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Wisconsin’s top ag official looks back at 2022

Secretary Randy Romanski says there were state efforts that made positive agriculture-related changes for Wisconsin in the past year.  

Wisconsin’s Meat Talent Development Program and the Meat Processor Grants were two initiatives where Governor Tony Evers allocated American Rescue Plan Act dollars to help local meat processors expand and grow to meet the needs of producers and consumers after COVID exposed supply chain problems with several large-scale packers.  Romanski tells Brownfield, “Ten million dollars is going out to about 90 meat processors in the state so they can increase capacity and build resiliency.”

And, Romanski says an additional five million is being used to prepare the next generation of meat cutters through the Meat Talent Development Program.  “Some of the schools already had some meat processing training programs, but this will give them the opportunity to have these programs in more of the technical colleges, so make them closer to those students who might be getting into those programs, or build out the programs.”

Romanski says the two meat-related programs and the dairy processor grants programs are good examples of investing money in the foundation of Wisconsin’s agriculture economy.

2022 was the year when the State of Wisconsin expanded a successful farmer-led watershed conservation program, testing and proving how concepts like reduced tillage and using cover crops can keep soil and nutrients out of waterways.  Romanski says, “That’s a great program and it’s a great story to tell.  Farmers are stewards of their land and water.”

Romanski tells Brownfield there are more than 40 producer-led groups entering 2023, including four new groups.  “There were more applications than we were able to fund and there were 1.5 million dollars in funding requested, so the program continues to grow in popularity.  People are getting more aware of it, but I’ll also say this, it’s been really effective.”

Romanski says the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection recently brought the farmers from these groups together to share what they’ve learned.  “It’s farmers working with farmers, farmers learning from farmers, and some of those producer-led groups, they’re bringing in new partners with other conservation organizations.  It’s opening some doors and looking at new ways to do things.”

One of the challenges faced by farmers in 2022 was highly pathogenic avian influenza, which made a severe dent in America’s poultry operations.  Romanski tells Brownfield HPAI took a toll on the state and the nation’s poultry industry.  “Nationwide, there have been 47 different states that have had cases confirmed and this means almost 700 flocks across the United States.”

Wisconsin’s first case was its biggest, as the virus infected 2.75 million laying hens at one farm, accounting for 83% of the state’s HPAI losses this year.  Overall, Romanski says 29 Wisconsin commercial and backyard flocks were affected in 18 counties, and he commends his Division of Animal Health staff for their work.  “They have been running to try to keep up with this and be as good of a resource as they can, and we’re very fortunate to have good collaboration between DATCP, the farmers, and in some cases, processors, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and our federal partners.  It really takes all of those groups working together to address this.”

The virus is spread by migrating wild birds, and Romanski says about 56 million birds had to be depopulated nationwide in 2022.

The state was also active in helping communities deal with food insecurity in 2022.  Romanski says federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, Economic Security Act (CARES) funds before that helped Wisconsin deal with food insecurity at a really important time giving residents some certainty they can eat. “If you remember back to the pandemic, you know, in America’s Dairyland, people were going to the grocery store and they were seeing shortages of things like dairy products or protein.  The options were limited because of those disruptions in the supply chain.”

By providing dollars to partners like Feeding Wisconsin and Hunger Task Force, Romanski says there’s a benefit beyond feeding the hungry.  “I think what that did is it helped people identify that the foods they like might very well be produced from somebody just down the road, and it helped them to know their farmer and know their food a little bit better.”  Romanski says food insecurity remains an issue in both rural and urban areas of Wisconsin.

Romanski is expecting a busy 2023.  “There is going to be a farm bill discussed at the federal level.  That is something everybody should keep their eye on.”  The Secretary is also looking for ways to help meet the demand for ag workers.  “I think continued efforts to build a workforce, whether it’s through the Ag Education and Workforce Development Council or the Meat Talent Development Program, those are going to be things that we continue to focus on because there’s no immediate flip-of-a-switch where employment issues and workforce issues are solved.”

Romanski says Wisconsin will be more aggressive in promoting Wisconsin-made products around the world. “We’re fortunate.  For the first time ever, we’ve gotten state funding for our small but mighty International Agribusiness Center team to work with businesses, to promote their products around the world, and Wisconsin has a lot to offer.”

DATCP Secretary Randy Romanski discusses 2022 and looks ahead with Brownfield’s Larry Lee

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