State Senator Brad Pfaff and fellow Dems highlight package of ag bills at Viroqua’s Food Enterprise Center

VIROQUA, Wis. – State Senator Brad Pfaff led press conference with a group of state legislators at the Food Enterprise Center in Viroqua on Wednesday, Nov. 1 to introduce a package of proposed bills in an effort to support Wisconsin agriculture. Pfaff was joined by State Rep. Dave Considine of the 81st Assembly District (D-Baraboo), State Rep. Katrina Shankland of the 71st Assembly District (D-Stevens Point), and State Rep. Clinton Anderson of the 45th Assembly District (D-Beloit).

In his introduction Pfaff said the package of bills provide funding to connect food assistance organizations and schools with farmers, market Wisconsin products through the “Something Special from Wisconsin” Program, support growth in value-added products, and enhance regional farmer support.

“When we invest in agriculture, we grow our future,” said Pfaff. “Our agriculture industry is strong, generating a $107 billion economic impact annually for our state, but for Wisconsin to continue moving forward, we need to create new markets and connect farmers with consumers. We know that access to locally grown and produced food makes Wisconsinites healthier. I’m proud that these bills not only help our farmers to reach more markets and develop more value-added products, but they also recognize the needs of schools and food banks to have access to locally sourced food.”

Pfaff said the bills not only benefit farmers, but consumers as well.

“Building greater connections between Wisconsin farmers and consumers is a win-win; a win for production agriculture and a win for consumers who want greater access to locally grown and produced food,” said Pfaff.

State Rep. Dave Considine – Adding DATCP staff – Supporting Farm to School and Farm to Table

State Rep. Dave Considine

Considine said one of the bills in the package would add two more full-time positions to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). Consadine said historically UW-Extension agents would come to farms to see how farmers were doing but that is becoming a lot less common. He said adding two more staff members to DATCP is would help address mental health issues with farmers and it could help farmers create a farm transition plan.

“Those new staff members have a very specific job,” said Consadine. “It is to get out in the field and talk with Farmers. You all know farmers right? How many of them want to go to Madison to see a psychiatrist? Or want to go to Madison? Heck they don’t want to see a psychiatrist in the first place. But they do want somebody who will come and talk to them, and in the process of talking with them they will share their struggles. That’s what these guys or women are all about. Doesn’t happen so much anymore but it needs to happen, especially with out mental health crisis with our farmers.”

Considine said another proposed bill would provide funding for DATCP to award grants to create and expand Farm to School programs.

“Farm to school and Farm to Table,” said Consadine. “Just encouraging and getting together,
finding a way to get schools and local farmers together. Finding a way to get local institutions, hospitals, and local farmers together to market that local food this is where we need to head an agriculture….it’s not a panacea but it’s going to change agriculture in Wisconsin. It’s going to be a step at a time and that’s what we’re here to do.”

State Rep. Katrina Shankland – Bill to allow EBT purchases at farmers markets

State Rep. Katrina Shankland

“We all know that Wisconsin has a very proud agricultural heritage and farming is inextricably tied to our statewide identity,” said Shankland. “Beyond that though the success of our agricultural industry and ag community is crucial to our state’s shared economic success. That’s why I’m
proud to join my legislative colleagues today and leaders from our agriculture community as we join together to introduce this legislative package. The bills were rolling out today are straightforward, common sense, and if passed would go a long way to support our farmers and community members throughout the state of Wisconsin.”

Shankland said one bill being proposed that would require the Department of Health Services to provide a payment processing program for farmers and farmers markets.

“The bill provides $735,000 in EBT (electronic benefits transfer) and credit and debit processing equipment,” Shankland said. “It will help increase access to good food and broadens the options for EBT benefits. It supports a direct link with farmers and consumers. It will boost sales and revenue for farmers and farmers markets. Individual farmers and farmers markets in Wisconsin don’t consistently have the opportunity to offer EDT Services especially in our rural communities. So many farmers do not have the equipment to process credit and debit cards. So what that means is so many community members across Wisconsin who receive support from the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or snap, don’t have as ready access to the high
quality and nutritious food that our local farmers produce.”

State Rep. Clinton Anderson – Something Special From Wisconsin and value added bills

State Rep. Clinton Anderson

Anderson said he regularly gets feedback that the Something Special from Wisconsin label is important fro Wisconsin producers. The proposed bill increases DATCP’s annual appropriation for the advertising and promotion of the Something Special from Wisconsin slogan, mark and logo by $142,300 in each year of the 2023-25 fiscal biennium.

Another bill proposal supports the growth of value-added products, by providing education, technical assistance and grants through DATCP. Considine said the bill is specifically focused on smaller producers.

“I just really want to touch on DATCPs funding for value added products,” said Anderson. “Providing technical assistance, support for marketing opportunities. Basically anything that somebody might need to venture into a value added product is available with one of the bills we
have. It would be $400,000 a year 800,000 in the biennium to help them. This is also a win as we’re talking about the changing way that we do farming and agriculture in Wisconsin making sure that producers can move into a value added product is a win for everybody. So this bill package is absolutely amazing.”

Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden praised the package of bills.

Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden

“The group of bills that’s being put forward here today is certainly going to be very beneficial to, not only Vernon County, but the state of Wisconsin,” said Von Ruden. “Because looking at how agriculture is changing, you know the the farm to table aspect is certainly something that we’re hearing more about uh Wisconsin Farmers Union.”

Von Ruden also the support for the Farm to School program.

“These bills will certainly help in that process,” Said Von Ruden. “The Farm to School program has been around for a while but certainly needs help. You know trying to break that model we’re seeing as far as trying to buy from national retailers, why are we doing that? This is something that’ll help to um bring those dollars back into the local communities. That is where it should stay.”

Von Ruden said the Something Special From Wisconsin initiative has allowed Wisconsin products to stand out in competitive markets, especially with cheese products.

Fifth Season Cooperative

The group heard from one of the main tenants of Food Enterprise Center, The Fifth Season Cooperative. Tyler Dvorak with Fifth Season said their coop is unique in that involves stakeholders on multiple levels.

“Fifth Season Cooperative is a Cooperative that’s unique in the respect that it’s multi-stakeholder and workers, farmers, distributors, buyers, producer groups and processors are all able to become members of the cooperative,” said Dvorak. “So it’s not just the one-sided cooperative. The hope is that that makes connecting producers of products with markets for those products. Putting those producers and the buyers together, and in a negotiating sense making, it easier to sort of provide a way that the system can be equitable amongst all these stakeholders. Because any excess profits that are created within the cooperative would just be redistributed back into the system.”

Dvorak said Fifth Season covers 18 counties and being centered out of the Food Enterprise center is a huge advantage for producers because it provides storage, including cold storage and loading docks. He said the coops access to technology through their office is particularly important for their Amish producers that make up about 80 percent of their produce growers that are able to access markets they otherwise would not be able to access.

Food Enterprise Center Executive Director Sue Noble – Facility tour

VEDA Executive Director Sue Noble

Vernon Economic Development Association Executive Director Sue Noble introduced Pfaff and later took the group on a tour of their building and the Food Enterprise Center. Noble said the building where VEDA is located was once a printing facility for NCR (National Cash Register) and now houses 30 businesses and last year saw a combined sales of $125,000 million. NCR had previously employed about 80 people in the building, but there over 100 people working on site now. Noble said if you count offsite employees they employ over 300 people.

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