MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Young farmers hoping to make a living in Wisconsin as well as those nearing retirement who want to hand off their operations to the next generation would benefit from a package of bills unveiled Tuesday designed to help stem the tide of farm bankruptcies in the state.
The three proposals are sponsored by Democrats but have bipartisan support, increasing their chances of being considered by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Between 2012 and 2017, the number of Wisconsin farms decreased by more than 7%, more than double the national average of 3.2%, according to the Census of Agriculture. Total farm acreage in Wisconsin also shrank by 2% over that time.
Wisconsin’s signature dairy industry has been hit particularly hard. Nearly 700 dairy farms closed last year, with hundreds more going under so far in 2019 due to a decline in the price of milk.
The new bills don’t target dairy farms specifically, but are designed to help farmers to remain viable when they are just starting out.
One proposal by Democratic Rep. Mark Spreitzer would create a program to forgive up to $30,000 in higher education debt for college graduates who commit to farming in Wisconsin for at least five years. The awards would be given based on financial need, the likelihood of success and the use of sustainable best practices. Only $120,000 would be available the first year of the program, increasing to $600,000 annually in five years.
The program will help to recruit younger farmers, which is a particularly urgent need given that the average age of a farmer in Wisconsin is 56 and getting older, Spreitzer said.
“We need excited, smart young farmers entering the field as soon as possible,” said Danny Werachowski, a supporter of the bill who graduated from college in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in English and later found his calling as a farmer.
The idea has broad support, with both the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and Farmers Union backing it, along with the Dairy Business Association, the Cooperative Network and the National Young Farmers Coalition.
Another bill, by Democratic Rep. Don Vruwink, would create a competitive grant program to award up to $50,000 for small-scale farming operations no larger than 50 acres. The money would have to be used to start a new operation or add a new product. Over two years, $500,000 would be available.
Meghan Snare moved with her husband from the Chicago suburbs to tiny Plymouth in Rock County and purchased a 10-acre farm in 2016. They now operate the Field and Farm Co. as a community supported agriculture operation, or CSA, while still holding down corporate jobs for tech companies.
Snare said the proposal would help people like her who “come in from left field” and want to farm.
“We think there’s a lot of opportunity for young farmers and people leaving other jobs to come into the agriculture industry,” she said.
A third bill, by Democratic Rep. Dave Considine, would fund two positions within the University of Wisconsin System to help farmers plan how to pass their operations off to younger family members.
Considine, a former dairy goat farmer, said some family farms that have been lost might have been saved with proper succession planning.
While all three bills have at least one Republican signed on in support, Considine said he has received no assurances from Republican leaders that the ideas will be voted on. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos did not immediately return messages seeking comment.