Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday called the Republican-controlled Legislature into a special session beginning next week to consider an $8.5 million package of bills designed to help rural Wisconsin in the face of a crisis that's caused a loss of one-third of the state's dairy farms since 2011.
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Cows stand ready to be milked May 31, 2016, at the Lake Breeze Dairy farm in Malone, Wisconsin. The state is in the midst of a dairy crisis that's caused a loss of one-third of its dairy farms since 2011. (Daniel Acker / Bloomberg)

The Democratic governor told reporters that he was confident the Legislature would move quickly on the plan he unveiled in his State of the State address Wednesday night. He also dismissed criticism from Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos that the proposals show he has ignored rural Wisconsin before now.

“That’s just baloney,” Evers said, noting that many of the ideas had been included in his budget last year but rejected by Republicans. “We need to move forward. Our farmers need us.”

Wisconsin loses an average of two dairy farms a day as farmers suffer under low milk prices.

Vos said late Wednesday that the plan shows Evers has “finally turned his attention to rural Wisconsin.”

“He has ignored that part of the state for most of last year since he’s been elected governor,” Vos said. “If he’s a newfound convert that rural Wisconsin has problems, of course we’re going to listen.”

While Vos was wary of the plan, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Wednesday night that he was “all ears.”

“We’re all looking for ways to do better when it comes to ag,” Fitzgerald said. “There have been a number of proposals by the Legislature but I’m all ears on what the governor has to offer. It sounds like he’s been working on something comprehensive so absolutely I think the Legislature should take time to see what the special session includes and work on those bills.”

Evers said he expects the Legislature to meet starting Tuesday to take up the bills. Republican leaders have not said if they will do that. Vos and Fitzgerald did not immediately return messages Thursday seeking comment.

The bills Evers wants the Legislature to pass would:

Create a Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports, at a cost of $1 million, with the goal of increasing dairy exports to 20% of the country’s milk supply by 2024;
Hire 20 experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison extension division to provide free research and technical assistance to farmers;
Add five positions and increase funding within the state agriculture department to provide more mental health support for farmers;
Give preference to small dairy processing plants when awarding grants;
Bolster the department’s efforts to help farmers diversify their operations and create a new program to award grants of up to $50,000 to assist farmers; and
Create a program to connect local farmers with other entities, besides school districts, that have a cafeteria and could purchase locally grown food.
Evers said he was creating a new Office of Rural Prosperity to help people navigate state programs and resources targeting rural communities, businesses and workers. He also created a blue-ribbon commission to promote agriculture and rural economic prosperity and develop long-term strategies on how to help rural communities.

“I believe the folks who support this initiative will agree with us,” Evers said. “It’s not a handout. This is not a handout. We are looking to help our farmers and farming communities stay strong.”

Evers said he hoped Republicans could work with Democrats to take action.

“We’re past the point of pointing fingers, we just need to get work done,” Evers said. “I feel confident we’re in a good place around this.”

It was an involvement with the Dairy Industry Awards which spurred Hanna Stalker’s passion for the environment.
Back in 2016, she and her husband Callum won the Otago-Southland Share Farmer of the Year title and were third in the national final while 50% sharemilking at Otautau.

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