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Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Kevin Semke, who owns and operates Semke Farms in rural Coon Valley with his son Kyle, will be plating about 1,000 acres with corn and soybeans this spring.

Corn, soybean farmers face another year of low prices

It looks like 2018 will be another challenging year for corn and soybean farmers.

“It’s going to be a tough year, I think, because of low (commodity) prices,” said Kevin Semke, who with his wife Ellen and son and daughter-in-law, Kyle and Tamar Semke, raises about 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans at Semke Farms near Coon Valley. They also do custom farm work such as tillage, planting, harvesting, spraying and fertilizer application, for other farmers.

Farmers have had to cope with low corn and soybean prices for the past few years, Semke said.

U.S. corn prices are expected to average about $3.40 per bushel in 2018, up 3 percent from $3.30 in 2017, U.S. Department of Agriculture Chief Economist Robert Johansson said at the agency’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in late February. U.S. soybean prices are expected to average about $9.25 per bushel in 2018, down 0.5 percent from $9.30 in 2017, he said.

Those prices are down sharply from the record high prices (both set in 2012) of $6.89 for corn and $14.40 for soybeans.

Johansson said production has outpaced consumption for many grains and oilseeds during the last four years, after the large drawdown in stocks that followed the 2012 U.S. drought.

With the current low prices for corn and soybeans, the 62-year-old Semke said, “We hope to make a little, but we’re not going to make a lot” of money. “We don’t want to go in the hole.

“The biggest (concern) with agriculture as a whole is passing the torch on to a younger generation coming in, like our son coming in” and eventually taking over the family farm, Semke said. “We’re working with him and helping him” take over. “To get started on your own (without help) is just about impossible.”

Semke said farmers have had to be frugal in the last few years because of low commodity prices. “We try to get the biggest bang for the buck,” he said of buying seed, fuel, fertilizer and chemicals.

Semke said he upgraded his machinery when corn and soybean prices were much higher several years ago, “We were able to make some good deals, got the equipment we wanted for a fair price, and were able to get things paid down,” he said. “We’re not sitting on a lot of machinery debt. That’s the biggest thing. A lot of guys got caught buying a lot of stuff and are still paying off some of that debt, and it’s hard” on them.

Semke is concerned about talk of a possible international trade war, which could have a negative effect on U.S. farm commodity exports and prices. “It seems like the agriculture sector is the first one to get hit” in a trade war, he said.

He usually begins planting around the first week of May, and hopes for good weather this spring.

“Last year we had weather issues here,” Semke said of some heavy downpours last spring that caused washouts and forced him to replant about 60 acres of corn and about 72 acres of soybeans.

Most area farmers usually begin planting corn toward the end of April or in early May, said Bill Halfman, University of Wisconsin-Extension agriculture agent in Monroe County.

“We weren’t in too bad a shape (with soil moisture) going into the winter,” but the area received less snow than usual, Halfman said. “We’re kind of going in dryer than usual. Precipitation from here on out is going to be important.”

Housing, manufacturing potentials come with Chippewa Falls' economic opportunity zone

Manufacturing and real estate updates could be slated for Chippewa Falls with the city’s recent designation as an “economic opportunity zone.”

After being nominated by Gov. Scott Walker in March, a metropolitan area within Chippewa Falls was one of 120 zones from 44 Wisconsin counties given the designation from U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday.

The zones were a result of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The program provides a tax incentive to private investors who invest in those zones.

The next steps, said Charlie Walker, president and CEO of the Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation (CCEDC), is to wait for regulations, and watch for establishments of the fund for the investment into the community.

The CCEDC led the charge in getting Chippewa Falls noticed by Gov. Walker and the federal government, Walker said. The corporation lobbied using recent activity at the Lake Wissota Business Park, census numbers and a look at some poverty areas.

What the fund will look like, who will house it, what restrictions it will have and when it will start are all unknown, Walker said, but with the official federal designation the potential could impact housing and manufacturing.

“Really we have some great opportunities, and we’re pleased that the government forwarded it on,” Walker said.

The fund, Walker explained, will allow local investors to subsidize projects and development within the zone, creating local interest and incentive with lower risk.

Industrial lots and real estate ventures – such as tenant and professional housing – is an area of improvement Walker said the zone designation could impact for Chippewa Falls.

Housing and the lack thereof is a concern city of Chippewa Falls Mayor Greg Hoffman said he is hearing from constituents. Even with the recent addition of apartment buildings and the possible proposed addition of twin homes near Bridgewater Avenue and Willow Creek Parkway, Hoffman said residents are concerned that there just are not enough options for living.

In terms of growth, Hoffman said the city has “a lot going on,” including investments in the city’s industrial parcels.

The designation is exciting for the city, Hoffman said, who believes the impact will be felt outside of the city limits and into other counties as well.

“I believe it’s important that people invest in Chippewa County,” Hoffman said. “This is a good location, access to highways, access to rail, really a good location for businesses to come… At the end of the day we’re all impacted by the county.”

Eau Claire County had three metropolitan areas within Eau Claire receive designations, while a metropolitan area in Menomonie in Dunn County was also awarded a designation.

Walker signs 9 bills limiting Wisconsin welfare into law

MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker signed nine bills into law Tuesday that limit the state’s welfare programs, including increasing the work requirement for food stamp recipients and imposing it on parents for the first time.

The Legislature passed the bills in February with Democrats united against them. Walker, a Republican up for re-election in November, championed the new laws as the latest examples of Wisconsin leading the nation in changing the state welfare system to put more people back to work.

“We want to help those in need move from government dependence to true independence through the dignity of work,” Walker said in a statement. “We believe welfare should be more like a trampoline and less like a hammock.”

The statement also called the laws “another key item of Governor Walker’s Ambitious Agenda for 2018.”

Walker has argued for the changes as a way to help address the state’s worker shortage problem. While Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is at a record low 2.9 percent, companies across the state are struggling to find workers to fill openings.

Walker said the new laws will provide needed training and assistance to help people re-enter the workforce and be independent. He signed them at separate stops at a job center in Wausau, a grocery store in River Falls and a homeless shelter in Milwaukee.

Democrats who didn’t have the votes to stop the measures argued they will make it more difficult for poor people to get food and rise out of poverty.

“While Gov. Walker spends millions of taxpayer dollars making it harder for working families to put food on the table, Wisconsin communities continue to struggle with crumbling roads, school funding cuts and economic uncertainty,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (La Crosse) tweeted Tuesday.

Shilling also released a statement on Tuesday condemning the bills, calling the move Walker’s “latest attack on families.”

Americans for Prosperity—Wisconsin, a lobby group, also released a statement on the bill signage, claiming the bills will help “thousands of Wisconsinites find the dignity and happiness that comes with work...”

All but one of Walker’s welfare proposals passed the Legislature. The Senate did not approve of a bill that would have required a photo ID food stamp benefit card.

Bills Walker signed will cost nearly $80 million and state and federal money once fully implemented and will:

  • Increase from 20 to 30 hours a week the time that able-bodied adults, and now parents of school-aged children, have to be working or in job training to receive food stamps under Wisconsin’s Food Share program.
  • Require drug screening, testing and treatment to be eligible for public housing.
  • Prohibit anyone from receiving food stamps and other Medicaid benefits under the Welfare to Work, or W-2 program, if they own a home worth double the median value — or about $321,000 — or personal vehicles worth more than $20,000.
  • Block anyone owning a vehicle worth more than $20,000 from getting food stamps.
  • Require “able-bodied” Medicaid enrollees to pay child support and participate in child paternity testing or face losing benefits.
  • Require state contracts with private groups that help run the food stamps and W-2 welfare programs to have pay-for-performance standards.
  • Request a federal waiver to create health savings accounts for Medicaid recipients.
  • Create a pilot program for periodic payments of the earned income tax credit. Supporters say that will get the money into recipients hands quicker, in smaller amounts, and help them budget better. But opponents say there may be good reason for recipients to want the money in a lump sum.