Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part article featuring recommendations from the Wisconsin Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change; the first part was published in the Dec. 31, 2020, issue of Agri-View. The task force recently published recommendations for mitigating the effects of climate change in Wisconsin. Its land-use subcommittee focused on how current and future efforts by Wisconsin’s farmers can help in the effort. Recommendations for avoiding conversion of natural working lands and prioritizing managed-grazing systems are featured in this article.
There are currently about 13 million acres of agricultural land in Wisconsin. The Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change has outlined strategies to avoid conversion of working lands.
- Incentivize identification of long-term additional farmland and conservation-land base at the local level through additional land-use planning efforts.
- Increase technical and financial support to local units of government to educate landowners about benefits of the Farmland Preservation Program and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and resources to assist landowners in participating.
- Increase support to local units of government to conduct farmland-preservation planning activities.
- Expand the income-tax-credit levels for landowners who comply with all soil- and water-conservation standards.
- Explore allowing grasslands to be eligible for reduced assessments through possible modification of use-value law.
- Provide funding to support economic-development opportunities within Agricultural Enterprise Areas.
“We want to avoid the conversion of working lands,” said Randy Romanski, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “We need farmland now more than ever. It’s part of our economic foundation.
“And one of the many great things that came out of the task-force report is that productive farmland is considered to be part of the solution to climate change.”
That’s notable given that 32 individuals from diverse sectors served on the task force and more than 1,000 citizens participated in public-listening sessions related to climate-change issues.
“We were pleased that the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and four other members representing agriculture, served on the task force,” Romanski said. “It’s critical agriculture has a seat at the table as discussions continue.”
Doug Rebout, a crop farmer near Janesville, Wisconsin, was one of the farmers who served on the task force.
“I was apprehensive about participating because agriculture is often blamed for many things,” he said. “But the group was respectful, asked great questions and listened to the farmers.”
Group proposes prioritizing managed grazing
The task force proposed prioritizing managed-grazing livestock systems. It outlined two strategies and a policy pathway.
- Allocate funding for a statewide grazing program at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection – with three to four dedicated coordinators employed by the department or partner organizations – to support farmer transition to grazing practices through assistance, business planning and producer education.
- Establish a program with competitive grants for education and technical assistance to land and water agencies, and nonprofits.
The program would require position authority and funding for grants for education and technical assistance at the agriculture department.
The Wisconsin agriculture department had a grazing coordinator in the past, Romanski said.
“We’ve lost that capacity over the years,” he said. “We’d like to build that back into the agency’s portfolio.”
Managed-grazing systems would allow for the creation of wide swaths of cover crops that would help sequester carbon, he said.
Managed grazing reduces the use of fossil-fuel-burning equipment used for field work and hauling manure. It also can help improve soil health, provide wildlife and pollinator habitat, and increase the water-holding capacity of soil. It provides those ecosystem services while reducing production costs and increasing net income for farmers, the task-force report stated.
The task force cited a report by the Land Stewardship Project that concluded transitioning 25 percent of ruminants to well-managed grazing as well as 25 percent of cropland to a combination of perennial cover, diverse rotations and cover crops could reduce the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions by as much as 9 percent.
The task force’s four main recommendations – support for producer-led watershed-protection groups, paying farmers to increase soil carbon storage, avoiding conversion of working lands and prioritizing managed grazing – are already happening or are workable ideas, Romanski said.
Increased state funding will be needed in certain areas, but the recommendations are common-sense and should see bipartisan support, said Bill Hogseth, a member of the task force and watershed coordinator for the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
Robert Nigh, a dairy farmer near Viroqua, Wisconsin, said, “With significant interest in farmer-led watershed groups and the fact they’ve already proven to be successful, I believe the recommendation to further fund and support the groups will gain the most interest as we move forward.
“Agriculture has a long history of being bipartisan. I see existing programs and added technical assistance as simple and mutually agreeable solutions to support the efforts of protecting our climate. We must remember that agriculture is important to our state, contributing about $105 billion to the economy.”
Romanski said, “The science is clear; our climate is changing and it’s important to be prepared to respond to natural disasters. The nation and our state have infrastructure in place to do that but it’s becoming more costly.”
He cited as an example Ashland, Wisconsin, which has been subjected to two 500-year storms and one 1,000-year event within the past eight years.
“That’s a substantial change in a short period of time,” he said. “To maintain a viable economy it’s critical we invest in preventative measures now. Farmers know this; they plan for the future. Farmers can lead the way because they’re good stewards. They’re evolving with practices, and are involved with soil and water health.”
Visit climatechange.wi.gov for more information.
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.