• WisBusiness

Romanski: Working to carry on mentor's vision for Wisconsin agriculture
9/7/2010

MADISON – Promotions are usually reasons to celebrate.

But for Randy Romanski, who was named secretary of the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection last week, the move was more than a little bittersweet.

That’s because Romanski, who had served as deputy to former secretary Rod Nilsestuen for nearly three years, lost his mentor when Nilsestuen drowned on July 21 while swimming in Lake Superior.

“Everyone who knew Rod wishes he were still here with us to guide the agency,” said Romanski. “I feel the best way to honor his legacy is to pursue the work he started here. He was a great leader, a visionary and a kind, wonderful man.”

Romanski said he will not try to replace Nilsestuen, who was agriculture secretary for more than seven years.

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“No one person can replace Rod,” said Romanski, a Wisconsin native who has worked in state government for 20 years, including stints in Gov. Jim Doyle’s office, at the Department of Justice and as a staffer in the Legislature.

“Rod was a pillar in agricultural community for decades,” he said. “This agency has always pulled together as a team. I am fortunate to have dedicated staff because no one person can fill Rod’s large shoes.”

Romanski said his agenda is to continue Nilsestuen’s work, carrying forward a vision to help grow and diversify the state’s agricultural economy.

“We’re not only the nation’s dairyland, but a leader in many other areas, Romanski said. We are number one in cheese, cranberries and ginseng; and number three for potatoes. I want to continue to promote that diversity.”

Nilsestuen had also worked to set up a group with wide-ranging interests to determine if Wisconsin should allow the widespread sale of unpasteurized milk. A bill on the topic prompted a veto by Doyle earlier this year.

“It’s not an easy task. But Rod set up group to pull the issue out of the spotlight and the heat of the legislative process and get a group of farmers, consumers, processors, cheese makers and food safety and public health pros to see if this can be done and how.”

Romanski defended the veto as a way to protect public health because “there is the potential to become seriously ill from consuming raw milk if it has pathogens in it.”

He said the committee has a broad range of perspectives and is “charged with considering the existing legal and regulatory perspectives pertaining to on-farm safety of unpasteurized milk directly to consumers.”

If the state is to allow the widespread sale of raw milk, he said the group will come up with recommendations on restrictions that should be set up to protect the public.

“The group is discussing a wide variety of issues, ranging from animal health testing, water sampling, milk temp regulations, storage temps and things like that. At the end of the day, they will see if they can reach a consensus on whether there could be a system of allowing the sale of raw milk in state and still protect public health."

Highlighting the dairy industry, Romanski said his agency is not focused on the size of operations, but helping farms large, small, organic and grazing operations to modernize and be profitable.

“Before Governor Doyle came into office, dairy was weakening,” he said. “Dairy farmers were producing 12 percent less in 2003 than they did in 1988. That had adverse impact on cheese plants, which were importing milk protein from other states and operating below capacity. Plants were closing.”

Now, he said, even though the economy has been down, milk and cheese production are at all-time highs.

Organic farming is also booming, he said.

"There has been dramatic growth and we are No. 2 with 1,200 certified organic farms. And the No. 1 organic dairy state. It’s a growing part of our farming economy."

That leaves the state in a good position to grow along with current trends in farming.

“As the country gets closer to the know-your-farmer-and-food perspective, we are well positioned to take advantage of that trend if consumers want organic, or if farmers want to produce for a farm-to-school program, which is developing in the state," he said.

He lauded Nilsestuen for helping connect cheesemakers, food processors and farmers with tools like investment tax credits to improve and expand their operations.

“Continuing the partnership with agriculture is important,” he said. “State government doesn’t milk the cows or till the land or make the cheese, but we serve in an important partnership role.”

Romanski said Nilsestuen was concerned that Wisconsin was losing productive farmland to development at a faster rate than any other Midwestern state.

“So he made it one of his charges to do more to protect the best farmland here,” he said. “And the governor’s last budget had something called the Working Lands Initiative, which will provide tremendous tools for preserving our quality farmland years into the future.”

Romanski said the program will expand and modernize farm preservation efforts by purchasing development rights for contiguous blocks of land, establish agricultural enterprise zones to cluster businesses that serve farmers, such as cheese plants, veterinarians and food processors.

“It was an inclusive process to get this done,” he said. “Everyone with a dog in the fight had a seat at the table. That’s how Rod worked. That will be his legacy. So we are working hard to make sure the program is up and running."

Though Romanski says Wisconsin’s ag sector is well positioned to thrive in the coming decade, he worries that the wild swings in milk prices are hurting the dairy industry and individual farmers.

Fortunately, he said, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is working to flatten out that volatility and has appointed a panel – which includes several people with Wisconsin ties – to make recommendations on how to end dramatic price fluctuations.

“It’s been like a Richter scale,” he said. “The swings up and down have become more violent in recent years with higher highs and lower lows. There are obvious benefits at the high end, but the dramatic lows are an extremely difficult for farmers to deal with. It puts a severe crunch on their debt load and dairy farmers are still climbing out of that.”

-- By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

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