Outside of Wisconsin, 2011 will be remembered for wild weather, but here in America's Dairyland, it was our political climate that was most volatile.
Global forces fostered farm profits amid an otherwise sluggish economy. There was a lot of talk about the next U.S. farm bill being crafted by the so-called Super Committee, but in the end the biggest piece of federal legislation impacting farmers this year was the long-sought approval of three free trade agreements.
In no particular order, these were agriculture's top five stories of 2011, according to Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Bill Bruins, who made his annual year-end "Farm Bureau Picks."
Aside from a sticky summer, weather in Wisconsin didn't grab many headlines this year. It was a fairly average year coming on the heels of 2010's nearly ideal growing season. The same cannot be said for other parts of the United States though.
"Whether it was the severe Southern drought, hurricanes on the East Coast, flooding along the Mississippi River or massive tornado outbreaks, this year's weather proved challenging for many of our nation's farmers," Bruins explained. "We saw a sell-off of cattle in states ravaged by drought and shortages of some crops due to weather conditions that were either too wet or too dry."
"Wisconsin's livestock farmers who purchase hay have felt the financial effects of a tight hay market," Bruins added.
Wisconsin's political climate
Republican Scott Walker was sworn in as Wisconsin's new governor on Jan. 3, 2011. His cabinet included a familiar face as Marquette County beef farmer and former Assembly Speaker, Ben Brancel, returned as Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Cathy Stepp, a former state senator from the Racine area was picked to lead the Department of Natural Resources.
Furor over changes to the state's collective bargaining laws spawned protests and the recall of two state senators. Meanwhile, the two-year budget that was approved in June effectively erased the deficit that state government had previously acquired.
"While there is no single agricultural issue or piece of legislation that was directly impacted by Madison's political mayhem, this new political atmosphere impacts everything," said Bruins. "Nearly anything you try to accomplish legislatively for agriculture or otherwise must be viewed through a politically-charged lens. For that reason, we add this to our list of big stories."
Farm bill debate/dairy reform
Once the nation's credit rating was downgraded after the federal government's near default, a panel of lawmakers called the Super Committee was charged with cutting spending over the next decade. It soon appeared as though the next U.S. farm bill would quickly be drafted behind closed doors.
"Agricultural interests stepped up to the plate and offered the only bipartisan, bicameral proposal to cut spending, by as much as $23 billion," Bruins explained. "Although the Super Committee ultimately came up fruitless, it certainly got people talking about how the federal government's role in agriculture must change."
"The key in drafting the next farm bill will be to provide a safety net for farmers to manage their own income risk while enacting trade-friendly policies that allow our nation's farmers to be reliable suppliers to the global market," Bruins said.
"The farm bill discussions also resulted in the best chance at true reform to federal dairy policy," Bruins added. "The next farm bill offers us the best chance I've seen in my lifetime for true reform of the way we market dairy products to the world."
In October, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau endorsed legislation authored by U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota called the Dairy Security Act. The bill was largely based on an earlier proposal by the National Milk Producers Federation called the Foundation for the Future plan.
"It is my hope that Congressman Peterson's legislation will be the framework for dairy policy for the 2012 farm bill," Bruins said.
Strong farm economy
"Agriculture was an island of prosperity amid otherwise choppy economic waters in 2011," Bruins said.
Many ag commodities reached unprecedented price territory, as did net farm income.
A parcel of farmland in Rock County sold in excess of $11,000 per acre this year, which was believed to be a state record. Farm values across the Midwest have risen substantially the last few years largely due to higher corn and soybean prices. According to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, Wisconsin's farmland values were up about eight percent. Rising land values add considerable strength to farmers' balance sheets, so access to credit is not a problem for most farmers. Those balance sheets also show that for every dollar of debt, Wisconsin farmers typically have more than eight dollars of assets.
Trade was a key factor in agriculture's recent good fortune. The burgeoning middle classes in China, India and Brazil have meant strong demand for the food that Wisconsin's grain, dairy and livestock farmers produce.
"While many Wisconsin farmers were able to pay down debt, purchase land and upgrade their equipment, we must also remember that high energy prices drove up the input costs that farmers faced. Energy prices were also one of the factors that led to rising food costs throughout 2011."
Free Trade Agreements
After years of delays, a trio of bi-lateral trade agreements with the nations of South Korea, Columbia and Panama all were given approval by Congress and President Obama.
"This was great news for Wisconsin's economy and agriculture," said Bruins. "The three bi-lateral trade agreements will expand access and opportunities for increased exports for many agricultural products."
Over $60 million in additional direct exports and upwards of $100 million in indirect exports of Wisconsin's agricultural products are expected to be achieved each year. Due to increasing exports, Wisconsin's farmers and agriculture are projected to create over 500 jobs in the state.
"Farm Bureau Picks" of the top stories of 2011:
Wisconsin's Political Atmosphere
Farm Bill Debate/Dairy Reform
Strong Farm Economy
Passage of Free Trade Agreements