With midterms fast approaching, Wisconsin is receiving a national spotlight for both intensely vital and competitive elections, as political groups around the state seek to mobilize supporters, influence platforms and, most importantly, fundraise.
In dairyland, unsurprisingly, some of the most active and influential political groups in the state are those that represent the agricultural industry.
In the last two decades, agriculture lobbyists alone have shelled out about $7 million in political contributions, behind only financial institutions, business and real estate groups in their efforts to influence policy.
Over $2 million of that financial support has come from the one source: the Dairy Business Association.
According to John Holevoet, the DBA’s director of government relations, the group was created to advocate for a more favorable regulatory environment for dairies and other agribusiness firms.
Formed in 1999, the organization quickly become an influential political actor, contributing to dozens of campaigns on both sides of the aisle — though substantially more to Republicans — including about $750,000 to Gov. Scott Walker since his first gubernatorial campaign.
“They try to sell themselves as the defenders of the small dairy farm, but the small dairy farm is almost extinct,” said Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, an open government watchdog group. “Most of the board members of the Dairy Business Association are factory farm owners, big ones. Sure, they have a nice name, who wants to be against dairy in Wisconsin?”
“It’s not that environmental stewardship is not important to us. But I’d rather see farmers be allowed to have more flexibility in how they manage their farms and how they grow their business, while at the same time having safeguards in place.”
The DBA’s most generous financial sponsors include agriculture giant Monsanto, Alliant Energy, BMO Harris Bank — and the law firm of Michael, Best & Friedrich. The firm employed former state Supreme Court candidate Michael Screnock during his legal defense of Walker’s controversial Act 10 legislation.
The dairy group endorsed Screnock in mid-March, saying the judge’s principles “provide necessary certainty for the dairy community and the rest of the regulated community as well.”
In a state as dependent on agriculture as Wisconsin, groups like the DBA can often find sympathetic ears in the state Capitol.
“We try to think of someone who understands agricultural issues well, approach them and see if they might be a champion for us and help us get the legislation drafted,” Holevoet said. “Once it’s drafted, we usually reach out to other ag interests to find common ground to ultimately see if we can get enough votes to pass the legislation.”
Lobbyists from the DBA even met with Walker’s staff before the governor pushed to shift agricultural oversight from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture, a move scrutinized by environmental activists as a step toward disempowering environmental oversight in the state.
In the last legislative session, the DBA spent about $350,000 to lobby lawmakers behind their policy priorities, including easing water use restrictions, allowing development on protected wetlands and altering the oversight authority of the DNR.
“These entities almost always get their way,” Rothschild said. “They are running the show in Madison in the Walker age. They’re very powerful when Democrats are in power too, but they’re really ruling the roost today [with a Republican governor and Legislature].”
Last year, the DBA sued the state government, alleging the DNR illegally created new rules regarding farm waste management without approval from the legislature. They said the new regulation would burden farms with significant costs to update their disposal mechanisms.
“Their perspective was that sometimes, contaminated water gets out of the collection areas and could potentially reach surface water, and that would be a violation of the Clean Water Act,” Holevoet said. “Our argument back to them was do a case-by-case analysis, don’t just tell all farmers they can’t use their stuff.”
Amid the lawsuit, a host of environmental groups, led by the Midwest Environmental Advocates, filed to intervene, claiming that rolling back the rule changes would pose a threat to the way the state protects natural resources.
But the DNR settled before intervention could occur, agreeing to rescind its blanket rule in favor of the context-specific regulations recommended by the DBA.
And conservationists weren’t happy. The Midwest Environmental Advocates challenged the DNR’s settlement, arguing that the decision weakened the department’s ability to regulate and oversee the state’s farms, Scott Laeser of Clean Wisconsin told The Daily Cardinal.
“We’ve seen the DNR bend to the wishes of big agriculture in other cases,” said MEA staff attorney Sarah Geers. “We’re intervening on behalf of these organizations and people across the state to ensure that it doesn’t happen here, especially when we’ve worked hard to hold the line on agricultural pollution.”
The DBA argues the claims made by the environmental groups go beyond the scope of the original lawsuit and into a more personal arena.
“They try to sell themselves as the defenders of the small dairy farm, but the small dairy farm is almost extinct.”
“I get that you may not like everything that we do, and we probably have fundamental disagreements on ideology and how things should work,” Holevoet said. “But I think it’s mostly just an attempt to bring out into public the problem they have with how [the DBA is] regulated and not so much about the actual settlement of our lawsuit.”
This isn’t the first time the two organizations have clashed either, as the appointment of a former DBA lobbyist to head the environmental protection unit of the Justice Department drew public scrutiny from the environmental group.
Even as the groups square off over the future of the state’s agriculture industry, Holevoet said his organization is looking to give farmers freedom in how they ply their trade.
“It’s not that environmental stewardship is not important to us. But I’d rather see farmers be allowed to have more flexibility in how they manage their farms and how they grow their business, while at the same time having safeguards in place,” Holevoet said. “I think we all agree there are certain lines that can’t be crossed, we just probably disagree on where those lines need to be drawn.”