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Proposal emerges to save ag agent position

Peter Kimball of the Pierce County Dairy Promotion Committee urged County Board members Oct. 24 to restore a vacant UW-Extension position. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Former Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Jim Harsdorf spoke last week to Pierce County Board members in advance of a discussion about the vacant agriculture agent position. Mike Longaecker / RIverTown Multimedia2 / 2

Pierce County Board members will consider a plan to restore funding for a vacant agriculture agent position amid an outcry from local agriculture leaders and others.

A portion of funds would be diverted from the Land Conservation Department's cost-sharing program to pay for a UW-Extension ag-agent, according to a proposal outlined Oct. 24 by County Board Supervisor Mel Pittman.

He offered the possibility after Pierce County farming community leaders spoke up at the meeting in support of the vacant position. They included Pierce County Dairy Promotion Committee Chairman Peter Kimball, who described to board members the instrumental role UW-Extension played in helping him get his farm operational. The ag agent helped him develop a business plan and has also helped aging farmers form succession plans.

"If it wasn't for Extension," Kimball said, there was "a very high likelihood that I would have never gotten my business started."

He was joined by former state Agriculture Secretary Jim Harsdorf, who reminded board members that UW-Extension's original purpose for the agriculture program was to take taxpayer-funded research generated in universities and share it with Wisconsin's farming community.

"Who's going to do that down the road?" Harsdorf said. "Somebody has to take the lead, and, uniquely, Extension has done that."

The board is considering a budget plan that would eliminate funding for the ag-agent position, which has been vacant since Greg Andrews retired in January 2016. Board Chairman Jeff Holst suggested the community has moved on without the ag agent, telling the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the private sector can more efficiently handle farmer's questions.

Other Extension positions would remain as part of the proposed budget but contingency funds that had been held for the ag-agent position would be spent elsewhere.

Adding to Pierce County's concerns about funding for the ag agent is a proposed restructuring of UW-Extension that would place it within UW-Madison programming.

Shortly after hearing from the farmers at the meeting, Board Supervisor Mel Pittman outlined a plan to access half of the cost-sharing program's funds — up to $25,000 — and divert those dollars to fund an ag agent position. It wasn't immediately clear whether those funds would go toward a full- or part-time position.

He said he has been contacted by residents concerned about the possibility of the position remaining unfunded. Reached after the meeting, Pittman said the public response generated in response to the ag-agent issue "has probably received as much attention as any in the past, ever."

Pierce County Administrative Coordinator Jo Ann Miller said staff will draft an amendment on the proposal that board members will vote on at the final budget meeting in November.

Supervisors Michael Kahlow, Paul Fetzer, Ruth Wood and Dean Bergseng all voiced support for the importance of the position to Pierce County farmers. Kahlow, of River Falls, blamed "unfunded mandates" from the Legislature for putting local government in tough spots.

"The people we're sending to Madison keep putting us in this position," he said.

The board will consider the Pittman amendment among budget measures to be finalized at its Nov. 14 meeting.

Opioid lawsuit

Pierce County will, at least temporarily, join other Wisconsin counties as part of a class-action lawsuit targeting opioid manufacturers.

The board on Oct. 24 voted to support a request from the Wisconsin Counties Association that aims to sue pharmaceutical manufacturers for their role in the opioid epidemic that President Donald Trump last week called a national health emergency.

In crafting a motion to support the lawsuit, board members jettisoned the term "millions" in reference to the cost to the county and replaced it with "a significant amount." The motion provides for Pierce County to withdraw from the lawsuit if officials determine the costs associated with the litigation would exceed a possible payout.

Supervisor Ben Plunkett of River Falls was the most outspoken member in support of the lawsuit, saying he's studied the opioid crisis extensively and hopes a class-action suit against pharmaceutical companies strikes a fatal blow to corporate greed.

"I think this is the death penalty of those corporations," he said.

Supervisor Ken Snow of Spring Valley raised a note of caution, reminding the board how costs were simply passed onto consumers after the tobacco industry was sued in the 1990s. The pharmaceutical companies could also pass along the costs, Snow said.

"The big picture is we're all going to pay for this," he said

Supervisor Neil Gulbranson of Ellsworth said he was also considering the big picture in his support of the motion.

"We can send a message, anyway," he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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