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Person killed in shooting on La Crosse's North Side

One person has died after being shot Saturday evening on the city’s North Side.

Police were called to the 900 block of Copeland Avenue about 9:40 p.m. for a report of a shooting, according to the La Crosse Police Department.

Authorities found one person suffering from a gunshot wound. The victim was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where the victim later died.

The name of the victim had not been released Sunday evening.

For the latest on this story, go to lacrossetribune.com.

Wisconsin dairy economists say 2020 will be 'restorative' year for the industry

Wisconsin dairy economists are predicting 2020 will be a recovery year for the industry after years of low prices.

September milk production was 0.6 percent higher than the same month last year, according to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationally, September milk production was 1.6 percent higher than in 2018.

The production increase comes after several months of declines from 2018 levels. Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he was surprised by the change.

“(There were) fewer cows than we’ve had in all of our earlier months of the year, so a continued decline there, but milk production per cow had a strong growth,” Stephenson said. “That usually doesn’t happen unless we have pretty good quality feed and a real strong incentive to produce milk.”

Stephenson said farmers have the incentive, with milk prices at about $18 per hundredweight, or 100 pounds of milk. That’s about $2 higher than in September 2018.

But he said farmers may not be able to sustain increased production in coming months.

“I’m just doubtful that the quality of our feed with the poor harvest that we’ve had is good enough to support that kind of increase in milk per cow,” Stephenson said.

Bob Cropp is a professor emeritus of agricultural and applied economics at UW-Madison. He agrees that farmers won’t be able to ramp up production quickly, even with strong domestic demand and lower stocks of products like cheese.

“After four and a half years of low milk prices, farmers lost a lot of equity. So we don’t see them jumping on the bandwagon to start increasing milk production real fast,” Cropp said.

Cropp said farmers will need to pay off some of their debts before thinking about an expansion.

And Stephenson said that will likely take a higher milk price.

“They need better than average prices to restore some of those balance sheets before they’re going to feel like they’re in good shape again. I think 2020 is going to be enough better that it will be restorative, but it’s not going to be a great year like 2014 was,” Stephenson said.

So Stephenson said modest production could be a good thing for prices, especially given the current confusion in the market.

He said cheese prices are a good example, with huge increases and declines in a short period of time in the last few months.

“These are markets that don’t have a clear idea about just where we are right now,” Stephenson said. “Demand has been relatively good and so they want to produce cheese and they want to sell it. But they don’t want to make more than they think they can sell and just simply store it, that’s not a good strategy.”

Cropp said prices could reach $19 per cwt in November during the always-busy holiday season. He expects prices will remain strong in 2020.

2 Wisconsin elections provide test run for presidential race

MADISON — President Donald Trump’s road to re-election a year from now runs through Wisconsin, but both sides will get chances months earlier to measure where their operations, and voters, stand in the hotly contested state.

A special election to fill a rural Wisconsin congressional seat vacated by Republican Sean Duffy will test the enthusiasm of conservatives in a key district for Trump that he won by 20 points on his way to victory in Wisconsin by less than a point. And a statewide Supreme Court election is expected to serve as a dry run for the much larger presidential get-out-the-vote machines Republicans and Democrats have been assembling for months.

“We’re going to test out our tactics, see what works,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler.

Both he and Wisconsin Republican Party Executive Director Mark Jefferson said the two spring elections are a huge opportunity for dry runs as well as to gather data about voters that can be used to bolster turnout in the presidential race.

“It allows us to get our grass roots fired up and pointed in a positive direction,” Jefferson said.

It’s particularly valuable to test technology used to reach targeted voters and give your volunteers some experience, said Republican strategist Mark Graul, who ran George Bush’s 2004 Wisconsin campaign.

“You don’t get a second chance in November,” Graul said.

While the parties see the races as a test run, the candidates are making moves that shed light on how the presidential race will affect things.

The leading Republican candidates to replace Duffy are closely aligning themselves with Trump, much like Duffy did in the deeply conservative district. There’s little to be gained for a Republican in that district, which Trump won by 20 points, to distance themselves from the president.

Trump’s chances to take Wisconsin depend on running up big margins in the district, so getting a chance to gather data on voters and test their turnout operations in the special election is a bonus, Jefferson said. Democrats are doing just the same.

“A lot of politics is which side is able to learn more faster,” Wikler said.

Graul said both sides will be particularly focused on seeing how well they can reach non-traditional voters.

There are early signs that liberals are trying to nationalize the Supreme Court race, much like was done in 2018 , by tying conservative incumbent Justice Dan Kelly to Trump. Polls show the president’s approval rating below 50% in Wisconsin and support for impeachment rising.

“My opponent supports Trump,” tweeted Jill Karofsky, a Dane County judge running for Supreme Court this year. She forwarded a picture of Kelly standing in front of a Trump re-election sign at a campaign stop.

Kelly, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, is trying to argue the race is about experience, not politics. He argues on the campaign trail that politics should be “left to the politicians,” while he makes the rounds on conservative talk radio and appears at Republican events.

Karofsky and Marquette University law school professor Ed Fallone, respectively, are sticking largely with Democratic events.

But they are also looking to the 2018 Supreme Court race as a model for how to win. In that race, the liberal candidate and her supporters in many ways framed the contest as a referendum on Trump. Rebecca Dallet won the support, and money, of Democrats along the way, including the endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who are both presidential candidates.

It worked. Dallet won 24 counties that Trump had carried in 2016, giving Democrats a boost of confidence and energy heading into the fall.

Rebecca Lovejoy, a Democratic strategist who ran Dallet’s campaign, said the race result will show how energized liberals are heading into the fall. Similarly, the special congressional election in a district Trump won by 20 points could show whether there’s a drop in Republican enthusiasm, said longtime GOP strategist Brandon Scholz.

“If it does slip and it doesn’t have the turnout everyone expects ... then you probably have some head scratching that would go on,” Scholz said.

The primary in the race to replace Duffy is Feb. 18 and the general election is May 12, a date Democratic Gov. Tony Evers chose to avoid boosting Republican turnout on the same day as the Supreme Court election. That will be decided on April 7, the same day as Wisconsin’s presidential primary and an election for Milwaukee County executive, which could further drive turnout among Democrats in that liberal county.

Closing the farm gate: Struggling farmers take emotional step to forge new career paths

Mary Lou Graf wakes up almost every day knowing this certainty: It will be a long one. Her day could include juggling as many three jobs. Along with that are aches and pains brought on by recent knee replacement surgeries.

Her quest to achieve financial stability feels like it won’t end.

“I’m not saying I want to be a millionaire, I just want to make enough money to pay my bills every month,” Graf said.

Graf, 53, lives on a dairy farm she once operated with her late husband in Hokah, a small community near the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota. Her workday typically starts around 6 a.m. and can stretch as late as 8 p.m. In between are a variety of gigs that help her that cover the farm expenses she still has.

Depending on the season, she works at a landscaping business. Now that it’s fall, she has a part-time teaching job at a local school. She even sells Mary Kay cosmetics on the side. She returns home from those jobs to a string of chores to keep the farm going.

Graf married into a farming family. She and her husband had dreams of building their farm into a profitable venture that could pay off all their debt.

Her husband, Daryl, was killed in a farming accident 11 years ago. The collapse of the dairy market followed his death.

“Milk went from $22 down to $9 there in the early years he was gone. When you cut that in half, less than half, making ends meet, it just wasn’t there,” Graf said.

Graf eventually had to sell nearly half of her herd, from 110 cows down to 68, and entertain the thought that most farmers hope to avoid: exploring other career options. Her situation is playing out at other farms in Minnesota, especially at dairy operations where low prices are forcing owners to consider other ways of bringing in income, even if it means a new career.

Writing on the wall

In southeastern Minnesota, where Graf lives, a program was recently launched to help struggling farm workers transition to different jobs. Allison Wagner, the director of the Economic Development Authority in Houston County, said it all started in late 2018 when her office received a stark warning from local banking leaders. The message was simple: 2019 wasn’t going to be a profitable year for farmers in that region, and many of them would probably be denied operating loans.

“We knew that we were going to have a crisis on our hands. We also knew we were going to have to try new things,” Wagner said.

That meant openly advertising to the agriculture community about resources for finding jobs off the farm. In a partnership with the nonprofit Workforce Development, Wagner’s office does various forms of outreach such as roundtable discussions. Through this outreach, farmers get free advice on everything from resume writing tips to interview preparation.

As word got out, program managers started hearing from people who wanted the free service. In the past year, roughly 30 farmers and their families have been helped out. The managers say these are clients who never really sought out this kind of help in the past.

“Farmers were saying things like, ‘Allison, I only know how to be a farmer. I’ve always been a farmer. I don’t know how to do anything but be a farmer,’” Wagner said.

Many skills that it takes to be a good farmer translate pretty easily to other vocations, like construction or bookkeeping.

Most of the work Graf has found through the program tends to be seasonal, leaving a lot of unknowns about the present and the future. Paying bills is still a problem.

“There isn’t money there to buy $200 worth of groceries every month or gas money to run to town. It’s still very, very tight.”

Still, Graf feels that she’s on a better path toward prosperity. Graf said she can’t imagine where she would be without the program.

“I’d be pretty lost. They popped into my life at a time I just wasn’t expecting anything to happen. They were very encouraging and inspiring — didn’t downgrade you because you weren’t making it on the farm.”

Bracing for more

Those who oversee the program that helped Graf say they anticipate making more of these connections in the coming months. Jinny Reitmann, the executive director at Workforce Development, said the signs are there for this wave to continue.

“I live in a farming community, and my husband just went to an auction for another farm that closed. So we’re definitely gonna see a continued number of individuals seeking help,” Reitmann said.

That anticipated wave of farmers stepping down from their tractors and jumping into new careers underscores a trend that’s been building for decades.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, total farm employment in Minnesota has shrunk from nearly 124,000 in 1988 to just under 75,000 in 2018.

Meanwhile, farm income continues to decline. According to data gathered by the University of Minnesota Extension and Minnesota State University at Mankato, Minnesota farms earned the lowest median farm income in 2018.

The reported net income last year was just over $26,000, down 8 percent from the previous year.

In Houston County, where Graf lives, farms reported a more than 50 percent decline in net income between 2012 and 2017, according to the most recent U.S.D.A Census.

As for the number of farms lost, Stearns County, in central Minnesota, has been among the hardest hit. The same Agriculture Census reported that Stearns lost more than 15 percent of its farms over the same period.

The emotional barrier

Mark Koehn of Holdingford, Minn. can relate to those struggles. He was a successful hog farmer in Stearns County from the early 1970s to the early ’90s. Like Mary Lou Graf’s late husband, farming was in a family business.

“I started farming right out of high school. Started farming with my parents,” Koehn said.

Over time, Koehn began living out his dream and was named Minnesota Hog Farmer of the Year in 1988. But it was around that time that things began to turn south. Family health issues forced their insurance premiums to skyrocket. Add a combination of severe drought conditions and plummeting hog prices and Koehn’s profits suffered dramatically.

“So it’s ironic that after 20 years of award winning pork production, we actually had less money than when we started,” he said. “Reality was really starting to sink in.”

Koehn said the financial cloud created a dark period for his family. As a result, he put in more hours on the farm. But that just created more stress and made things worse.

And then one spring he said the emotional toll became too much to bear. Koehn’s teenage daughter opted to skip prom because she didn’t want the family to spend money they didn’t have on a new dress.

That same year, something else happened that shook Koehn to his core.

“Our youngest son, who was about six at the time, I overheard him talking to mom in the kitchen. He said, ‘Mom, why is dad always so grumpy and so tired?’ That was pretty much a jab in the heart for me,” Koehn said.

Koehn took all of this added stress as a sign that he needed to look elsewhere for income to feed his family. He took a part time job at a fleet supply store. But he still wasn’t ready to make the gut wrenching decision to give up farming altogether and pursue a more steady job.

His biggest fear was telling his 96-year-old grandfather that he would be the last generation of his family to be a farmer. When he worked up the courage to tell him, Koehn’s grandfather listened and relayed his own struggles during the Great Depression.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Mark, if your horse is dead get off the darn thing, it ain’t gonna get you to town.’”

With that sense of relief in hand, Koehn pursued a new career as a county agricultural appraiser. He said some of the skills he developed allowed him to be successful in his new role.

When reviewing properties belonging to stressed farmers, he has seen many of them break down in tears, including three in one day.

“That drug up some painful memories of what we had gone through, and my heart was just bleeding for them,” Koehn said.

These encounters prompted Koehn to reach out to the local University of Minnesota Extension office. The educator at that office said Koehn would be good for speaking at outreach events aimed at helping farmers deal with stress.

He tells his story about making that tough decision to find a different job. His advice for others facing a bleak outlook: Once you break down that emotional barrier, the wheel toward a better future begins to turn.

“The despair is pretty overwhelming. And so, with programs like this, that we can talk about it and mentor other people, hopefully we can see these people through this.”

As this type of service is provided, organizers say they don’t want to discourage people from farming, and want to keep people in the profession as much as possible. They say family farms are still the lifeblood of many small towns struggling with population decreases. The program is there for those who have to do something else to generate revenue, or are simply ready to walk away.

For farmers like Mary Lou Graf, she still has hopes of keeping the dairy operation long enough to eventually hand it over to her adult children. But if that doesn’t happen, she knows one thing, she has other options.