Wisconsin’s state government turned 150 years old this year. Over that time, Wisconsin state government has grown from a few hundred employees mustered in wooden buildings along dirt roads in Madison to a force of more than 63,000 full-time employees spread around the state.
Over that same time, the cornerstone of Wisconsin’s first economy – agriculture and food – has blossomed from subsistence farms with wooden implements and horses into what has arguably become a $40 billion industry.
During that growth, the relationship of Wisconsin agriculture and government also grew tremendously. In the 19th century, agricultural development was considered the fundamental tool in economic development — and government played an early, key role in the development of modern agriculture. Today, agriculture is but one industry in Wisconsin’s economy – but still one of its most important. And government still plays an intricate role in agri- culture from the farm gate to the grocery store.
It is the nature of government, however, to grow haphazardly – the result of political responses to economic or social problems. Those programs grow constituencies and survive. In some cases, government agencies and institutions that originally served agriculture have grown apart. In some cases, they’ve grown together. In still others, government is trying to redefine itself to fit into the needs of a modern agricultural economy that, itself, is still changing rapidly.
This paper attempts to lay out for policy makers, for the agricultural industry and for the public, the current status of Wisconsin’s agricultural agencies, its agricultural teaching and research institutions, and the agencies assigned to regulate and promote agriculture. They are vast. Taken together, these agencies employ more than 4,000 persons and cost more than $700 million – more than Wisconsin farmers themselves earn in a typical year.
This is not an attempt to cast judgment on the value of these agencies, but to better illuminate where tax money goes – and why it is spent. For perspective, this paper provides a history of Wisconsin agriculture and the government institutions that serve it. And it provides as complete an analysis as possible of the total economic contribution of Wisconsin’s agriculture, food and forest industries. Those industries rank among the top in the state in manufacturing and retail jobs — an economic impact that is impressive even before calculating the impact of the first seed planted by a farmer. That makes any discussion of agriculture far broader than a discussion of the future of the family farm or the role of government biotechnology research in a future agricultural system.
Finally, the paper concludes with policy suggestions drawn from the extensive interviews required for a project such as this. The suggestions are generally the result of consensus of several interviewees.
Perhaps the broadest lesson in this paper, however, is that this is only a snapshot in a rapidly changing time. As the history section suggests, it is nearly impossible to grasp how fast Wisconsin agriculture has changed within a century – even within a generation. It is also difficult to grasp how fast Wisconsin government has evolved over the same period.
That illustrates how fast both may still change as the new century approaches. So, at the very least, it is a worthy intellectual exercise to take a firm assessment of the two as they stand today in order to help plan for the future.