Wisconsin history was made last November when state Senator Sheila Harsdorf was tapped by Gov. Scott Walker to be the first woman to head the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. She had served the 10th Senate District in northwestern Wisconsin from 2001 until being named the department head. Before that, she represented the 30th Assembly District for a decade, from 1989 to 1999. She has a B.S. in animal science from the University of Minnesota, and runs a dairy farm with her older brother, Jim.
We asked Secretary Harsdorf a few questions on the future of farming.
Q: You come from the western Wisconsin farming community, which produced this headline last year: Western Wisconsin Had Most Farm Bankruptcies in the US. What happened? Anything different from anywhere else in Wisconsin or other ag areas around the nation?
A: While farmers are not unaccustomed to low milk and commodity prices, they are currently experiencing a long, extended period. Farmers have been consuming capital now for several years, and open accounts are growing. Farmers have cut back on variable inputs over the years, but they still need to deal with increased fuel, labor and interest costs, creating great financial challenges. It is more important than ever for farmers to be in communication with their lenders to discuss their financial situation. DATCP has the Wisconsin Farm Center available to provide free and confidential services to farmers as they consider their options. Farmers can reach the Farm Center at 800.942.2474.
Q: For smaller farms, diversification seems to have been a key to success, in the past and today. With the glut in dairy, is it time for dairy farmers to start thinking that way?
A: Farmers are known for their ability to adjust to market fluctuations. With low milk prices and high milk production, this may be a time for farmers to consider a way to diversify their operations. One of Wisconsin agriculture’s greatest strengths is our diversity. We have the ability to produce a variety of crops and commodities for consumers. Wisconsin is known for the quality, nutritious food products that we produce. This is credit to our farmers. We also must consider consumer demands as we focus on developing new markets and new products.
Q: Here on the peninsula, some farmers, especially in northern Door County where there is a paucity of soil, are concerned by the new NR 151 rules coming for the 15-county karst region in eastern Wisconsin, which will severely limit their ability to spread liquid manure on their land. As this has unfolded, I’ve been reading about amazing work being done with nitrogen-binding microbes in soil for more vigorous plant growth without having to use fertilizer, which can have unintended and negative consequences. This is relatively new research, but it certainly sounds like a possible solution to the problem of agricultural nutrient runoff in our waterways and manure going down sinkholes to pollute wells, just for a start. Any thoughts on that subject?
A: You’re right, this is fairly new research and not yet in the practical use realm. Without more details, it’s hard to say how much of a role it could play in the issues we have in karst regions. However, we must recognize that it would meet only half of the challenge faced in these areas. Farmers don’t only need to fertilize their crops; they also need to have ways to use the manure their livestock generate in beneficial and environmentally sound ways. Relying on advanced technologies as we develop new manure management systems will be key to addressing this issue.
Q: As a woman in the agriculture industry, any thoughts to share with young women who might be considering a future in agriculture?
A: I believe agriculture has a bright future, and I would encourage both women and men who have a passion for the industry to consider a career in the field. In Wisconsin, one in nine people work in a career related to agriculture. There are hundreds of career options, whether you want to work in food production, food processing, finance or teaching, just to name a few. Agriculture is the source of the world’s food, fuel and fiber, and agriculture will continue to be an essential part of our daily lives.
Q: What do you see as the future of farming in Wisconsin?
A. While farmers are now experiencing tremendous challenges, I am optimistic about agriculture’s future. To ensure profitability for our farmers, we need to work to grow our agricultural markets, both locally and internationally. The department continues to focus on maintaining our current trading partners and expanding to new markets, and we look forward to working with other stakeholders to promote Wisconsin’s quality products. Just as every industry changes, agriculture will continue to evolve over time, but our hardworking farmers and productive farms will continue to be the foundation of Wisconsin’s agriculture industry.