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Farmers important for climate future
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Farmers important for climate future

Editor's note: The following is the first of a two-part article featuring recommendations from the Wisconsin Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change. Two of its recommendations – continuing support of producer-led watershed-protection groups and paying farmers to sequester carbon – are featured in this article. Part two of the article will feature avoidance of conversion of natural working lands, and making managed-grazing systems a priority.

Climate change isn’t an abstract thing; it’s playing out where we live and it isn’t going away, said Bill Hogseth, watershed coordinator for the Wisconsin Farmers Union and a resident of Wisconsin’s Dunn County.

Chris Pollack, a dairy farmer and a Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation member from Ripon, Wisconsin, said, “Climate change has affected different parts of Wisconsin in different ways. The western side of the state has been affected by heavy-rain events, hampering farmers’ ability to farm. People have had to cope with overflowing rivers and infrastructure that has been washed away.”

Robert Nigh, a dairy farmer and a Farm Bureau member near Viroqua, Wisconsin, said, “After managing our farm through many historic flood events, I continue to become more passionate about finding ways to preserve our natural resources, protect our climate, and ensure a successful and sustainable future for our farming families.”

The men shared their observations and agricultural experiences regarding the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change – a diverse group representing industry, institution and community, organized by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers. Also involved in the year-long work were Doug Rebout, a crop farmer near Janesville, Wisconsin; and Randy Romanski, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The task force recently published recommendations for mitigating the effects of climate change in agriculture, energy, transportation and several other sectors in Wisconsin. In the “Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change Report,” Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes wrote the task force’s charge was to help “combat climate change in ways that wed science and data with the experiences of Wisconsin’s citizens.”

The recommendations evolved from 12 months of discussions. The task force’s land-use subcommittee focused on how current and future efforts by Wisconsin’s farmers can help, including discussion of initiatives that could help increase the resilience of farmers while also providing opportunities to improve their bottom lines, Rebout said. The subcommittee proposed four main recommendations.

  • Support farmer-led watershed groups.
  • Pay farmers to increase soil-carbon storage in agricultural and working lands.
  • Avoid conversion of natural working lands.
  • Make a priority of managed-grazing livestock-production systems.

Many farmers have been practicing no-till or other conservation tillage as well as planting cover crops. But a lot of farmers haven’t implemented the practices for various reasons, Rebout said. More efforts could be made to ask them why they’re not using the practices. For example if the cost of a no-till planter is a concern, the farmer could learn about cost-sharing or other options available through one of Wisconsin’s more-than-30 producer-led watershed-protection groups or other programs.

Conservation practices fight climate effects

The 2019-2021 Wisconsin biennial budget included $750,000 annually for the Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant Program. It’s administered by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Various county land- and water-conservation departments, University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension personnel, environmental groups, lake-property groups and others have lent financial or technical assistance to the groups, Romanski said.

Rebout said, “If more farmers reduced tillage and planted cover crops it would help improve water quality and reduce some effects of climate change.”

Many water- and soil-conservation practices already being evaluated and adopted by members of producer-led watershed-protection groups overlap with practices that can help mitigate climate change, Pollack said. He has been a member of the Upper Fox River Demonstration Farm Network for the past few years.

“It has been eye-opening to me to learn from other farmers,” he said. “And it’s good to see so many groups in the state now.”

The groups have garnered a great deal of public support. They’ve also garnered farmer support. That’s because farmers aren’t forced into implementing a practice. The groups provide opportunities to learn from other farmers who have experienced challenges and have learned ways to manage them, Pollack said. Another benefit of the groups is they’re local in nature; participants are more likely to be farming similar topography and soils, for example.

“Yet every farm is different,” he said. “There are a lot of differences between western Wisconsin and where I am in east-central Wisconsin. But there could be a combination of different practices that would help different farmers.”

Nigh said, “Research has shown positive effects for climate-smart practices such as no-till, minimum-till, planting cover crops and woodlot management. UW-Discovery Farms has significant data that show what we can do to improve farming practices. Using this information will help us lead the way in managing climate challenges we’ve experienced in the past decade.”

Nigh’s family has been working to manage environmental challenges for generations. The western-Wisconsin family acquired easements for flood-control structures in the 1950s. They have since adopted no-till and cover crops.

“Our farm also is home to our county’s first rock rip-rap project to help control stream-bank erosion,” he said.

Pay farmers for soil-carbon storage

Another task force recommendation is to establish a “carbon farmers” program at the Wisconsin ag department. The program would be used to develop methods for measuring how much carbon is stored through agronomic practices. And it could help determine a way for farmers to be paid for increasing soil-carbon storage.

“Carbon-credit trading isn’t simple to act upon,” Rebout said. “A pilot program needs to be looked at to make sure it’s done the right way, and is good for farmers, businesses and the general public.”

Hogseth has talked with many farmers who have expressed interest in gaining access to carbon markets. But there are hurdles to overcome. Different carbon-credit brokers use different systems to measure carbon storage on farms, he said. Farmers are asking how to demonstrate their practices would make them eligible for payments. Capturing data easily is a challenge.

“The market needs to be made easier for farmers to use,” he said.

Nigh said, “All stakeholders need to be at the table and discuss how the process will take place, how credits are generated and how they’re traded. At this point there are more questions than answers. But farmers and their climate-smart practices are a big part of the solution and we look forward to continued innovation.”

Carbon-storage payments could provide a way for farmers to balance costs associated with implementing practices to reduce the carbon footprint, he said.

A carbon-payment program can be viewed as a way to help protect soil and water, and improve an approach to climate change, Romanski said. A pilot hasn’t been developed yet but there’s a lot of energy behind it.

“I think we’ll have a great opportunity to develop technical expertise,” he said.

The task force recommended funding a pilot program to help inform the feasibility of a state-based policy that pays farmers for carbon sequestration. Another recommendation was to work with partners to better understand carbon-market options complementary to other efforts in the Midwest.

The task force also recommended establishing a cost-share program to provide annual payments to farmers who sign agreements for long-term best-management practices that mitigate the impact of climate change.

Visit climatechange.wi.gov and datcp.wi.gov -- search for "producer-led impact report" -- for more information. 

To be continued ...

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.

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