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A new farming tradition

Last week, Gov. Tony Evers made the ongoing crisis in agriculture, notably in dairy farming, a centerpiece of his State of the State address.

The governor called for a legislative special session to pass a miscellany of eight bills to work on various aspects of the problem.

The proposal was standard issue. It would enhance a few dairy processing plant grants, give farmers help in business planning, increase UW- Extension staffing, fund an organic farming education program, take a stand in favor of increased export of dairy products and, to put a big ribbon on everything, create a Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity.

We’ve seen this “farm crisis” movie before. Farm families suffer low commodity prices for years. Bad weather compounds the hurt. Farm bankruptcies and suicides tick upward. And then we get a blue ribbon commission.

The general problem with this approach is that it attempts to fix the struggling agricultural industry that we see.

And what is that problem we see? It is failing old, wooden red dairy barns slouching towards collapse, farm sale signs on nearly every road, busted machinery sprawled like dinosaurs in farmstead driveways, unkempt farm housing, abandoned stone barn foundations and rural townships that, one after the next, cannot count a single dairy farm within their borders.

Yet, there is another response, a way forward. It is to partner not with that part of agriculture that is dying, but, instead, is in the process of being born.

This part of Wisconsin agriculture is not enshrined on the state’s license plate, but it’s out there, nevertheless.

Maybe it is a pick your own pumpkin business. Maybe it’s a ginseng farm. Or an Angus beef ranch. Or an organic corn business. Or a maple syrup sugarbush. It could be a pizza on the farm enterprise. Or a shiitake mushroom operation. It might be a farmstead cheese plant. Or a cut flower shop. It could be a deer corn company. Or, perhaps, dairy that makes its own ice cream. It could be a garlic business. Or a bakery. Or a Christmas tree farm. Or a meat lamb business. Or a pastured chicken outfit.

The state can help “partner” with all these new agricultural ventures. It can lift them up. The state just needs to appreciate these businesses for what they are. They represent a way for a whole new generation of Wisconsin residents to stay connected to the land.

This new tradition needs to be green. For years, the state government has watched Mother Nature put unsustainable, conventional farmers out business, even after handing out the standard baskets of tax breaks and grants. This needs to stop.

We need to set a higher standard, embrace some better values. We, as a state, must agree that we can only repair agriculture after we, first, stop mining the land’s productivity and compromising water quality. We have to minimize erosion. We have to enhance soil health. We have to improve water quality in impared waters. We have to safeguard wildlife.

Can we do it? Perhaps, but it will take some work. Key in all of this is the University of Wisconsin, a land grant college. Such a college was founded with the purpose of establishing a “permanent” agriculture that would sustain “rural health and life,” but, increasingly it now mostly facilitates the slow, grinding conversion of Wisconsin family agriculture to industrial-model agribusiness. If we in Wisconsin are to create a new, diverse tradition of ecologically sustainable and profitable farming, we need a university up to the task. The university thus must return to its roots. This means putting aside, as job one, creating billions in corporate ag sales each year. The university must be redirected to help teach rural Wisconsin, including small family farmers, how to live on the land. The people are our treasure.

We appreciate Gov. Evers highlighting problems faced by Wisconsin rural counties in his State of the State Address. We support his administration grappling with this large, complicated issue. We would only note that any solution here must be transformational. The status quo created the farm crisis. To end the crisis, we must leave the status quo.