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Brancel Looks Back at a Fulfilling Career in Public Service
Wisconsin Ag Connection - 07/28/2017

In October 1997, former Governor Tommy Thompson made a phone call to the Speaker of the Assembly with a question: how would you like to serve as Wisconsin's next agriculture secretary? Ben Brancel, then 47, had a decision to make. He enjoyed serving in the legislature, but also had a passion for the farming industry.

"Facing that decision really caused me to pause," Brancel told Wisconsin Ag Connection in an exclusive interview. "I had already been serving as speaker, but wasn't having as much fun compared to when I just served my district. So when we had the conversation, I thought this would be a chance to be part of the world I love, which is agriculture. And it was an opportunity to help implement many of the policies that I had a hand in drafting."

During his stint in the legislature, Brancel felt the loss of farmland and the level of taxation taking place on Wisconsin farm businesses was out of control. A fifth-generation farmer himself, he decided the solution would come down to re-writing the tax laws so that farm acreage would be assessed and taxed based on its usage, rather than its development potential.

"Coming up with the concept of use-value assessment and the mechanism to allow farms to exist was the biggest challenge, and it was also the biggest reward," he said. "In addition, I think this really helped preserve ag land going forward."

Brancel, who was serving as a Republican lawmaker from Endeavor, never served on any of the legislative agriculture committees during his time at the Capitol. But during his second term, he was appointed to the Finance Committee, which focused on all aspects of the state--including agriculture.

Since taking up the lead role at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Brancel says technology was the biggest change he witnessed.

"Members of our staff, especially inspectors and lab technicians, are able to do so much more with computers and other systems than ever before. Our workforce at the agency is smaller today than it was when I started, even though the responsibilities of the department has expanded dramatically. We had to become more efficient because tighter budgets limited what we had to use in order to serve the public."

Another change came in the form of public perception. Brancel predicts that consumers are going to continue demanding certain things from farmers and food suppliers with less reliable information.

"It has gotten so perception-driven, instead of science-driven. While science works diligently today, the public seems more interested in what should be done (in their opinion) for growing food," he explained. "Farmers have to recognized that they are the ones that have to do the balancing of using the science, while earning the trust of the public and that will be a challenge."

When asked how younger farmers can get into an industry that's getting more difficult to enter, Brancel explained that farming is just like any other business--you must first identify a need and then produce and market it to fill that demand.

"It's no longer good enough to say 'I'm going to raise pigs and so now I'm a farmer.' They're going to have to think about what market they want to sell to. For instance, are they going to sell meat? Will it be a commercial product? Do they want to sell something to a niche consumer? They then have to figure out how to build relationships to determine if there is demand for their product. In the past, we just produced and the market bought it. But the young guy or the young woman will have to understand the market they are targeting first."

Ben told Wisconsin Ag Connection he has built a lot of close relationships over the years, which includes a very supportive agricultural media in America's Dairyland.

"I appreciate them. If the media doesn't care about what happens, then no one is going to find out about our agency and our community," he said. "I also really enjoyed working with my counterparts in other states and sharing the challenges that we all face. And I really enjoyed my time in the international community. Not that it was always fun, but it was interesting to experience other cultures and find opportunities for our farmers to open new markets for their products."

Brancel served as DATCP Secretary for four years under Gov. Thompson, and then came back at the request of Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 and re-appointed in 2015. He will retire on August 13 and return to his family's Angus and Hereford beef operation in Marquette County, which is a 295-acre farm that houses about 60-70 mother cows and additional feedstock.

"I've always been fascinated by genetics," Brancel said when asked what he most enjoys about the farming life. "My son and I both enjoy that part of the farm. We like to find ways to improve our beef cows and bulls to produce better products for the public. We've had to put some projects on hold because I'm working full-time in Madison and so is my son. Now, we can get some of those tasks in motion again."

In addition to serving as agriculture secretary, Brancel served as the state director of the USDA's Farm Service Agency from 2001-2009, and then became the state liaison for the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a short time.

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