The Wisconsin dairy industry, challenged in numerous ways, remains an inescapable presence in the state — from the remaining number of small family farms dotting the landscape from county to county to the sprawling mega-farms housing thousands of cows.
Not as apparent, though, is the moneymaking magnitude of a business sector that contributes nearly $44 billion annually to the state’s economy. And, industry experts say, with that powerful economic punch comes the need for continued research to fuel the dairy industry.
“It’s really scary how few people in Wisconsin really know the impact that the dairy industry has on the entire state,” said Chad Vincent, CEO of the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, which is the marketing and promotion arm of the state’s dairy farmers.
The Wisconsin Legislature is considering a bill introduced late last month by Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green; Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City; and 26 other Republicans that asks the state to spend $7.9 million a year to fund dairy research at three UW-System campuses.
Proponents say the bill is aimed specifically at improving every aspect of the struggling dairy industry.
It calls for all-encompassing research to take place at a Dairy Innovation Hub within the campuses of UW-Madison, UW-River Falls and UW-Platteville, with a goal of finding solutions to problems that have frustrated the industry and its critics for decades.
The hub includes four research spokes:
“It’s about how do we produce whatever amount of milk we need more efficiently — with less manure, less land resources needed, less methane — without damaging the water supply,” said Kent Weigel, chairman of the dairy science department at UW-Madison.
“It’s about doing it in a way that the consumer finds acceptable.”
Plans also include an academy that would provide dairy professionals throughout the state with ongoing training to keep them updated on new technology and other industry information.
Marklein believes the research hub would strengthen Wisconsin’s leadership position within the global dairy market. “I think it’s going to be a way to reinvigorate our dairy industry and, if nothing else, to let our industry know that we haven’t forgotten them,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, said some in his caucus think Marklein jumped the gun with his proposal. Smith, a first-term senator, said he was unaware that Marklein was working on the legislation, even though Smith is on the Committee for Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions, which Marklein chairs.
“It would have been nice to have been given a heads-up and an opportunity to work with him on it,” said Smith. “The expectation was that something like this should come out of a task force that was bipartisan.”
Shelly Mayer, a Washington County dairy farmer and the executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, called the bill a “beacon of hope” at a time when the industry — and the world — most needs it.
“When we start talking about water and soil health and food safety and animal health and all of that, we’re not just talking about how it affects dairy, that’s all of us,” she said.
A reduced number of faculty researchers has made it difficult for dairy research at UW-Madison to keep pace with the growth of the industry. Budget cuts within the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and UW-Extension are the culprit, according to CALS senior associate dean Richard Straub.
However, CALS’ funding for the Center for Dairy Research also has been declining since 1999-2000, even though state money the college received for all of its research went up during that period, UW budget data show.
Vincent, from the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, said he has grown frustrated with UW-Madison’s refusal to spend more money on dairy research. That includes not filling positions or buying equipment needed for the CDR’s $47 million addition that the state is helping finance.
“I look at the UW and I hope they want to be known as a dairy university,” Vincent said. “But there’s this huge business school and all this other stuff there. And sometimes I wonder if dairy isn’t quite as sexy for them as they would hope it to be. I mean, there’s a lot of competing forces in terms of resources in the state.”
Mayer said UW System President Ray Cross has sent mixed signals about using state funding for the Dairy Innovation Hub since he was first made aware of the idea in 2017. While he has told dairy leaders and others that he understands the importance of the dairy industry to the state and the need to make a reinvestment, Cross has not put any of the System’s available state funds toward it, she said.
In a statement, UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch said, “President Cross worked closely with dairy leaders and lawmakers to help craft this legislation. He recognizes the importance of the dairy industry to the state of Wisconsin.
“In recent years, the UW System has faced challenges seeking funding for a wide array of worthy projects and programs,” Pitsch said. “President Cross will happily work with the Legislature and the governor to secure additional funding to support the dairy hub.”
Marklein wants the UW System to do more than just talk. The bill he authored orders the Board of Regents and UW System to use the $7.9 million annually specifically to fill more than 60 positions and handle infrastructure needs for the hub at all three campus sites.
“The institutions, the campuses need to recognize the importance of dairy and that dairy needs to be a priority for their ag departments,” Marklein said.
Mayer cautioned that while people from around the world continue to look to Wisconsin for its food industry and leadership related to dairy, other countries are poised to pass it by.
“As a dairy farmer, I rely on new discoveries and new research so I can continue to do things better. It’s as simple as that,” Mayer said.
After the UW System declined to fund the Dairy Innovation Hub starting in 2017, it was introduced as the signature recommendation for long-range improvements of the dairy industry from a group of state dairy leaders and farmers earlier this year. Vincent and Mayer were among the 31 voting members of the group called the Dairy Task Force 2.0. Cross was one of eight non-voting governmental members on the panel.
Gov. Tony Evers and Brad Pfaff, the new secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, have supported the recommendation made by the group.
Marklein’s bill closely follows the group’s recommendation that includes creating positions for 25 faculty members in the four spokes of the research hub, as well as 20 graduate students, 16 post-doctoral fellows and five staffers. UW-Madison would receive 52 percent of the funding while UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls would each receive 24 percent.
Supporters say the proposed Dairy Innovation Hub under consideration by the Wisconsin Legislature, one of 49 recommendations approved by Dairy Task Force 2.0, could match or go beyond the significance of the signature recommendation made by the first dairy task force in the late 1980s.
That task force told cheese producers to focus more on making specialty cheeses. At that time, the dairy industry was in the throes of an economic downturn as challenging as the current one.
As it turned out, the combined efforts of the Center for Dairy Research and the state’s cheese producers beginning in the early 1990s helped make specialty cheese a staple of the state dairy industry and strengthened its economic position, here and around the world.
While California overtook Wisconsin as the nation’s top milk producer that decade, America’s Dairyland stayed firmly on its perch as the country’s top cheese producer.
The funding concept for the research hub follows a similar plan the state of New York uses to help fund Cornell University’s Pro-Dairy program that links farmers and businesses in that state to research and key resources.
“The funds there don’t just go into what the state might look at as the big, black hole of the university,” said Mark Stephenson, chairman of Dairy Task Force 2.0. “It goes for a very specific program.”
Like at Cornell, the proposed Dairy Innovation Hub would include researchers from many disciplines across different colleges.
That excites Shelly Mayer, a dairy farmer in Washington County and the executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.
As an example, she cited research by UW-Madison dairy science professor Laura Hernandez that includes a new diet to lower instances of dangerous milk fever — caused by low blood calcium levels — in cows after they give birth. That has led researchers studying postpartum depression in women to look at Hernandez’s work.
“There’s a lot of linkages and synergies between animal health and human health that we haven’t even scratched the surface on,” Mayer said.
“We’re just talking about possibilities and things that need to be researched but that’s what a hypothesis is all about. If you don’t have people to do the research, you don’t get discoveries.”
Six months after suffering humiliating statewide losses in the November midterm elections, Republicans are headed for a course correction when they gather for their annual convention in Oshkosh this weekend.
A post-election review the state party conducted following the defeat of former Gov. Scott Walker, a once rising star, and the entire statewide ticket on the November ballot concludes the party lost touch with its grassroots supporters, took a top-down approach and was far too reliant on outside consultants and elaborate advertising.
The noted failures in that election, which came after the party’s domination of state politics for much of the last decade, turned U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, into the self-proclaimed “last man standing” of the Wisconsin GOP power pack. The group once included former presidential contender Walker, now former House Speaker Paul Ryan and short-lived White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Following the GOP’s post-election diagnosis, Johnson said proper treatment includes re-energizing the party’s grassroots and county organizations as well as fine-tuning advertising and creating a stronger party structure that candidates can rely on.
“We’ve got to be firing off all cylinders, we have to be just about perfect,” Johnson told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Johnson added a near perfect operation for the GOP would mean Republicans running for every contested office up and down the ballot.
The party’s self-reflection comes after a November election in which Republicans simply lost the energy that propelled them to victory in 2010, 2014 and 2016. Such energy, he argued, was generated by frustration over former President Barack Obama’s policies, and was harder to maintain at the statewide level in his absence.
“You can only maintain that energy and opposition to Obama so long,” Johnson said.
But despite Republican losses in 2018, Johnson and other leaders in the party don’t believe the party is in need of a complete reset. In fact, even if it did, some in the party believe the GOP may have already had one.
“The reset was the Supreme Court,” said former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. “That should give the party new energy. Now it’s got to continue to organize and get ready for 2020.”
Thompson said Republican losses in 2018 can be attributed to several factors, such as the divisions stemming from Act 10, the GOP’s anti-union legislation, Walker’s run for president, strong Democratic organization in Milwaukee and Dane counties and especially the lack of energy among Republicans.
Johnson maintains a similar line of thinking and says the election of conservative-backed Supreme Court candidate Brian Hagedorn is testament to the conservative movement’s newfound focus on grassroots organization after last November.
Johnson attributed some of the energy conservatives demonstrated in April’s Supreme Court election to attacks from the left over Hagedorn’s anti-gay views as well as the threat of what could be lost with a liberal court.
“The policies of the left, some of these issues, the attack ads re-energized us and I think we’ll maintain that energy,” Johnson said.
Johnson said similar policies Democrats may present in 2020 — such as the Green New Deal that he argues would lead to dramatic increases in taxes and suffocate the American economy — will give American voters a clear reason to vote for President Donald Trump in 2020.
But ahead of what will surely be some soul-searching for Republicans when they gather in Oshkosh, Republicans including Johnson believe the party is still fundamentally strong, with a list of top-tier candidates to run for governor and U.S. Senate in 2022. And despite the party’s statewide losses in 2018, it still was able to command majorities in both houses of the state Legislature and took five of the state’s eight congressional seats — largely due to political maps Republicans drew after the 2010 Census.
Because of those successes, some Republican strategists say the party’s annual convention will prompt a slight course correction rather than a wholesale rethinking of what’s required to achieve electoral victory.
Former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen said the party’s convention in Oshkosh will be about internalizing the lessons learned in the 2018 general election and 2019 Supreme Court election.
“I wouldn’t call it a reset as much as a mid-course correction,” Jensen said. “A lot of praise and a lot of damnation seem to have been allocated to a set of races that were won by less than a few percentage points.”
Walker lost his race against Democratic Gov. Tony Evers by just over a percentage point, while conservative-backed candidate Hagedorn won his Supreme Court race against the liberal-backed Lisa Neubauer by less than a point, cementing Wisconsin’s status as a battleground state and suggesting Wisconsin will be ground zero for Trump’s re-election bid.
Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki said Republicans with their post-election assessment are missing the forest for the trees. Strong and rigid opinions from Trump voters will make it difficult for Wisconsin Republicans to grow their coalition.
“Donald Trump colors everything,” Zepecki said. “He is defining their party.”
Unlike Johnson, Zepecki said the Republican Party’s grassroots operation was just fine, and that it’s disingenuous for Republicans to suggest they lost touch with the grassroots, who appeared to quickly re-establish themselves in April.
But Wisconsin Republic Party spokesman Charles Nichols says attributing the party’s losses to the broader political environment is a cop out. Nichols admits 2018 was a difficult cycle, but that it certainly was winnable.
Johnson, who now sits atop the Republican Party establishment, said before his 2016 re-election victory he would not seek another term once his current term ends in 2023.
But Johnson now won’t stand by that pledge, saying the environment for Republicans has changed and he might need to run again in 2022 to ensure the U.S. Senate is a firewall against Democratic gains in the U.S. House.
“I never thought Walker would lose, I never thought we’d lose the House,” Johnson said. “That’s not the case anymore. My preference is two terms and go home, but again you never say never.”
Jensen, the former Assembly speaker, said he believes Johnson was sincere in making his two-term pledge, but that a Johnson run might be needed to strengthen the party.
Democrats are quick to point out the hypocrisy coming from a man who once railed against career politicians.
“I think he has become that which he loathed more quickly than he ever imagined,” Zepecki said.
Johnson, who underscored his career as a businessman before becoming a U.S. senator in 2011, doesn’t see it that way.
“Regardless of what I do in 2022, I’m no career politician,” Johnson said. “I’m a citizen legislator.”
Johnson warded off rumors he’s considering a run for governor in 2022, saying “he’s not considering anything,” and said his focus right now is building the party as it gears up for 2020.