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Climate-smart agriculture projects in Wisconsin green-lit by federal investment

Organic Valley will receive $25 million for its carbon insetting program and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative will get $50 million for its project aimed at expanding climate-smart markets and establishing dairy and sugar as climate-smart commodities.

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Nicole Rakobitsch, Organic Valley's director of sustainability, and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Anibas Family Farm in Pepin County on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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ARKANSAW, Wis. — Farmers in Wisconsin will receive a piece of the nearly $3 billion that the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week it will invest in climate-smart agriculture projects.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was at Anibas Family Farm in Pepin County on Thursday, Sept. 15, to tout the Sept. 14 announcement by the White House that it had tripled the funding it had initially envisioned for a program to reduce climate-harming emissions from farming and forestry.

The Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program was announced by the USDA in February. The program was to include $1 billion would be spent on the effort to encourage farmers to cut emissions in various ways like planting cover crops, improving manure management and more. Vilsack said after receiving over 1,000 applications requesting more than $20 billion in funding, it requested more money from the Commodity Credit Corporation, which has served as a funding mechanism for agricultural programs since the 1930s. Now, $2.8 billion will go to funding 70 new projects that range from $5 million to $100 million, and Vilsack said the private sector has pledged an additional $1.4 billion for the projects.

“This resource is going to allow us — once we've learned best practices — to be able to permanently continue resourcing, so it's not a situation where this is one-and -done,” said Vilsack of the funding. “This is basically an opportunity to learn what works, and then use that permanent funding source to make sure that it's constantly supported. That's what's exciting about this opportunity.”

Sixteen of the 70 pilot projects that will be backed by the additional funding involve Wisconsin farmers or groups, including the largest farmer-owned organic cooperative in the U.S.


“I think you represent very much the core of who we are,” said Organic Valley CEO Bob Kirchoff to the Anibas family — a member-farm of the cooperative for over 20 years and hosts of the Sept. 15 event.

Organic Valley now has over 1,700 farmers across 34 states but it began in 1988 in Wisconsin's Coulee Region with just eight farmers. Its headquarters is located in La Farge, and Kirchoff said the cooperative is still rooted in the state.

“We've got over 400 dairy farmers in Wisconsin still, and that battle to sustain small, Organic Valley family farms here in our home state in particular is of utmost importance,” said Kirchoff.

Organic Valley received $25 million for its carbon insetting program, which is designed to help small farms implement climate-smart agriculture practices.

“This is our major strategy for us to reduce our on-farm emissions, and reach our existing carbon neutrality goal,” said Nicole Rakobitsch, Organic Valley's director of sustainability. “This grant funding is going to provide the resources we need to scale that program from a one-year pilot to a full, multi-year program.”

Rakobitsch said the two biggest commodities that Organic Valley markets are dairy and eggs. In a press release, the cooperative said the funding will help 500 dairy and egg producers establish projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through direct farmer payments and cost-share opportunities.

“We expect that we'll deliver over $20 million in direct farmer financial benefits over the course of our five-year project,” said Rakobitsch.

She said the goal is to implement 1,200 new practices on 500 Organic Valley-member farms, and they are focusing on improvements to grazing pasture and cropland, manure management, feed supplements, agri forestry and solar energy.


“The total carbon abatement value that we're estimating is 65,000 metric tons,” she said.

Green Bay-based Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative — the third largest dairy cooperative in the country based on milk volume — will receive $50 million for its project aimed at expanding climate-smart markets and establishing dairy and sugar as climate-smart commodities.

Tim Trotter, CEO of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, said it will use the funding to expand on its six farmer-led conservation programs designed to protect local watersheds.

“We’re really excited that this administration took this courageous and very thoughtful move to go into the climate area, because the timing is perfect,” said Trotter. “A lot of farmers are willing to do the work, they're willing to make the investment — but they want to make sure at the end of the day, that there's something in it not only for their farms, but their next generations.”

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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Tim Trotter, CEO of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, at Anibas Family Farm in Pepin County, Wisconsin, on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.
Noah Fish / Agweek

Vilsack said the tripled investment is aimed at exactly that.

“It really is about making sure that you are in a position to be able to provide the next generation of farmers the opportunity to do what you love to do,” he said.

The Inflation Reduction Act contains the largest single investment in conservation since the Dust Bowl, said Vilsack.

“There's a growing market demand for sustainably produced food products, and not just here in the United States but around the world,” said Vilsack. “The reality is that the export market — which is incredibly important to American agriculture — is more and more demanding to know what sustainable practices are in place in terms of what they purchase, and we at USDA want to be a partner.”


The agency will announce a second round of funding later this year for additional climate-related projects.

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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