Dale Beaty, chief administrative officer for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, sees major challenges on the horizon for the state agriculture industry.
Rising to meet these issues, Beaty told WisBusiness.com, will take active legislation at the state and federal level.
In-state net farm income has been declining for four straight years, and went down by 23 percent last year, Beaty said. He added that farm incomes are projected to decline in 2017.
“Farmers have to be sustainable on the land,” Beaty said. “To be sustainable, they have to be able to make a profit. Over the last four years, and maybe for a fifth, that’s becoming more difficult.”
In 2016, state prices for agricultural goods were down across the board in dairy, crops and livestock.
“Some in agriculture are suffering out there,” Beaty said. “It’s really important for farmers to be great managers; they have to manage their financial standing.”
He said they are doing that “pretty well,” but pointed to several key issues that need attention.
When it comes to clean water, he said, both farmers and the citizens of Wisconsin are “highly dependant.”
“We are blessed in this state,” Beaty said, pointing to the abundance of fresh water in the surrounding Great Lakes system and good supplies of groundwater as important resources.
“We need to protect our water,” he said. “A big part of that is promoting legislation on high capacity wells.”
Another important issue for the state’s farmers is funding rural roads, which he calls a “critical” endeavor.
“It’s not just getting products to market–it’s a quality of life and safety issue,” Beaty said.
Beaty says he is unsure what immigration reforms may be enacted under the Trump administration, but emphasized the importance of immigrants to the farm economy. Beaty said, “Farm work is hard work, labor intensive, and farmers have a hard time finding people to do it.”
He characterized immigrants to Wisconsin as the best people for farming jobs, saying they are the people who want to do them, and they do “a very good job.”
“We are very reliant on immigrants,” he said.
He also said federal legislative reform is needed on the H-2A immigrant worker program, especially for the dairy industry.
The H-2A program provides short-term labor certification, allowing immigrant workers to come into the country to work for a predetermined period. Once that time is up, however, they have to leave the country.
According to Paul Zimmerman, executive director of government relations for WFBF, that is a problem for the dairy sector because cows need to be milked nearly all the time.
“We need workers to stay on the farm, and work on the farm continuously,” Beaty said. “There needs to be reform that recognizes that it’s not a seasonal type of thing, that it’s year-round.”
Under the Trump administration, Beaty expects some rolling back of federal regulatory limits on farmers. According to him, farmers are optimistic about that prospect.
“Everyone eats,” Beaty said. “It is in everyone’s best interest that we have a vibrant agricultural economy.”
–By Alex Moe