Farmer handshake outline on horizon

A trio of proposed bipartisan bills could provide much-needed assistance to an agriculture industry reeling from bankruptcies and depressed produce prices.

The "Our Farms, Our Future" bill package would create two farm-succession positions at the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension. It would also implement a student-loan-assistance program for beginning farmers and provide grants to small diverse farms.

"The three bills strengthen opportunities for Wisconsin farmers at every state of their careers," said Wis. Rep. Dave Considine, D-81-Baraboo.

He said the bills — brought forward by the Democratic members of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture — have bipartisan support. But he added he hadn't received assurances from Republican leaders that they will reach discussion this fall.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "We have some pretty influential support on the other side of the aisle."

The two UW-Extension positions would cost $224,000 per year. One position, with the Center for Dairy Profitability, would focus on financial planning in farm-succession management. The other position would help with planning and implementation with local educators.

The staffers would help educate and encourage farmers on the need for a proper succession plan.

"My suspicion is if we were to talk to the farmers who went out of business, some of those farmers could have been saved had we had appropriate succession planning," Considine said.

Farmer Gene Larsen said succession planning is extremely important for farmers as they age toward retirement. But it's something many farmers avoid.

"It's an absolute necessity for the continuance of the traditional Wisconsin multi-generational farm," he said. "It's a very difficult process that often is ignored and put off for another day."

A student-loan-assistance program would reimburse as much as $30,000 in college debt incurred by beginning farmers. Eligible farmers would need to commit to farming in Wisconsin for at least five years.

Danny Werachowski, with the cooperative farm Rising Sand Organics, said student-loan assistance will help ensure the next generation of educated farmers.

"They will help Wisconsin once again lead the nation in agriculture in a smart and forward-thinking way," he said.

A small-farm diversity-grant program would provide as much as $50,000 in matching funds to growers and producers on small-scale operations of 50 acres or less. The grant must be used to start a new agricultural operation or add a new product. If approved the grant program would be appropriated $500,000 during the 2019-2021 biennium.

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