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Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008

Nilsestuen’s award-winning policies

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Before becoming our state’s agriculture secretary in 2003, Rod Nilsestuen spent 24 years as president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives (WFC). Under his guidance, the WFC increased its size to 860 co-ops and 1.8 million members. In addition, the Gathering Waters Conservancy and 1000 Friends of Wisconsin have honored Nilsestuen’s policy work in land conservation and agricultural promotion.Secretary Nilsestuen was also elected president of the North Central Bioeconomy Consortium, a 12-state organization that promotes greater use of bio-based fuels and products. With Nilsestuen’s help, Wisconsin’s government has made enormous strides in land use, renewable energy, manure management and revitalizing the state’s dairy industry.

What are the challenges of sourcing and serving local foods in Wisconsin?

The largest issue is meeting the growing demand. There is a sea change occurring in public perception of both the value and the opportunities of buying local. The basic issue is, if you are a food provider, like a grocer, restaurant, hospital or a school, how do you ensure that you have access to the food, that it has consistent quality and [that] it’s there when you need it.

How are you addressing those practical barriers?

The thrust of the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin (BLBW) grant program is to address those barriers. When we announced the grants, a quarter of a million dollars, or $225,000, which is not a big number when you’re talking about the whole state, we had 94 applications for more than $3 million. We try to provide grants to virtually every corner of the state. There is a very wide range of effort; the projects were [the] most innovative and have the highest potential of reaching the most people and taking it to the next step.

Who are some of the grant recipients?

We’ll be working with a buy-local consortium that farms in the area will be able to bring their produce and crops to. Essentially, it mimics the distribution of a traditional restaurant food supplier, like a buying club, where area institutions will be able to order from. You can have the potential demand in the public; you can have the interest of the [food] providers; you can have the supply availability and a strong interest in local growers and farmers; but if you can’t put it together in a way that works, we’ll never meet the kind of goal that so many of us have, which is sourcing 10% of the food we utilize in Wisconsin locally.

How does this relate to the revitalization of our dairy industry?

The governor [recently] announced grazing grants, which are parallel to these local food grants. Small family farms are doing the New Zealand method of management-intensive grazing. They don’t have to invest in big tractors and machinery to harvest grain [for feed], because they have the cattle do the work. They put the cattle out into small plots of two or three acres for a day and they mow the grass, self-fertilizing their own pastures while they do it. They’re rotated through several dozen of those plots on a continual basis. Even in Wisconsin, most of the grass-grazers start in April and continue to graze through November, depending on when heavy snow comes. They’re able to produce their milk, on average, at less than half the cost of a conventional dairy farm.

How have our state’s tax incentives fostered our agricultural industry?

We have a 10% investment credit for dairy and livestock farmers who want to reinvest in their own operations, up to $50,000. Forty-two per cent of the dairy farmers in the state used that in Year 1. In the last 5 years, we’ve had over $1 billion—that’s with a “b” [as in “billion”]—in investment at the farm level.