The story, as a reporter heard it, was that a Dane County farmer told friends last year he was voting for Hillary Clinton for president because he believed her husband, Bill Clinton, would step in in the event of a crisis.
It causes Sheila Harsdorf to explode with laughter.
The 61-year-old dairy farmer from River Falls who made history in November when Gov. Scott Walker named her the first woman to lead the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, long ago learned to ignore such slights.
The former Republican state senator from District 10 in western Wisconsin, Harsdorf certainly would have been exposed to her share of them: She spent most of her adult life in agriculture and politics, fields that historically have been unfriendly toward women.
But she downplays the gender milestone, saying she hadn’t had to overcome any roadblocks professionally because she’s a woman. “Or maybe I didn’t pay attention to them,” she said.
What she did pay attention to, say former colleagues in the Legislature and agricultural industry officials, was the views of others. By listening and showing respect for opposing viewpoints, they said, Harsdorf excelled in both areas.
“Sheila learned it from her father and I think it’s very genuine, it’s just who she is,” said Jim VandenBrook, executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association. “She treats people with respect and gets it back.”
Harsdorf grew up on a small dairy farm near Stillwater, Minnesota, and listened to her father, Ervin, preside over county government meetings at their house.
After operating the family farm, he bought a bigger farm near River Falls and formed a partnership with Harsdorf’s brother, Jim, when he graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1973. Sheila joined the partnership when she graduated with an animal science degree from Minnesota in 1980, the same year that Jim was first elected to the state Senate.
Jim Harsdorf would later serve as DATCP secretary from 2001 to 2003, making the pair the first brother-sister combo to head the same state agency. He was appointed by Gov. Scott McCallum when then-DATCP secretary Ben Brancel stepped down after serving four years. Brancel was reappointed to the post in 2011 by Walker and announced his retirement last year.
Sheila Harsdorf ran the farm and was a busy volunteer for a number of agricultural groups and committees in Pierce County until she was elected to the Assembly, representing the 30th District, in 1989. She was elected to the state Senate for the first time in 2000.
After leaving DATCP, Jim Harsdorf returned to the farm in 2003 and expanded it to its current capacity of 560 registered Holsteins and 30 registered Jerseys. The farm covers three sites that includes Sheila Harsdorf’s land where her home is located. Harsdorf, who is divorced, has one son, Ryan Bailey, 24, and he works on the farm while attending UW-River Falls.
“I think what’s great about Sheila’s perspective is that she is not coming in with some sort of agenda,” said Jim Harsdorf, 68. “She’s going to do the same thing she did as a legislator: Listen, serve and hopefully make agriculture a stronger industry in this state.”
A full plate
Harsdorf has a slew of issues to deal with as the new administrator of the agriculture department and the five other divisions of DATCP, which has a budget of $95 million and employs more than 500 people.
State farmers continue to go bankrupt because of continued low prices for grain and milk. Dairy farms, cheese processors and other agricultural companies aren’t operating at full strength and need help learning how to compete with non-agricultural businesses in an extremely competitive employment market, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association executive director John Umhoefer said.
The industry’s growth hinges on expanding its export markets, but the food safety requirements need to be more clearly defined, Umhoefer said. The agency also needs to find new ways to keep innovative ideas flowing because discretionary money DATCP used to fund such projects has not been replenished over the last several budgets, said Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma.
Finally, there is the looming move of regulating the biggest dairy operations, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), from the Department of Natural Resources to DATCP.
Harsdorf expects the industry’s great diversity of resources to provide some answers. She says they could come in the form of a big-ticket item or something as small as a bag of cheese curds.
“To me, it’s all about meeting the consumer’s demands. That’s why I believe marketing is so very important,” she said. “We need to focus on building those markets and look at where there are emerging markets (domestically) and where we have an opportunity to grow our exports and develop new markets (internationally).”
Harsdorf said she’s already thinking about potential collaborations with the agency’s export experts. “I think there are a lot of different efforts taking place,” she said. “But whatever the department can do to bring those efforts together and collaborate where we can, I think it’s a win.”
VandenBrook called Harsdorf a moderate who used the amendment process to fund his conservation association in each of the past three budgets. She also has gone against her party on some conservation issues.
He didn’t express concern about the transition of CAFO regulation to DATCP.
The success of the move “is going to be about how to make the thing function efficiently,” VandenBrook said. “There isn’t just one way to do it. Our group is agnostic about the notion of where the permitting responsibilities lie, but we want a program that works. Let’s put it this way, I’m not real worried about at least a good faith effort coming forward from Secretary Harsdorf.”
Harsdorf said one of her most important tasks is to use her communication skills to educate the growing number of people about where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture to their lives and the state economy.
Farmers appreciate the effort, said Lisa Kivirist, an organic farmer, entrepreneur, innkeeper and author from Browntown. “Having somebody as our ag secretary who understands and communicates well with both sides can make an impact,” she said.
Kivirist called Harsdorf a strong role model for young women.
“I look at it from the lens of younger women in Wisconsin and women considering careers in agriculture and farming,” she said. “It’s great to see.”