WEST ALLIS — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue kicked off his five-state “Back to Our Roots” RV tour last week by chatting with farmers and rubbing elbows with some excited 4-H dairy exhibitors at the Wisconsin State Fair.
In about an hourlong listening session on Aug. 3, the opening day of the fair, Perdue heard from area farmers about what they'd like to see in the 2018 Farm Bill as it begins to take shape. Grain farmer Kevin Malchine, one of about a dozen farmers invited to the session, said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to offer his input to President Donald Trump’s ag authority and that Perdue seemed “very interested in listening to us, which I appreciate. ... He comes across very personable, easy to talk to.”
Malchine said he hopes to see further support of risk-management programs in the next farm bill. Other farmers invited for the session represented dairy, organic, beef and other ag-related interests.
In a brief press conference after the closed-door meeting, Perdue said he heard plenty from Wisconsin dairy farmers about the need for policy reform.
“We recognize that dairy and possibly cotton didn’t fare as well in the 2014 Farm Bill as we had hoped,” he said, and that has had a big effect, particularly, on Wisconsin. He said the Margin Protection Program in its current form has not proven to be a very beneficial method of revenue protection, and the dairy industry has offered U.S. Department of Agriculture economists some alternatives to take back to Washington, D.C.
“Everyone acknowledges that the dairy program in the farm bill has not been adequate,” he said. “You can expect to see some changes there.”
Perdue said his must-haves for the next farm bill include an effective safety net that allows farmers to respond to the market. Expanding dairy exports also is vitally important, and the legislation should help advance agricultural research, he said.
“We don’t want people farming for the farm bill; we want them farming for the market,” he said. “The 2014 Farm Bill went a long way toward that, but we have some challenges in dairy and cotton.”
He said there have been differences in how the farm bill has worked for smaller dairies vs. larger operations, as farmers with thousands of cows seem to be “doing OK,” he said, while family farms are “almost becoming extinct.”
Perdue said farm labor and immigration reform are among the top issues in U.S. agriculture, and he’s gathering ideas to bring before Congress about how to improve the guest worker visa program, which is of great concern to many dairy farmers.
“Almost everybody acknowledges how difficult it is to find an American worker who wants to milk cows 365 days a year,” he said, adding, “We want the American public to have confidence that we know who these people are, when they’re here and when they go back home.”
Farmers also are concerned about continued low commodity prices and farm income that's about half of what it was four years ago.
“Many people are eating through their equity,” he said.
Before the listening session, Perdue toured the cattle barns accompanied by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel. The trio stopped frequently to chat with 4-H’ers about their cattle and grabbed burgers at the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association booth. Brancel said he appreciated Perdue’s willingness to “take his ear on the road” to hear from farmers.
“His first stop is here with the idea of listening more intimately with a select group of farmers from different walks of life,” Brancel said.
Also that day, Perdue toured the Hunger Task Force Farm in Franklin and appeared with U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at Blain’s Farm and Fleet in Janesville. On Aug. 4, he hosted a listening session of the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity formed in June — in Wausau and had lunch at Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Jim Holte's farm near Elk Mound before crossing the border for stops in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. The tour ended Aug. 8.
The Wisconsin State Fair runs through Sunday, Aug. 13.