Land & Water Conference: Who Pays for Progress on Water Quality

Nearly all ideas pitched in the conference come with costs, but there was not much conversation on who should pay for these costs.

In Kewaunee County’s case, many property owners rejected the idea that taxpayer dollars should go toward cost sharing with polluting farmers. On the other hand, farmers rarely have the money to invest in remediation or new equipment, especially in times of significantly low profits due to low agriculture commodity prices.

A 113-page booklet passed out to all participants listed potential funding sources for different solutions. Most asked for increased public support while others sought to discover the true price of agriculture commodities.

“Will the public pay more for your lunch because, in order to get the money and funding in order to cover some of these changes, we have to do that,” said Chuck Wagner, Kewaunee County board member.

Farm commodities are subsidized by the government in many ways. In 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) bought $20 million in excess cheese to help prop up prices. That same year, the USDA paid out $11.2 million to dairy farmers suffering from low prices through a federal insurance program. Farmland property tax subsidies must be made up by revenue elsewhere in a municipality.

“Right now, we have cheap food policies which devalues land,” said Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association. Koles said the lack of a true free market which reveals the true value of farmland has left many farmland-heavy Wisconsin towns with little property tax base.

These subsidies help keep food prices low but are paid for with tax dollars. Removing these subsidies would force farmers to increase prices, assuming Wisconsin’s market share is large enough to increase prices globally. If prices in Wisconsin rise too much, state producers could be priced out of the global market for agriculture commodities.

Most groups at the conference sought additional funding and support for agencies such as UW-Extension and county conservation departments, another way in which taxpayers would foot the bill. But some farmers warned of the implementation of further regulation.

“If you start making a lot of regulations you have to be careful about the localized economy, not only agriculture but the whole economy of that area,” said Don Bennett, general manager of Hartung Brothers, an agribusiness based in southwest Wisconsin.

Wagner said if regulations rule out farming on some lands, those land values will plummet because they would have no valuable use.

John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, talked about Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment. The amendment changed the state constitution to add a three-eighths of one percent sales tax increase statewide, part of which would go to a state Clean Water Fund. The amendment was passed in 2008 after 56 percent of state residents voted in favor of it.

“When it comes to conservation there are only three things you can do,” said Jaschke. “Persuade people to do something better, provide incentives and cost sharing, or you can enact a regulation to control it.” Jaschke said all three avenues cost money and the Clean Water Fund helps with the first two.

Many attendees favored implementing the Minnesota model. Microbiology scientist Mark Borchardt said he gets most of his research dollars from Minnesota since Wisconsin’s funding has run dry.

State funding seemed to be the most popular solution, whether that money is directed to local conservation departments or through grants to private groups such as Peninsula Pride Farms.

There was $38 million in state funding available for farm conservation in 2017, more than half of which went to farmland preservation tax credits to keep land in agriculture use and meet conservation standards.

“We have to take a look at, is there dollars available to help out the farmers that need it most?” said Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. “If there are incentives out there, farmers will definitely take those incentives. But in the years of low incomes, farmers that see another program that they need to follow and there’s no financial incentive, they simply will not adopt those things.”

Read more about the topics discussed at the conference.

Surface Water Standards Set Low Bar

Kewaunee County in Spotlight for Groundwater Concerns

Groundwater Working Group Reveals Complexity of the Problem

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