By Nathaniel Shuda
In preparation for talks next week on the federal farm bill, Wisconsin's junior senator made a stop Wednesday in south Wood County to learn more about the state's largest fruit crop.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin toured Fanning Cranberry Co. in Seneca, where she got the chance to experience firsthand what industry leaders are saying is one of the largest fall crops on record, followed by a tour of the Ocean Spray Cranberries processing plant in Wisconsin Rapids. It was Baldwin's first publicized visit to the Wisconsin Rapids area since being elected last year to succeed retiring Sen. Herb Kohl.
"This was part of my learning curve. ... I learn a lot better when I get to see something," said Baldwin, a Democrat from Madison who previously served the 2nd Congressional District. "That learning curve is really important for me to learn policywise. It's a real pleasure for me to see what's happening in this community."
It's important for federal lawmakers to get hands-on experience in the industry, so they have a working knowledge of what areas would benefit from federal funding, said Greg Fanning, co-owner of Fanning Cranberry Co.
"If I tell a politician that we have a closed water system and reuse that water, that's one thing, but if they come out and see it, that's different," Fanning said. "We keep trying to do things better and smarter, and research helps us do that."
Lawmakers will begin talks next week on a five-year farm bill, including specialty crop block grants for a variety of agricultural industries, including cranberries. A recently announced allocation of federal funds will help reduce pesticide use and environmental threats. It also will expand the international market by determining the overwintering patterns of the cranberry flea beetle, testing soil-drench efficiency and sharing the information with local producers, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture news release.
Baldwin was one of several members of Wisconsin's congressional delegation, which also included Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Reps. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, and Sean Duffy, R-Weston, to help persuade the USDA to reverse its previous position on requiring schools to reduce or eliminate cranberry juice from lunchprograms because of added sugar.
She also helped convince the USDA to purchase $5 million -- about 200,000 gallons -- of excess cranberry juice concentrate, or 120,000 to 130,000 barrels of fruit, for domestic food nutritionassistance programs, after a big harvest in Canada and a decline in juice sales led to a worldwide surplus, said Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.
"There are a limited number of advocates for that specialty crop," Baldwin said in an exclusive Daily Tribune Media interview. "As a brand new senator, one of my real interests was learning everything I could, so that when a big undertaking like the farm bill comes up that I can be an advocate for the right policies for our state and for this industry.
"Certainly, a lot of the organizations that represent cranberry growers and processors have been very vocal in my early days in the Senate, but coming out here is something I expressed a real interest in because seeing is different than hearing," she said.