Please raise your hand if you knew that in addition to a State Bird (Robin) and State Flower (Wood Violet), Wisconsin has a State Soil. It is Antigo Silt Loam, and its existence among our legally designated state symbols reflects soil’s high importance to Wisconsin’s agricultural prosperity and the state’s historic role as the birthplace of federal soil conservation programming.
Back in 1933, Coon Valley, Wisconsin was chosen by the newly created Soil Erosion Service as the first watershed in the nation in which to demonstrate soil conservation measures. Today, Coon Valley farmer Jim Munsch farms on land that was enrolled back in the ’30s and says that, plain and simple, had it not been for those measures, there wouldn’t be a farm for him to farm today.
Wise farmers value soil, and soil conservation matters to a state in which agriculture is an $88.3 billion industry.
This tradition of supporting agricultural conservation was recently upheld by U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin in her first-time role as an agricultural appropriator. Although the House badly cut conservation programs in its agricultural funding bill for Fiscal Year 2016, last week the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to level-fund the Conservation Stewardship Program, which is heavily used in Wisconsin and actively supported by Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and other sustainable agriculture advocates.
Senator Baldwin noted that she “fought to preserve conservation priorities in the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill, which invests in the long-term health of our working lands,” and she promised to “continue to press for strong funding of programs that support farmers to protect their watersheds with conservation practices.”
Unfortunately, if serious cuts imposed in the recently passed state biennial budget are an indicator, Wisconsin’s state legislature and governor don’t seem to similarly appreciate how important soil and natural resources conservation are to this state.
For example, their budget cuts funding for nutrient management plans, which help farmers keep nutrients on the land and out of streams, lakes, rivers, and drinking water and cuts funding for county conservation agents who help farmers — although by less than the $815,900 cut proposed by Gov. Walker.
They cut scores of science, education and communications staff in the DNR, many of whom address agricultural resources conservation. In a comprehensive bill whose last-minute timing strategy precluded public debate, they cut by $1 million DNR’s “capacity grants” to non-profit groups, which for decades have increased DNR’s capacity for water quality protection, land management, and other natural resources management.
And, of course, the $250 million cuts to the University of Wisconsin included serious cuts to the Extension system, which now will have to cut staff and expect already over-worked county agricultural agents to cover more topics, and in many cases, more than one county.
Wisconsin’s agricultural economy depends on wise husbandry of the soil, water, and other natural resources that undergird its success. It is heartening that, in its negotiations with the House, the U.S. Senate is prepared to fight to protect funding for programs that help farmers protect those resources. It is equally dismaying that a state with such a distinguished conservation history has leaders who have lost their way.
Margaret Krome is Program Director, Public Policy, at the non-profit Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.