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It’s no secret that Wisconsin farmers are facing difficult challenges right now. Low commodity prices, trade uncertainty and rising costs for everything from seed to health insurance are combining to threaten the future vitality of our state’s signature industry and one of the most important parts of our economy.

While much should be done to help boost our farmers and rural communities, an often overlooked component of a strong ag economy is investment in research. Our state’s agricultural roots combined with our leading education institutions has allowed Wisconsin to become a global leader in agricultural research and science.

We are not just producing dairy, soybeans and corn — our institutions are studying and innovating to make the agriculture industry stronger and more technologically advanced for decades to come. From soil management to food access, our scientists are creating the cutting-edge future of agriculture.

To do this work, we rely on partnerships with the federal government. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) was created to ensure the long-term viability of agriculture. NIFA allows the United States to compete with the world, while streamlining food supply, ensuring food safety and sustaining natural resources.

One such program installed through NIFA is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. AFRI awards grants to researchers at our top universities to allow them to study the agricultural challenges we face. As competitive grants, the money funds groundbreaking, life-changing research that covers an array of ag issues that include better production practices and environmental protections.

Since 2014, Wisconsin universities have received 74 AFRI grants totaling $38 million. These grants have gone to projects such as studying the impact of climate change on dairy production at UW-Madison and research on improved food access for rural, low-income communities at Northland College in Ashland. Locally, this means we are improving an industry that is a cornerstone to our economy. Globally, this allows us to maintain food-supply chains and remain a world leader in agriculture.

For Wisconsin, we cannot afford to lose access to these critical AFRI grants.

If our elected officials fail to fully fund agricultural research, we will see China emerge as a leader in new, intellectual agricultural properties. Unfortunately, as U.S. funding has flatlined, China has doubled its investment and commitment to this research. If we cease innovating, we will lose our place and power in the global agricultural economy.

The discoveries made from agricultural research make a significant impact in Wisconsin. New varieties of cheese add value to the milk produced by state farmers, making Wisconsin agriculture more sustainable. Each dollar spent on agricultural research returns $27 to our state. This is an investment we cannot afford to lose.

It is my hope our elected officials in Congress support an allocation of $445 million for AFRI as they work through the 2020 budget in Washington, D.C. As one of the top industries in our state — contributing $88.3 billion per year to the Wisconsin economy — we need to support investments in agriculture and the science that can help sustain and grow the industry. While research is only one part of the puzzle to securing a more prosperous future for Wisconsin farmers, it is one we should not ignore.

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Ward is director of government affairs and dairy for the Cooperative Network, based in Madison. The network advocates for cooperatives in Wisconsin and Minnesota, including many farmers. Ward is a former state lawmaker and farmer who lives in rural Jefferson County: cooperativenetwork.coop.

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