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The ball is in their court

by James Goodman
Wisconsin dairy farmer

(Tuesday, April 6, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Showing some concern about the fate of agriculture in Wisconsin this past March, Governor Doyle spoke with two very different groups about two very different ways of farming. In his address to the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) on March 10 at the Alliant Energy Center he said, "Dairy farming is not going to move back to 40 cows and a red barn". When he hosted an Organic Agriculture Forum at the Pyle center on the UW-Madison campus on March 15, there were no comments about 40 cows and a red barn. Perhaps he knew that several farmers in attendance milked about 40 cows and did so in a red barn (mine is white, but perhaps the color wasn’t that important).

The focus of the PDPW meeting was on the success of farmers who had expanded their operations to 300, 900 or more cows, how they managed labor, dealt with environmental regulations and planned their new facilities. Governor Doyle highlighted new state laws that will help farmers continue to expand. He mentioned the dairy facility siting bill that will support growth of the livestock industry in Wisconsin (albeit at the expense of local control), and the $50,000 tax credit for dairy facility modernization. The Governor summed up his statements saying "the future of the dairy industry is not looking back to some bygone era, it’s looking forward to change." When addressing the Organic Forum, Governor Doyle asked those in attendance for their "good and not very expensive ideas." As he didn’t mention the lavish amounts of money the State is willing to pump into conventional dairy farm expansion, the message I got was "we are willing to support organic agriculture as long as it costs us little and doesn’t interfere with conventional farming."

Perhaps the Governor knew that if he really did hope to promote Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin, the farmers, processors, educators and others in this audience were his best hope for those good ideas. Governor Doyle does deserve credit for his interest and I think, his genuine desire to promote "organic agriculture". I seriously doubt that phrase ever parted the lips of any of Wisconsin’s Governors from the recent past. The round table participants cited the challenges facing organic farmers; the difficulty of transitioning, lack of processing facilities and lack of marketing skills. Without a doubt the most mentioned problem was contamination of organic corn by neighboring fields of genetically modified corn (GMO’s). When asked by the Governor "what is the answer to GMO’s" vegetable grower Dave Perkins responded "industry needs to be held responsible for their products"

During breakout sessions, state government and UW personnel were given a long list of prerequisite needs that must be met if organic agriculture is to prosper in Wisconsin. Advisory panels both to DATCP and the UW; education of extension personnel; reinstatement of a Sustainable Agriculture staff person at DATCP; an organic dairy herd at the UW (organic ice cream at Babcock Hall) and university research in organic crop and livestock production to mention a few. It was pointed out by a UW researcher in attendance that research projects are often chosen for their ability to generate more money for the UW, and in that sense organic research would probably never draw industry money like research in conventional agriculture does. Apparently discretionary money from the state or the UW is just not there. I wondered why the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) was willing and able to steer $80 million and the state close to $30 million into the BioStar initiative? Oh, sorry, this $317 million project was partially funded by industry, and industry wanted research in biotechnology.

So let me get this straight, University research projects are selected on their ability to generate more money, and since they are funded in part by industry money, industry priorities get studied. That makes sense, publicly funded universities that research not what the public wants but what industry wants. No wonder organic research remains the runt of the litter.

All things considered however, organic farmers did have their say and were heard by people in positions to actually make a difference. We know the UW has research money and could do more organic research if they wanted, after all, we are cheap, many of us got our start in low input sustainable agriculture. The state can find money to fund expansion studies for large farms, they can fund tax breaks for them, and they pass laws to protect them. Just treat us fairly, do some research for us, give us a law to protect our crops from GMO contamination, don’t make us pay higher crop insurance premiums for the same coverage as conventional farmers.

Keynote speaker Horst Rechelbacher, founder of Aveda Corporation pledged $100,000 to the UW to begin some basic research on organic soils in Wisconsin. The seed is planted, the ball in Governor Doyle’s and the UW’s court, show us you are willing to use our "good and not very expensive ideas". Are we hopeful? Sure, but me? I’m not holding my breath.

James Goodman is an organic dairy farmer from Wonewoc WI.