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Brancel reflects on first year back at DATCP

Dec. 29, 2011 | 0 comments

From a vantage point on the top floor of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection's headquarters in Madison - looking toward the state Capitol - Secretary Ben Brancel reflected last week on his first year back at the agency and on where he'd like to see it go in the coming year.

"When I was here 11 years ago the employees were hard-working and they are still hard-working," he told Wisconsin State Farmer. "The rules have not gotten simpler and the business practices have not gotten easier."

Brancel, who was appointed to head the department by Governer Scott Walker, had earlier served in the same post as the request of Gov. Tommy Thompson.

He then went on to serve as state director of the Farm Service Agency and then as a special liaison to the University of Wisconsin's Agriculture Research Stations.

The varied roles have given Brancel, a former dairy farmer and state lawmaker, the ability to understand many facets of agriculture. His two different terms also give him a view of the agency that not many others have had.

In the years since he left DATCP, Brancel said many world markets have opened up, the world has become more complicated and his staff has become smaller. There are 250 to 300 fewer people staffing the agency than there were in his first term as secretary, he said.

That means that each person must have broader understanding of the area they work in and they must cooperate and collaborate much more than ever before. Brancel said the smaller staff and increased workload means that each person must be able to cross over into other divisions at the agency.

Some things must be dealt with in multiple areas of the agency. "We're all finding ways to make sure we don't drop the ball," he said.

"Here in the department most employees focus on their jobs and do an excellent job of providing service to the citizens of Wisconsin. It's a value that is recognized by the agency."

The greatest challenge for his employees has been getting used to the new administration. There are only a handful of people there who had worked for him in the past, he added, so that in the past 11 months they have all been finding ways to become a team.

In the wake of state budget cuts, Brancel said his administrators have stabilized their program activity and have provided recommendations on positions that absolutely need to be filled.

This in an agency that probably has more "touch points" than any branch of state government, he said.

His staff works with the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the state departments of Revenue, Transportation and Health. They work in international trade and veterinary regulations.

In the Consumer Protection division, thousands of Wisconsin citizens call in looking for help with numerous issues.

Information technology

One of Brancel's goals for his agency in the coming year is to streamline operations with a new information technology (IT) system that will allow "customers" to file for various certifications and licenses electronically, saving time for them and for staff.

There have been cases where some information on a form is missing, resulting in lost time for the applicant and for staffers who must then go back to the customer and fill in the blanks. Brancel said he and his administrative team are excited about moving toward a system where customer certification, licensing and registrations will all be handled more efficiently.

"If you have 300 employees and they each delay something by a day that equals almost a year," he said.

The new system will also allow compliance officers - like those who inspect milkhouses - to check electronically into the history of any given customer.

One of the reasons Brancel wants this kind of system is to allow all customer contacts with the agency to be immediately transparent.

"We've had cases where people have applied for grants in one of our programs only to find out much later that they had compliance issues in other areas. This will provide better coordination, a better knowledge base within the staff," he said.

Brancel and his top administrators are working with the Department of Administration on putting together the new IT system.

Another area that Brancel is putting emphasis is bioenergy. He envisions a system where production of fuel stocks is profitable for farmers.

"I would like to see it become an ag enterprise for the farm community with a viable profitable system. I don't want one that's supported by government."

Brancel said he wants to see farmers growing crops for energy, having access to markets and making a profit doing that. A renewable fuel produced on Wisconsin farms rather than imported petroleum, will keep the economic growth in the state, he said.

"It's an immature marketplace. We need those connections," said the secretary, who has dedicated a full-time staff member to developing this area.

"Everybody is now focused on liquid fuels, but we are finding there are greater efficiencies in the heat world."

Raw milk

One of the topics that dominated farm news a year ago was the question of whether or not farmers should be able to sell raw milk to customers at the farm. Under the previous administration a raw milk task force grappled with recommendations to the state on the question.

Though the department's citizen policy board never discussed the report of that task force, Brancel said it is posted on DATCP's website for anyone to see.

Draft legislation on the raw milk issue that is circulating in the state capital now, he said, ignores the recommendations contained in the report.

Food safety regulators have refined their working relationship with county district attorneys - the channel for prosecuting farmers who sell raw milk.

"If a situation needs to be addressed we visit with DAs to find out if they will be willing to prosecute," he said.

"In the Hershberger case in Sauk County, that district attorney had taken on some difficult cases and their workload was too much. We needed to bring the Justice Department in for the raw milk case."

Brancel said his agency has a "great" working relationship with Justice on Trade and Consumer Protection cases. While DATCP does the investigation and "packages" the cases, Justice does the prosecution.

The FDA has jurisdiction over any case that involves selling raw milk across state lines, he added.

Future for agriculture

Brancel sees management strategies being ever more important for farmers in the state, as the price of commodities rises.

Seven dollar corn may sound like there's no downside, but there are challenges from the weather and other factors, he said. For the state's livestock producers, the question becomes how to manage those high feed costs.

"Twenty dollar milk is hunky dory but many people don't stop to think about the high input costs that go into that milk," he said.

There is also the question of how to handle the higher raw product input costs for the state's dairy processing industry to consider.

Brancel said as he took on various roles in agriculture, he saw the resilience of producers - in many cases a new generation of farmers bringing new enthusiasm to agriculture.

But if there is one weakness he sees in the industry it's that farmers often don't have transition plans in place.

Where the state's dairy industry is concerned, Brancel sees an evolution continuing. Some farmers will pursue low-input ways to produce milk - like grazing - and others will go the route of larger herds in confined, higher-tech settings. Often those operations involve combined family efforts, he said.

As Brancel sees it, the diversity of Wisconsin's dairy industry is a strength but one that may change in the future. "Eventually it's going to be a real challenge to conventional dairy farmers like those with stanchion barns to continue."

The diversity may involve organic and grazing operations and those with large, freestall herds while the conventional farmers in the middle disappear, he added.

"It's going to be very, very challenging for farming operations in this size unit," he said.

Brancel finds it troubling that some of the technologies coming down the road have been designed only for the very largest herds - like manure digesters - which typically require at least 1,000 cows to operate.

He would like to see those technologies made available to farms of all sizes even if it means going to other places in the world where such systems are available. "I'm still hoping to see digesters for smaller sized operations."

New laboratory facilities

On a plot of land below DATCP headquarters a new laboratory is being built that will serve the agency's Food Safety and Resource Management divisions.

It will also be a resource that will help in national testing programs. The old laboratory facility on University Avenue helped in testing seafood after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and melamine in pet food products from China.

Workers in the state lab were also instrumental in isolating the bacteria that contributed to the disease outbreak in spinach.

The new facility, said Brancel, will allow outside customers to be confident in the accuracy of the work.

It will be connected to the adjacent State Laboratory of Hygiene, which also sits below DATCP headquarters. Connecting the two will allow some savings in systems that won't have to be duplicated.

The old facility, with sinks falling off the walls and leaking ceilings, doesn't inspire confidence in laboratory findings, he said. There, plastic sheets must be used to cover expensive equipment so it doesn't get wet.

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