River Falls would be among three University of Wisconsin campuses tasked with harnessing collaboration to reverse the trend of falling Badger State dairy prices under a bill moving through the Legislature.
The bill seeks to spend $7.9 million annually at UW campuses in River Falls, Madison and Platteville with the aim of finding solutions to the state's sagging dairy industry. The bill would create a UW Dairy Innovation Hub, which would add faculty, create an advanced dairy academy and boost research programs.
Falling milk prices and rising costs have left Wisconsin's $43 billion industry "in rough shape," according to the bill's author.
"Even though times are tough, Wisconsin is known internationally as a dairy superpower," Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said in a statement to a Senate agriculture committee. "However, we are beginning to slip as our focus and investment in dairy innovation has declined over the last 10 years."
Most of the hub's funding would go to Madison, with the remaining 48% being split between River Falls and Platteville.
Dale Gallenberg, dean of UWRF's College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, said the proposal would add four or five faculty to the River Falls campus. The legislation prohibits funding for new hub positions to be offset by a reduction in funding for the UW Board of Regents.
Marklein's staff said funding for the program would come from existing state revenue.
At UWRF, the new positions could include faculty, post-doctoral teaching fellowships, graduate-student fellowships and grant writers - or a combination of the positions. The bill also calls for UWRF to provide support for research facilities and infrastructure like farms, labs and equipment.
"The state should view this as an investment," Gallenberg said.
But not one with an immediate payoff. Gallenberg said the hub will be tasked with researching new dairy products, new uses, improving efficiency, improving animal health and emphasizing land stewardship.
"We're quite certain we'll achieve those outcomes," he said. "But this is not something anyone expects will fix low dairy prices in one year's time."
The bill requires the Board of Regents to submit an annual report on the Dairy Innovation Hub to lawmakers. Gallenberg said that represents a reasonable accountability measure for the proposed hub.
"There will be some strings attached," he said.
Gallenberg said the UW Dairy Innovation Hub was borne of a dairy summit held in recent years where dairy producers, UW personnel and industry leaders sought improvements to the industry. That led to the state's Dairy Task Force 2.0, which in consultation with a UW-led working group, led to a recommendation for the hub concept, Gallenberg explained.
Hub-related work wouldn't specifically be tied to another legislative request connected to UWRF - a new science-technology building - but Gallenberg said programming in his department is dependent on strong biology and chemistry programs that would be housed in the new facility. What's in the hub proposal has "a direct relationship to what's going on in the (Science and Technology Innovation Center) building," he said.
State senators held a public hearing May 1 for the Dairy Innovation Hub bill, which is backed by organizations including the Dairy Business Association, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. No further hearings were scheduled as of May 6.