ALTOONA, Wis. (WEAU) -- The state of the rural economy is fragile. That was the main message Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had yesterday for the House Agriculture Committee. Perdue was the committee's main presenter at a hearing to get the Congressmen ready to start their farm bill negotiations. Perdue said times are tough in the country as farmers deal with 4 straight years of falling commodity prices resulting in more borrowing and losses in "debt to asset" ratios on the farm. He pointed out that net farm income has fallen 50% from 2013 levels and farm debt has gone up 22% in the last 4 to 5 years to $385 billion. Perdue also reminded committee members that they need to write a new farm bill that will provide a safety net for farmers that is market oriented and fiscally responsible. On trade, Perdue seemed less confident that a new NAFTA deal can be worked out when he told the committee that the USDA is putting together a contingency plan in case the U.S. withdraws from the agreement. He ended his comments by saying we can't make America great again unless rural America can share in some of the success and profits.
Also speaking to current issues in agriculture was newly re-elected Wisconsin Farmers Union president Darin Von Ruden. He made his remarks at the group's 87th annual convention this past weekend in Wisconsin Dells. He pointed out that while membership in the group is growing, the farming community is at a low point. He said farmers have to change the structure of the system and be treated as price setters rather than price takers for their commodities. Von Ruden urged his members to stand up and be more engaged in the system by speaking up on issues affecting their farms and rural communities. And he told them they'll get a chance to do that on February 21st when the Farmer's Union will host the Farm and Rural Lobby Day in Madison.
Accusations of stealing money from the Midwest Horse Fair have now turned into formal charges against the former General Manager of the Midwest Horse Fair. Rhonda Reese of Columbus has now been charged with 61 felony counts for allegedly stealing nearly $240,000 from the Wisconsin Horse Council which runs the annual horse expo in Madison. The charges include 41 counts of writing fraudulent checks by a corporate officer and another 20 for theft in a business setting. The thefts reportedly took place from 2011 through last year. Reese is currently out on bond and is due back in court on April 6th.
This year's world cheese championships which happen next month in Madison will be busy. That's because there will be a record number of entries for the competition. Cheesemakers from 32 states and 26 different countries have entered a record 3,402 cheeses in this year's event which takes place March 6th through the 8th at the Monona Terrace. 55 veteran cheese graders, buyers, dairy science professors and researchers from all over the world will judge the entries in 121 separate classes. This event, held every 2 years in Madison, is considered the world Super Bowl for cheese makers. Parts of the event are open to the public.