Wisconsin Farmers Union grapples with climate change

Wind turbines in field in Middleton Wisconsin
MIDDLETON, WI - NOVEMBER 19: Wind turbines rise up above farmland on the outskirts of the state capital on November 19, 2013 near Middleton, Wisconsin. A bill that would make it easier for residents living near power generating wind turbines to sue for any perceived negative impacts to their health and property values goes before the Wisconsin legislature on Wednesday. Critics believe the bill (SB167) could kill the wind energy business in Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Wisconsin’s agriculture industry is  contributing to climate change even as the state’s family farmers are set to be drastically hurt by its effects. 

Large-scale dairy farming increases bacteria and nitrate levels in groundwater while large herds produce massive amounts of carbon. Meanwhile climate change also brings more extreme weather events, making 100-year floods such as the one in 2008 much more common — destroying the state’s usable land and flushing more contaminants into the water supply as runoff. 

The same economies of scale that force Wisconsin’s farmers to keep expanding their operations in order to scratch out a living also harm the land and environment the farmers live off of. 

Eric Compas, a professor of environmental science at UW-Whitewater, researches long-term climate modeling. Under a worst case scenario in which the world was unable to limit increasing global temperatures, Compas’ research shows, Wisconsin’s climate would no longer be suitable for growing corn. 

Estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture say that in 2019, corn was planted on 3.8 million acres of Wisconsin farmland — 3.8 million acres that would need to be used for some other crop. 

These issues were all on the table as the Wisconsin Farmers Union met virtually for its 2020 summer conference. 

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“We focus on the immediate challenges to make economic survivability possible today, but always fighting with an eye to the future for long-term survival of family farmers and for those next generations coming after us,” National Farmers Union (NFU) President Rob Larew said. “As we look at policy, we need to write climate incentives in there, but we also need policy that makes it possible for these rural communities to thrive and for family farmers to have true active and real markets.” 

NFU’s climate policy proposals include a country-wide carbon reduction program, incentive-based conservation and increased support for on-farm energy production. 

The goal, Larew said, is to build policies that protect the environment and the fabric of small, rural communities. 

“We know that this is a long game,” he said. “But we also know that we have no time to lose on this, because even as we look at the economic challenges that we’re facing right now, it’s complicated. There are a lot of things — we have the challenges with the pandemic and the challenges that we’ve faced with the trade war, but really it’s about some of these underlying positions that our government has taken that put us a little bit behind the eight ball. We need policy that recognizes that farmers need to have power and they need to have market work.” 

Also speaking to the more than 100 farmers on the virtual conference was Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change. Barnes connected Wisconsin’s efforts to build a sustainable economy to both the state’s agriculture industry and urban residents, saying the administration wants to make sure environmental justice is central to the path forward. 

Whether someone is a Milwaukee resident harmed by air pollution or a family farmer harmed by unprecedented floods, Wisconsin needs solutions that can help both people, according to Barnes. 

“We found that environmental justice looks different depending on where you are,” Barnes said. But he believes people can come together around shared solutions.

As the state develops policies to claw back lost time in the fight against climate change, it needs to find ways to include Wisconsin’s farmers, their important role in the state and respect for their historical importance to the state’s culture and economy. 

“As we work to better protect and preserve Wisconsin natural resources and transition our economy to one that is clean and equitable, it’s imperative that leaders work closely with the farming community to ensure that this transition is inclusive of our farming communities and making sure that there’s growth of opportunity for Wisconsin’s small farms,” Barnes said. 

The climate change task force has two more meetings scheduled as it works toward policies that would make Wisconsin’s energy production carbon neutral by 2050, but Barnes said ultimately the state needs its officials to take action. 

“The task force has called on elected officials to act,” Barnes said. “To make sure that we’re investing in renewable energy and job training programs so that Wisconsin has the green infrastructure that we need to thrive in a healthy state, and also to invest in providing farmers with the tools they need to best care for and conserve the land they use. Most importantly, we’ve heard citizens that have been calling for environmental justice and asking that we include communities most impacted in all of our conversations, in all of our solutions.” 

“We’re stuck trying to figure it out,” he continued. “We just have a Legislature that has been slow to act, they’ve remained stagnant in the face of such crises, in the climate crisis or COVID.”

Barnes said many of the policy ideas are already out there such as carbon pricing and soil conservation, but in order to halt climate change, these policies need to be implemented at a much larger scale than just one farm or just one state. 

“More than anything we need every decision maker at every level, local, state and federal ready, willing and empowered to fight the climate crisis with every resource that we have available,” he said. 

The climate change task force is next scheduled to meet Aug. 26.