The stalemate over the the state biennial budget has been somewhat of a nightmare for school districts and others trying to make plans for the fiscal year that began July 1, but it appears as if there will be a happy ending for farmers and others who depend on conservation funding.
After a 10-week delay, the Joint Committee on Finance completed its work late last month on the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and environmental quality provisions within the Department of Natural Resources budget proposal.
As part of that action, amendments to the governor’s budget were approved to increase funding for county conservation staffing grants and soil and water resource management (nonpoint) grants.
The county conservation staffing grant funding was increased by $900,000 per year to bring the total base funding to a little more than $8.9 million a year. The budget also provides an additional $825,000 per year for soil and water resource management grants.
The $825,000 is the same budget number county officials said they could have used in 2017 to meet their needs for nutrient-management planning. Nutrient-management plans help farmers determine when to apply manure and other nutrients at the proper rate and location.
Funding was also maintained for the popular Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant Program and increases the maximum state match from $20,000 per watershed to $40,000. The program has spurred the formation of local conservation groups to undertake voluntary conservation efforts across the state.
The Joint Finance Committee also approved funding to study the hydrology of certain water bodies designated in the high-capacity-well legislation passed earlier this year, and provided $100,000 in grant money to design solutions to increase flow in the Little Plover River.
The conservation funding still needs to pass the finish line with full legislative approval and a signature by Gov. Scott Walker, but with bipartisan support within the Joint Finance Committee, it’s a good bet that will happen.
Wisconsin Farm Bureau Executive Director of Governmental Relations Paul Zimmerman said the bipartisan support of the funding “speaks to the importance and nonpartisan nature of agriculture in this state.”
Zimmerman said the conservation funding provisions “will help farmers become more effective stewards of their lands.”
Jim VandenBrook, executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association, said the Joint Finance Committee support “reflects the importance of clean, safe water to the people of Wisconsin.”
VandenBrook said the improved funding will allow farmers to do more work with county land conservation departments to improve nutrient management, stabilize stream and lake shorelines, handle manure safely, prevent erosion and manage invasive species.
While many farmers are undoubtedly applauding the legislative action, there might be some nonfarm taxpayers who question why they should be paying farmers to implement conservation measures on their farms.
Well, the answer to that question is simple. Everyone benefits from clean water, and although it is the farmer’s responsibility not to impair surface or groundwater due to actions on his or her farm, sometimes the implementation of practices to make sure that happens can be price prohibitive. Financial incentives are often needed to make sure farmers can get a good start on projects that will help them keep that water clean. They make plenty of investments on their own, too, but with a little taxpayer help, these projects become more feasible.
Funding to help farmers with conservation projects is not much different than the state funding urban projects that reduce air or water pollution from businesses or local governments. In both cases, urban and rural residents benefit from the clean water that is a result of the state funding.
The budget debate has gone on far longer than it needs to. With the Republicans controlling the state Senate, Assembly and governor’s office, wouldn’t you think they could come to an agreement in a timely fashion?
Apparently not. But at least when they do, farmers will get some help on their conservation programs.