Environment
1:49 pm
Tue May 21, 2013

Finance Committee Weighs Future of County Conservationists, Buy Local Program

WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence interviews Bridget Holcomb.

Why should the State maintain funding for county conservationists? One analyst explains they help farmers - and Wisconsin's water.

Big rains carry unprotected soils and sediments from agricultural and construction sites into Lake Superior in Chequamegon Bay (near Ashland, Wis.) It's these situations county conservation departments try to avoid.
Credit Bob Gross/Hired Lens Photography

State legislators face heavy days of committee meetings this week, including the powerful Joint Finance Committee as it ticks its way through Governor Walker’s proposed biennial budget.

Michael Fields Agricultural Institute is tuned into – as its name suggests – how the final “product” hinders or sustains farming in Wisconsin.

Associate director of public policy, Bridget Holcomb, says the Joint Finance Committee's decision so far have offered a mixed bag for farmers.

For example, the “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” program came out better than expected, but funding of county conservation departments remains in the air.

She says these departments have provided crucial support for farmers on everything from getting tax deductions to dealing with erosion and runoff problems.

"These people are little miracle workers that we have around the state," Holcomb says.

She says their work extends benefits beyond farmers. Unchecked erosion and runoff problems can affect the state's quality of water, but the county conservation departments work with farmers to fix these issues.

"Every time we're drinking a glass of water, every time we are swimming in a lake, we should be thanking a county conservationist who are helping to keep that water clean," she says.

Holcomb says the departments are funded through a combination of local and state funding, and that two years ago, temporary cuts were made.

"The problem here is the Legislature is now considering 'Do we make these one year lapses permanent?' so that lower number is the starting point from now on," she says.

She says she's seen an "amazing response" from farmers in support of the county conservationists. They have called on the state to maintain current funding levels and keep offices open.

In contrast, the “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” program was set to be eliminated, but last week the Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously to restore funding in the state budget. Holcomb says the program offers grants to people trying to create local infrastructure to support local food systems.

For example, Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee was a recipient, as was the Fifth Season Cooperative in Viroqua and South Shore Meats in Ashland and Bayfield County. All of these companies connect local farmers and suppliers with local consumers.

Holcomb says the program has created and retained more than 100 jobs, $400 million in new sales, and a six-to-one return on investment to the state.

"When we're talking about job creation and economic development, we don't have to look further than our own farms and our own food systems," she says.