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Watershed Council learns about farm carbon opportunities
Coon Creek Community
Jayne Swiggum and David Bruce
96th ASSEMBLY candidate Jayne Swiggum is seen in animated conversation with Savanna Institute’s David Bruce prior to the start of the meeting.Note: after Swiggum spoke, host Tucker Gretebeck invited any other local candidates attending the event to speak, but there were none.

COON CREEK - Farmers have been waiting to learn more about what opportunities for them will come from the federal Inflation Reduction Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in August. The bill makes a historic investment to fight the impacts of climate change, and will put farmers in the thick of mitigation efforts.

Members of the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council began to learn more at their meeting on October 5. There, the nearly 100 people gathered heard presentations from Monroe County Land Conservation Department, Organic Valley (OV), Savanna Insitute, Neutral Foods and CEO of Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) Missy Hughes.

Efforts to fight the impacts of climate change on farms are already underway in the private sector through the work of companies like Organic Valley, Neutral Foods and the Savanna Institute. More information will be coming soon about how public monies will be leveraged in coming months.

The watershed council gathered at the farm of Organic Valley grass-fed dairy farmers Tucker and Becky Gretebeck – All Seasons Farm. The bottomlands of their farm in rural Cashton suffered severe impacts following runoff from the 2018 rain event that caused catastrophic flooding, and breached the Luckasson Dam on their land.

“You need look no further to see what climate resilience means than Tucker and Becky Gretebeck,” Monroe County Land Conservation Director Bob Micheel said. “Here, where we sit, was covered in water above our heads following the breach of the dam in 2018. We can all see how the Gretebecks and the land have bounced back stronger than ever.”

Micheel discussed the silvopasture demonstration project that was installed on the Gretebeck Farm in the Spring of 2022. The project, planting over 1,100 trees on the contour marking grazing paddocks, was a partnership effort with the Monroe County Climate Change Task Force, Savanna Institute, OV, Wisconsin Land+Water, and the Nature Conservancy.

“It took partners to make this project happen – from technical support to funding to volunteer labor,” Micheel said. “This project will produce carbon sequestration benefits equal to removing 600 cars from the road.”

Micheel said that the project would produce not only climate mitigation impacts, but also do more to reduce runoff that produces flooding, protect ground and surface water, and reduce soil erosion. These, he said, are the ‘co-benefits’ of the climate friendly project.

Micheel said the cost of the trees for the project was $7 per tree, plus the cost of the protective tubes and zip ties. In total, the project cost $8,411, and was accomplished with all volunteer labor.

“When the day came to start planting the trees, it was a daunting prospect, and I didn’t see how we could possibly get it all done,” Tucker Gretebeck remembered. “But then, all these volunteers showed up and before we knew it, the trees were planted.”

Gretebeck said it had taken 12 volunteers 12 hours on two different days to plant the trees. He said that he and his children had put the electric fencing in place to keep the cattle in their paddocks, and out of the tree rows.

“My kids are experts in electric fencing how,” Gretebeck joked.

Micheel said that OV and Wisconsin Land+Water plan to model and monitor the carbon sequestration benefits of the pilot project in order to guide future programs that reward farmers for the climate friendly practices they implement on their farms.

Savanna Institute

The Savanna Institute is an organization approved by USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service to provide technical support to landowners interested in agroforestry projects. North Crawford graduate Keefe Keeley serves as the Institute’s executive director, and was present to address members of the watershed council.

“After my mother, Jane Keeley, almost lost her life in flash flooding in the Tainter Creek Watershed in 2016, flooding has become a very personal issue for me,” Keeley said. “So, it is important to me to find ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change that are causing the catastrophic flooding we’re increasingly experiencing in the Driftless Region.”

Keeley said that it turns out that planting trees is one of the best ways to remove excess levels of carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil.

“This isn’t rocket science,” Keeley said. “What we need to do is find ways to infiltrate more water into the soil from large rain events, and slow the water down, and planting trees is very effective for that.”

Keeley said that the goal of the Savanna Institute is to make farming part of the climate change solution – and to make it work for the farmer.

“We can provide technical assistance, and help secure funding for agroforestry projects,” Keeley said. “We will help farmers put trees to work for the farm and for the planet.”

Organic Valley

Organic Valley Sustainability Manager Nicole Rakobitsch discussed the $25 million Climate Smart Agriculture grant the co-op had received, and their goals for use of the funding.

“Our goal at Organic Valley is to be a climate neutral company by 2050,” Rakobitsch said. “Rather than paying farmers and foresters outside our co-op for carbon offsets, we are pioneering a ‘carbon insetting’ program instead, helping member farmers install climate friendly projects on their farms, and paying them for maintaining those practices on the landscape.”

Jake, Missy and David
JAKE SCHMITZ of Neutral Foods (center) is seen in conversation with WEDC CEO Missy Hughes (left) and David Bruce of the Savanna Institute (right) prior to the start of the meeting.

Neutral Foods

According to Neutral Vice President of Product & Commercialization Jim Jarman, Neutral Foods is the first carbon neutral food company in the United States, and offers carbon neutral dairy products nationwide.

“We are on a mission to radically reduce the nearly 37 percent of global emissions the agriculture industry produces,” Jarman explained.

 Neutral was started in 2019 in Portland, Oregon, and is a national brand that works directly with farmers to reduce the carbon footprint of dairy products. Neutral has organic and conventional carbon neutral dairy solutions for retail, food service, and ingredient needs and will be adding more categories in coming months.

“Neutral works directly with farmers to identify projects that have both a carbon-footprint impact as well as other co-benefits that farmers are looking for,” Jarman explained.  “Many farmers are looking for opportunities to keep improving the footprint of their farms, but often the solutions can be complicated or expensive, or both.  That’s where Neutral comes in.  We work with farmers to identify relevant projects, scope them, bring technical expertise, and then fund them – in full or in part – including collaboration with other groups like NRCS.”

 Jarman says the company has a menu of about a dozen intervention types that they support for farmers, depending on the needs of their individual farm. 

“And we don’t tell farmers which ones they should do, we ask them which co-benefits they’ve already been thinking about and then work backwards to understand where we can help them reach those goals,” Jarman said.  “Co-benefits can range from increased animal welfare, shade, and biodiversity from silvopasture plantings, to improved animal health from forage improvements, to better soil health from improved manure management processes.”

  Jarman pointed out that all of the projects have the positive impact of simultaneously mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, which allows Neutral to fulfill their commitment to neutralizing the carbon footprint of their business.

  “Neutral combines our up-front funding capability, plus our technical expertise, to turn project ideas into action,” Jarman explained.  “We do also often collaborate with other public (eg, NRCS) and private (eg, farmers, coops, etc) sources of support.  In fact, we’re working on a unique partnership now that will make this process even easier for farmers, and we look forward to announcing that in the coming months.”

 Jarman told the group that one of the key things that sets Neutral apart in their approach is that they work directly with farmers to generate the emissions mitigation projects, and then ‘inset’ those carbon benefits, so they can neutralize the carbon footprint of their business. 

“This means the greenhouse gas emission reductions or removals from our projects accrue to our company,” Jarman said. “We aren’t selling those benefits to others, we are using the actual emissions mitigation to make sure we deliver on our promise to consumers: to offer delicious carbon-neutral foods that deliver all the goodness consumers demand with none of the carbon footprint.”

Economic development

WEDC CEO Missy Hughes seemed right at home on the Gretebeck farm. Hughes spent close to two decades working with Organic Valley prior to being hired by Governor Tony Evers for the state’s top economic development job.

“Flooding has been a big problem for the Driftless Region for a long time, and the impacts of climate change are making things worse,” Hughes said. “It’s going to take a community to tackle the problems, and the work of watershed councils like this one are pointing the way.”

Hughes said that WEDC is the state’s lead economic development agency, dedicated to improving the state’s economy and preparing for the future.

“Agriculture contributes $108 billion to our state’s economy, and then there’s the forestry industry,” Hughes said. “Farmers and foresters are all struggling to adjust to the impacts of climate change, and half of the weight of a tree is composed of carbon, making trees a premier climate solution.”

Hughes said that the state’s natural resources are crucial to the state’s economy, and must be protected and stewarded.

“Seventy-eight percent of our state is surrounded by water, from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan to Lake Superior,” Hughes pointed out. “Our state is home to 20 percent of the planet’s freshwater, and so, water is an asset that we must protect.”

Hughes said that a prime directive Governor Evers had given her when she was hired was to improve the economies of rural Wisconsin. For this reason, the Governor had founded the Office of Rural Prosperity, and housed it under the WEDC umbrella.

“The role of the Office of Rural Prosperity is to insure that rural communities have an avenue into the resources of state government,” Hughes explained. “That office can connect rural leaders to the resources and partnerships that are available to assist them in developing their economies.”

Hughes told the group that the things that are happening in the Coon Creek Watershed as a result of their efforts are “groundbreaking,” and will provide a relevant example statewide.

In other business

In other business, the group:

• heard from Coon Creek Community Watershed Council historian Marc Moilien that the 700-foot change in elevation in the Coon Creek Watershed between Cashton and Stoddard is greater than the change in elevation between Stoddard and the Gulf of Mexico

• heard that Anna Andrzejewski and Caroline Gottschalk-Druschke of UW-Madison were present with their students to gather oral history stories of conservation and flooding in the Coon Creek Watershed

• learned that the group had applied for a DATCP Producer-Led Watershed Council grant for 2023, and also for a DNR Surface Water grant for comprehensive planning for the watershed

• heard from Monroe County Land Use Planner Roxie Anderson that they had placed a weather/rainfall monitoring station on the Rulland’s Coulee branch of Coon Creek, just below the Gretebeck farm, bringing the total number of stations deployed to 16, with 10 more in the works

• learned from Roxie Anderson that National Weather Service-LaCrosse has hired a new service hydrologist who will continue to partner with Monroe Climate Change Task Force on integrating the data from the weather/rainfall monitoring stations into their Southwest Wisconsin Hydrology Monitor page, depicting river level and rainfall quantity information for the Little LaCrosse and Kickapoo river watersheds, and the Coon Creek watershed

• heard that the group’s next meeting would take place on Wednesday, Nov. 2, with dinner and socializing at 6 p.m., and the meeting starting at 7 p.m., at the Coon Creek Conservation Club. The guest speaker will be Vernon County Forester Nick Gilman who will discuss forest health.