DARLINGTON, Wis. — Officials in one of Wisconsin’s most agriculturally dependent counties intend to investigate all measures, including possible legal action, to force the state to hire a full-time ag agent.
Lafayette County Ag and Extension Committee members have approved a sharing agreement with Iowa County for a grazing and soil and water conservation specialist. But county leaders believe the arrangement is insufficient.
For about two decades, the county has, by choice, not employed a full-time agent. But the ongoing lull of grain and dairy prices has increased its need, said Lafayette County Board Chairman Jack Sauer.
“When I’m fighting with the bank, and I’m a person who’s on the end of my rope, … you need somebody to talk to,” Sauer said. “When you mention unbiased advice, that is what you get from an ag agent. We’re at the point in time where we need one worse than we’ve needed one since the middle ’80s.”
Extension agents have advised local farmers for decades and routinely lead community workshops and educational programs.
Last year, the State Board of Regents voted to restructure the University of Wisconsin System by merging its two-year colleges with four-year universities and transferring administration of University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension.
Effective July 1, UW-Extension will integrate with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In preparation, UW-Extension developed a plan to share ag agents in southwest Wisconsin. Four agents would divide their time among Grant, Green, Iowa and Lafayette counties.
But Paul Ohlrogge, the area UW-Extension director, said cuts to the UW System eliminated about $3.5 million from UW-Extension’s budget, leading to a reduction of about 40 county UW-Extension staff statewide.
The region only has funds to staff three agents.
“It looks like there are 35 to 38 positions more that are requested than we have a budget for,” Ohlrogge said.
Grant County recently hired its own agent and Green County will do so soon. Under the new sharing agreement, Iowa County’s ag agent Gene Schriefer will divide his time evenly with Lafayette County.
State Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, recently spoke out against UW-Extension’s “backtracking” with respect to filling positions.
“I believe that Lafayette and Green (counties) should be prioritized,” he said.
State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said he has contacted UW-Madison officials to explain the agents’ importance in southwest Wisconsin. State Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, agreed that hiring should be a priority.
“The ag economy is so important to rural Wisconsin,” he said.
He added that he is willing to propose a motion for funding in 2020-21 biennium budget, which the Legislature will begin to develop in 2019.
Sauer said he intends to pursue the matter. The board is investigating its legal options.
“I like a good fight,” he said. “I like fighting more than I like sitting doing nothing.”