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Auburndale high school science and agriculture students attended a 2018 Farmers of Mill Creek Watershed meeting near Stevens Point.

When stakeholders in the agriculture industry come together to talk about climate change, there is always a lot of common ground discussed, according to Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee Randy Romanski.

“There is so much more that, collectively, we agree than disagree on, especially when it comes to the health of our soil and water,” Romanski said April 19 during an agriculture and climate roundtable discussion DATCP hosted with Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the head of the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change.

Barnes said it is often assumed that efforts aimed at improving the environment come as a detriment to agriculture. That is not the case, he said, as the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change worked with agricultural officials to develop recommendations that would benefit both farmers and the environment.

“Any conversation about mitigating the impacts of climate change has to include our state’s agriculture industry,” Barnes said. “Wisconsin needs its agricultural land more than ever to provide food, fiber, and even fuel.

“Our state’s economy rests on the foundation of our working lands. Protecting that productive farmland is incredibly important to us all.”

Barnes said addressing climate change has been a focus for Gov. Tony Evers since taking office.

“The science is clear that the world is changing, the climate is changing,” Barnes said. “It is going to continue to change unless we do something about it.”

In his first year in office, Evers established the Wisconsin Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy, which set the goal of carbon-free energy in the state by 2050, and the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, both of which, Barnes said, are designed to work with the public and be resources to provide recommendations to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

In a report released in December 2020, the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change identified several strategies the agricultural sector could use to address climate change, including supporting farmer-led watershed groups; paying farmers to increase soil carbon storage in agricultural and working lands; avoiding conversion of natural working lands; and making managed grazing livestock production systems an agricultural priority.

“The groups created throughout this program are in great position to be experimenters, to be advocates, and to also be messengers for sustainable ag practices, and many of them already are,” Barnes said. “Our ag industry holds the potential to serve as a critical part of the solution to climate change.”

The food-system section of the report focuses on supporting local farms and producers and connecting Wisconsin foods with Wisconsin consumers through things like the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program and the Farm to School Initiative.

The task force also recommended creating a new Farm to Fork Initiative as well as a food waste pilot program, Barnes said.

“These will all help connect the dots between our farmers, our food businesses, our schools and our consumers,” he said.

Barnes said input from the representatives of the agricultural community who were on the he Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change was important in coming up with the recommendations in that group’s report.

“Because their voices and their perspectives were incredibly valuable throughout this entire process, we were able to develop recommendations that build on the work of our farming community and our local governments and the work that is already happening,” Barnes said. “We want to be able to double down on that to make sure that we are being as impactful in as many places as possible.”

Several of the task force recommendations were included in Evers’ 2021-23 budget proposal, including raising the cap on the producer-led watershed protection grant program, increasing funding for county conservation staff and cost-share grants to help farmers implement soil and water resource improvements, creating a pilot program to look into ways farmers can optimize nitrogen use, and funding for the local food initiatives.

Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, said his group has been involved with researchers out of Nebraska looking for ways to identify early signs of drought and how growers adapt and he has seen increased interest in farmer-led watershed protection programs like those identified by the task force.

Doug Rebout of Roger Rebout & Sons Farms near Janesville and a member of the DATCP Board and the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change said he is part of a group that is starting a farmer-led watershed group in Rock County.

“It’s going to be nice to hopefully see more money to help groups like ours get going,” Rebout said.

Amy Penterman, a dairy farmer in Clark County and president of the Dairy Business Association, said it was encouraging to see the governor put money into the budget to benefit watershed groups. She said DBA has helped implement several watershed groups across the state and the data they have returned has shown progress.

“You can see the successes from those watershed groups,” Penterman said. “We need more of those, because this is boots-on-the-ground data that we’re going to be able to use.”

Penterman said that as an owner of a permitted farm a good county conservationist was key to helping understand the use of cover crops, how to implement no-till practices and timely applications of manure.

“Now we can see the positive effects that has on our environment,” Penterman said. “It’s been exciting to see over six years the differences. You’re not worried about the regulations that you’re following, you’re doing it for the environment. We need to challenge our state is to get more of us to follow some of those manure-management terms to see the benefits of it.”

Paul Dietmann, a senior lending specialist at Compeer Financial, said the ag lending industry has an eye on conservation efforts with programs supporting grazing, cover crops, organic practices, small-scale farmers and more.

“Climate risk eventually turns into financial risk, so we have to be part of the solution to the issue,” Dietmann said.

Agriculture stakeholders’ participation in the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change and in coming up with solutions to the climate crisis has been key for others in the industry to buy in and see themselves as part of the solution to climate change, according to Romanski.

“Agriculture has a voice,” he said. “And agriculture has played a leadership role in protecting soil and water health, and in agriculture is part of the solution to climate change.

“That’s something that has been ringing true throughout the climate change task force and beyond.”

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