CRAWFORD, VERNON AND MONROE COUNTIES - The Crawford, Vernon and Monroe County Farm Bureaus hosted a candidate forum in Viroqua on Monday, July 23, for the three candidates currently vying for the 96th State Assembly seat recently vacated by Representative Lee Nerison.
A partisan primary on Tuesday, August 14 will decide which of the two Democrats currently in the race will face the Republican in the general election on Tuesday, November 6.
About 200 interested citizens showed up to hear Democrats Paul Buhr and Alicia Leinberger, and Republican Loren Oldenburg introduce themselves and answer questions.
Democrat Paul Buhr began the introductions. Buhr thanked the Farm Bureau, and the participants for coming out and taking an active role in our American democracy.
“I have lived in the Viroqua area my whole life, and my wife Darlene and I raised our family here,” Buhr said. “I farmed here for 43 years, raising registered Holstein cows, and sold stock and embryos all over the world.”
Buhr said it took luck, and a good business plan for him to succeed in farming and raise his family. He explained that ‘Buhr’ means ‘farmer’ in Low German.
“I’ve served on many local, state and national boards, and spent nine years as President of Heartland Co-op,” Buhr said. “I also served on the National Holstein Board, where I worked with people from all over the nation. I learned from all of this service that different perspectives could bring different reasons to the table.”
Buhr says he is running so that “our rural lifestyle” can be maintained, and so that young people want to live here and raise their families.
Leinberger also thanked the Farm Bureaus for holding the forum. She also congratulated the participants for showing up.
“This is what democracy is all about,” she said.
Leinberger explained that she grew up in the Milwaukee area, and gravitated to Madison where she had her children and started her alternative energy business.
“I came to Vernon County about 20 years ago, and fell in love with these hills,” Leinberger said. “Eleven years ago, I moved my family out here, and then five years ago I also moved my solar electricity installation business here.”
Leinberger said that she suspected her motivation for running for office was the same as the audience’s motivation for coming out to hear from the candidates.
“We all love our families, and we want better things for them,” Leinberger said. “That’s why we’re all here tonight.”
Leinberger said that her style is to challenge the current system of two-party-politics-as-usual.
“Neither party at its top levels is currently serving ordinary people, especially rural Americans,” Leinberger said. “I’m sick of the party politics that divide us. I will be a voice that doesn’t back down from the party, or anyone else.”
Loren Oldenburg, the Republican, who will face whichever of the two Democrats wins the August 14 partisan primary, thanked the Farm Bureaus and those in the audience that had come out to listen and learn.
“I’m a fourth-generation dairy farmer on a dairy farm outside of Viroqua that has been in our family for 140 years,” Oldenburg said. “I have experience in the agricultural industry, serving as President of the Chaseburg Co-op and on the board of the Westby Co-op Creamery. We’ve been successful, and we’ve kept it local.”
Oldenburg said his motivation for running is to create jobs and keep the jobs in our area. I want to take my vision to Madison to protect our waters, improve our roads, and help everyone get the education they need.
“I agree with Alicia Leinberger – party lines don’t matter,” Oldenburg said. “What we need is common sense.”
The first question posed to the candidates was: Local road and bridge aids are a major issue of debate every budget cycle. Many local officials have stated that paving one mile of road can be estimated between $100,000 and $250,000. It’s debatable as to whether state funding is keeping up with the needs of local communities to maintain a good road infrastructure. Do you agree that local road and bridge aids need to be increased even beyond what the Legislature passed this last budget, and if so, how do you propose ensuring that these aids are increased to meet the needs of local governments?
Buhr stated that roads must be a priority. He pointed out the bridge just a few miles south of Viroqua on County JJ has remained closed since the September 2016 floods.
“If we don’t have good infrastructure, young folks won’t want to live here, Buhr said. “We are all paying a hidden tax of about $0.65 per gallon in car repairs.”
Buhr said the decision not to adequately fund our roads was penny-wise and dollar-foolish.
“Our roads are unsafe, and their maintenance is hard on our county road crews,” Buhr said. “Our rural roads in Southwest Wisconsin are a symbol of how we’ve been left behind in favor of the Southeast corner of the state.”
Leinberger said that her three campaign priorities are ‘Healthcare-for-All,’ clean water, and restoring the citizen tax dollars to benefit the average Wisconsinite.
“The billions we are spending on the Foxconn project are going to completely unaccountable entities,” Leinberger said. “Meanwhile, the state is nickel-and-diming rural America. We need to get back ahold of our tax dollars, raise the gas tax by five cents per gallon, and use the funds to repair our roads, not just to expand the highway system in Southeast Wisconsin.”
Oldenburg agreed that we need to increase aid to local roads and bridges.
“The town chairmen understand the cost share, and what the towns and counties can and can’t afford,” Oldenburg said. “We need to work with the Town Association, and get more money to local people who can make decisions at the township level.”
The second question posed to the candidates was: In place since 1995, Wisconsin’s use-value assessment law taxes farmland at the value of its use, as opposed to its market value if sold. What is your position with regard to the use-value assessment law, and secondly would you refuse to allow for its repeal or any major changes?
Leinberger confessed that this is not yet an issue she has studied in detail, but said “my gut instinct is that it is fine as it is. I want to see our area remain an agricultural district, but if there are parts of it that could be improved, I’m willing to listen.”
Oldenburg said that “as a farmer, I would fight to keep the law.” He said that his taxes would double if the law was taken away, and that the urban folk in the legislature that are trying to get rid of the law don’t understand farming.
Buhr stated that the Use Value Assessment Law has allowed his family to keep farming without an onerous tax on the land.
“However, the good intentions of the law has had unintended consequences, as the current language allows investors to buy farmland and pay only the reduced tax,” Buhr said.
Buhr explained that these investors are by-and-large not committed to our communities, and don’t care about our roads or our schools. For this reason, he believes that this portion of the law needs to be revisited.
The third question posed to the candidates was: Right or wrong, many envision a typical farm setting in Wisconsin where animals freely roam the countryside and local farmer’s markets are how products are exchanged. Others recognize the $88 billion ag industry for what it is – farms that are producing to meet the ever-growing national and world demand for food and it must be done in a way that is efficient, profitable and follows best animal husbandry practices. What’s your general position or feeling about family farms and farm size? Are current farming practices acceptable to you, or do you think a major revamp or rethinking of how things are done is needed?
“We all have a business plan,” Oldenburg said response. “If small farmers can make it, great. If large farmers can make it, great. When a farmer gets bigger, he incorporates more technology into his operation, and this tends to squeeze the little guys out. This leaves lots of room for small, niche agriculture and organic. If elected, I would work to help those sectors succeed.”
Buhr stated that he is aware of farmers of all different sizes. Those that got big did what they had to do to support their families and buy health insurance.
“Nostalgia makes us want to go back, but technology costs money,” Buhr said.
The candidate stated that given our area’s hydrogeology, big farms might not be a good fit for our area.
“We need small farmers for our local economy,” Buhr said. “I believe that value-added agriculture is the future for our landscape. The Wisconsin Idea has caused agricultural innovation, for example the state’s many wineries. I believe the future for small dairy is in artisanal cheese. We need to use the university to reinvent what we do on the farm.”
Leinberger stated that our state currently has a problem with groundwater quality that is only getting worse, and our communities also continue to reel from repeated flooding. She noted that people are losing their homes, livelihood, and even their lives.
“I think that 70-100 head is a good size for a family farm dairy, and that we need to focus on getting farmers fair prices,” Leinberger said.
The fourth question posed to the candidates was: We recognize that rural Wisconsin is changing - in demographics, crime, planning, educational opportunities, resource management, etc. If elected, what is your priority for rural Wisconsin in the next legislative session, and how would that impact the farming community?
Buhr stated that it is vital to rebuild our rural roads, and to expand high-speed broadband to every corner of the district, to support our farming community and attract young people to live here.
“The average age in Crawford County has increased by 15 years in the last 15 years,” Buhr pointed out. “We need to enable folks to telecommute, and offer low-interest loans to internet service providers.”
Leinberger stated that among her top priorities is to fix healthcare, take the federal Medicaid expansion dollars, save money, offer single-payer insurance, and offer citizens more for less.
“We need to get the profits and the private out of healthcare. We also need to protect our surface and groundwater. We have an amazing water resource in our district, and it is a great thing for our economy.
“Lastly, we need to get our tax dollars back to the local level to start working for us,” Leinberger said. “We need fully funded public schools like we had under Governor Tommy Thompson, and we need to fix our roads.
“With respect to broadband expansion, I have a long career experience in working with the Public Service Commission, and I’ve already been on the phone with internet service providers,” Leinberger said.
Oldenburg agreed with the other two candidates about broadband expansion. “
I have fiber optic right up to my front door, and Vernon Telephone and Coon Valley Telephone Cooperative continue to expand access with loans and grants,” Oldenburg said. “As far as water goes, at Westby Cooperative Creamery, where I was on the board for 15 years, the new phosphorous regulations are going to wind up costing the co-op and the farmers a lot of money that they don’t have.
“We also need to expand the Farmland Preservation Program because it puts money in the pockets of farmers,” Oldenburg noted.
“With healthcare, everyone has got to come to the table,” the candidate explained. “We need to protect the pre-existing condition clause, and lower premiums.”
The last question posed to the candidates was: Over the last year, there have been numerous processors dropping dairy producers throughout the state with limited notice. Wisconsin, for the first time in its history, is seeing a surplus of milk that can’t always find a home with a processor. When it comes down to it, do you see this as a free market issue or should the government get involved to create a supply management program?
“I love to talk about markets,” Leinberger said. “I attended a meeting of very emotional dairy producers in Seneca, and basically everyone there knew that the problem is oversupply.”
“There is no such thing as a ‘free’ market – the whole thing is rigged,” Leinberger said. “We can continue to sit back and watch the tragedy unfold, or we can get serious, and figure out how to cooperate.”
Leinberger said that we have to take small, local operators like Westby Co-op Creamery and “circle it up” – like Organic Valley.
“I don’t see this as primarily a legislative issue – farmers have got to do this for themselves,” Leinberger said. “I see my role as a facilitator, and legislatively as removing potential barriers.”
Oldenburg stated that he would see his role as plugging into the current Governor’s newly created ‘Dairy Task Force 2.0,’ and pushing them to come up with solutions.
“If the low prices continue, we’re going to continue to lose farms,” Oldenburg said. “The market will adjust itself over time, but currently with tariffs and labeling issues, we are losing markets.
“We have to get on this right away, and control supply fairly,” the candidate noted. “Organic is doing it at the co-op level. We need to time supply management based on the market, which should be done at the farmer group level, with the government controlling imports.”
“I really see the solution to the dairy crisis as a federal issue,” Buhr said. “I have a long history in the business, and listened to talk at the kitchen table as a boy about holding actions and the like. Dairymen formed groups in the 90s working for supply management and secure markets, and we came out frustrated with a wish to stay out of politics.”
Buhr said that he doesn’t believe supply management will happen in the current climate, and advocates instead for a ‘rolling base,’ to encourage supply management on the farm level and allow for startups.
“We need to put a damper on loaning money for expansion as well,”Buhr said.
“I was asked to run, and thought, if I don’t, who will?” Loren Oldenburg said. “If elected, I will take my leadership experience to the state capitol to make something happen with roads, education, healthcare, protecting our water, fighting for the Use Value Assessment of Farmland, and expanding the Farmland Preservation Program. We have to work together, and we need common sense.”
“This is my second time campaigning for this office,” Leinberger said. “That has given me plenty of time to think through the issues facing our district.”
Leinberger reiterated that she does not believe we can rely on the political parties, which she views as more concerned about campaign donors than serving ordinary Americans.
“My career experience, working at the intersection of private business and public policy provides me with unique qualifications to analyze and write policy, and formulate budgets.” Leinberger said that it is critical that we not continue to be bogged down in divisions. “The spirit of our district is cooperation and innovation.”
Buhr stated that he decided to run for the office because he feels lucky to have been able to live, raise a family, and run a successful business in this community.
“I have benefited so greatly, and never felt that I have contributed enough,” Buhr said. “At my age, politics is not a career – it is a passion.”
Buhr stated he wants to preserve “our rural lifestyle” and attract young families.
“I have the history, the vision, and the temperament to be a good representative,” Buhr said.