‘It pretty much destroyed our markets’: Panel talks trade, coronavirus problems for Wisconsin’s ag industry

MADISON, Wis. — The coronavirus has done a number on Wisconsin’s agriculture industry, one of the biggest economic drivers in the state.

Before the pandemic hit, farmers were optimistic after new trade deals gave them hope.

“I felt kind of renewed energy after going through a downturn from the china embargoes and stuff over the last summer and fall, and then Covid hit, and it pretty much destroyed our markets,” said Cal Dalton, an ethanol farmer, during a panel discussion by WisPolitics.com.

Dalton brought the perspective of the grower on the panel, hurt not just economically by the virus, but mentally.

“Some of the socialization that we have on the farm is going to some of these producer meetings and stuff,” he said. “And when they were omitted or called off because of Covid then we found ourselves even more isolated.”

Even things that gave him hope, like a Phase One trade deal President Donald Trump signed early in the year, are in question, according to Ian Coxhead, an economist on the panel.

“(It’s) not very promising because the United States government has decided that bashing China is a good strategy, maybe domestically more than internationally,” he said. “And I don’t think that encourages the Chinese to cooperate on that.”

He also brought up the long recovery the United States is expected to have from the coronavirus, which could cause Southeast Asian trade partners to look regionally for suppliers that have more predictable markets.

During recovery, panelists said farmers will likely depend on help from government, such as the $50 million in direct relief Gov. Tony Evers authorized from the state’s portion of the federal CARES Act funds, as well as long-term policy solutions.

Dan Smith, the president and CEO of the Cooperative Network, said policymakers should have an eye on addressing profits in farming, especially if they would like to see younger generations join the industry.

“For many, many years we have not had a production problem in agriculture, we’ve had a profitability problem,” Smith said. “And only until we can address the profitability problem can we have a strong and vibrant agriculture where we’re not losing farm families and rural businesses every year.”

State Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, said the state government could help.

This year they passed a new effort in the Dairy Innovation Hub, but they also have high-speed internet and market regulation in mind.

“Do we need to go to stronger regulation of supply versus demand?” Ringhand said. “And I know nobody’s going to be happy about that if they’re told you can’t produce more than x gallons of milk, but we have to find a happy medium somewhere.”

Coxhead said Wisconsinites are in a good position to communicate their needs to the federal government as well, given the state’s crucial role in the presidential election.

“We have kind of a big advantage this year because Wisconsin is a swing state,” he said. “And so people are going to be here a lot and they are going to be listening a lot and looking for votes, and so I think this is a really good opportunity, particularly for the business community in Wisconsin to convey to the federal government that what we need is more than just band aids.”