Representing one of the most productive farming regions in the country, I have worked hard on agriculture issues both in Wisconsin and in Washington. I believe that current agricultural policies are out of date and do not reflect the needs of the average Wisconsin farmer in today's modern economy. This is why I have spent my time in Congress fighting to reform and modernize our agriculture policy.
Additionally, I have highlighted the promise and needs of organic agriculture by founding and co-chairing the Congressional Organic Caucus. I continue to look for new ways to assist small and beginning farmers and those who produce renewable energy on the farm through tax incentives; to expand market opportunities abroad through fair free-trade agreements; and to provide access to an adequate labor supply through reform of the H-2B program.
The past few years have been a very trying time for too many Wisconsin farmers and their families. When dairy prices fell to extreme lows, I pushed Congress and the Administration to provide immediate relief to the many farmers who were struggling to stay in business. While prices have climbed back, energy and feed costs have also risen. These challenges speak to the need for Congress to revisit the farm safety net and consider whether our federal policies are effectively helping farmers manage the risk they face on a daily basis.
Ron visits with constituents at farming events across western and central Wisconsin.
Each year the federal government doles out billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies, mostly going to very large farms and agribusinesses that make many times the income of the average American family. During the last two farm bill debates, in 2001 and 2007, I offered major amendments that would take this wasteful spending and re-direct it to areas that benefit the average farmer and rural community. These include:
* Conservation programs that clean our soil, air, and water and preserve wildlife habitat;
* Organic assistance for the most rapidly growing sector of the industry;
* Nutrition programs that help feed needy families;
* Renewable energy programs that create new markets and make rural America more energy efficient; and
* Rural development programs that improve the quality of life and opportunity for small towns across our state.
Unfortunately, these amendments were not adopted. However, I am encouraged by the current Administration's stated commitment to curbing agriculture subsidies, especially those that go to large agri-business. As we approach the farm bill debate again, I am continuing to work with a bipartisan group of my colleagues to see these much-needed reforms become law.
During the August 2011 recess, I had the opportunity to meet with local farmers in Viroqua and in Black River Falls regarding the upcoming farm bill. At events hosted by the Center for Rural Affairs, Wisconsin Farmers Union, and UW-Extension, I was able to discuss with folks how they can get involved in the process, as well as the programming, funding, and impact of the farm bill on rural development.
Helping Dairy Farmers
Western Wisconsin is home to one of the largest dairy producing regions in the country. I have long believed that we need to forge a truly national dairy policy that stops pitting region against region. When Secretary Vilsack formed his Dairy Industry Advisory Committee to look at how we can improve our dairy programs, I was proud that three Wisconsinites I strongly supported were appointed to this committee.
In March 2011, the Dairy Industry Advisory Committee came out with their final recommendations for improving dairy programs, which included exploring the elimination of end product pricing, creating a growth management program, and reforming the Milk Income Loss Contract program (MILC) to use an all-milk income/feed cost margin trigger. These recommendations will play an important role in shaping the debate over the future of dairy policy.
The National Milk Producers Federation has also released a comprehensive plan called "Foundation for the Future," which would eliminate both the Milk Income Loss Contract program and the Dairy Product Price Support program and instead implement a margin protection program, reform federal milk marketing orders, and initiate a growth management system. This proposal has significant support from a number of organizations representing dairy producers across the country.
As additional legislative proposals come forward as part of the upcoming farm bill, I will continue to work with all dairy stakeholders to reform our outdated policies and fight for what works for Wisconsin farmers.
I have used my position on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee to advocate for tax benefits to meet the needs of farm country and help farmers thrive and innovate. I authored a Biogas Investment Tax Credit to encourage dairy producers to control their animal waste with the use of manure digesters while also producing renewable energy in the form of biogas. This year, I also authored a Rural Microbusiness Investment Credit to help beginning farmers and small businesses access capital to make critical investments in their operations so we can keep motivated people on the land.
The U.S. is the world leader in agricultural equipment production directly and indirectly employs 250,000 workers. On average, farmers and ranchers finance equipment for five years; however, the value of their equipment depreciates over seven years. To fix this, I worked with my Republican colleague, Rep. Wally Herger (CA), to introduce legislation, H.R. 1747, to make permanent a five-year depreciation schedule for agricultural equipment, which will boost domestic demand helping keep these jobs here.
In addition, to help promote innovation in agriculture and maximize tax dollars to benefit agricultural practices, I am working to introduce the Charitable Agricultural Research Act, legislation that would authorize the creation of a new type of charitable, tax-exempt organization to allow private monies to fund agricultural research. The research organization would work in conjunction with agricultural and land-grant colleges and universities to conduct research in the field of agriculture, supporting innovative practices while creating positive, public-private partnerships.
Recently, two federal agencies proposed rules that I worry would create unnecessary burdens on our farmers. I wrote a letter urging the U.S. Department of Labor to reject proposed rules that would limit the ability of children to move, clean, or repair a tractor, prohibit them from riding on a tractor as a passenger or helper, and prohibit youth 16 and under from operating milking equipment. While well-intentioned, these rules don't make sense and don't take into account the way our family farms operate.