showed that overall profitability was a top concern among 30 percent of the farmers, with 56 percent listing it as among their top three concerns. The other main issue was the availability of land and facilities, also with 56 percent indicating it as one of their top three concerns.

When asked to choose three steps from a list of 10 things that could be taken to help their operations, 21 percent said boosting U.S. ag exports and cutting federal spending was their first choice. But 44 percent listed passing an energy law that includes a bigger role for renewable fuels as one of the top three things the federal government could do to help agriculture.

An overwhelming majority of Wisconsin farmers (92 percent) said farm income should come “totally from the marketplace,” while 8 percent said farm income should be supplemented by farm program payments.

And when quizzed about their opinions regarding the public’s attitude toward farmers and ranchers, 27 percent said they thought the public weighs in positively, 21 percent said the public responds negatively and 52 percent said they thought members of the public generally does not think about them at all.

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