Cows standing in a grassy field

Wisconsin Climate Assessment Underscores Win-Win Solutions for Food, Energy, Water, Ecosystems, and Climate

Solutions to mitigate climate change impacts in Wisconsin take center stage in a newly released assessment called Wisconsin’s Changing Climate, which is the second of such reports by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI). Many of the solutions proposed could have win-win implications for food, energy, water, and ecosystems not just in Wisconsin, but across the entire Upper Midwest.

The report reflects contributions from over 200 scientists and 50 organizations, providing a comprehensive assessment of how climate change is projected to impact Wisconsin’s land, air, water, built environment, and people. While many of the results haven’t changed since the first assessment, which was completed in 2011, this second report’s focus on solutions takes it a step forward on its usefulness to policy and management for protecting soils, improving water quality, and building climate resilience.

FEWscapes principal investigator, Chris Kucharik, co-led the report’s agriculture working group, a team of diverse experts that included farmers. He thinks the report is well timed.

“The last 10 years have been hard on farming and agriculture, partly because of the changing-climate impact of heavy rainfall events and too much rain,” said Kucharik, who is a professor of agronomy and environmental studies at UW-Madison.

Kucharik says the report underscores how agriculture will play an important role in building climate resilience, in part because it sits at an interface of being both impacted by climate change and a solution for it.

Many of the report’s suggestions related to agriculture revolve around increasing perennial vegetation on the landscape through actions like restoring grasslands, incorporating grazing rotations into corn and soy production systems, and avoiding the conversion of existing grasslands and natural area into agricultural land.

Another suggested solution that aligns with FEWscapes’ goals is helping farmers to better align nutrient application rates with plant nutrient needs. Doing so would decrease the amount of nitrous oxides emitted from fertilizers applied to soils and help reduce nutrient loss to groundwater and surface waterways.

“If we can figure out as a state or region how to put a higher value on clean water as a service, maybe we’ll work closer to providing incentives to farmers to back off on the amount of fertilizer they’re applying,” said Kucharik.

Kucharik says their working group recognizes that drastic management changes are hard for farmers to implement on a short timeframe. So they tried to suggest solutions with obvious selling points and adaptation strategies that would be feasible and economically viable for farmers.

According to Sara Walling – the other co-lead of the WICCI Agriculture Working Group and Administrator of Agricultural Resource Management at Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection – the report points out that, as the nation experiences the impacts of climate change, the state’s robust and diverse agricultural landscape and industry could be both a curse and blessing, with the former being one of her biggest concerns.

“As other parts of the nation struggle to have water security, it’s going to put additional pressures on places like Wisconsin. While we might experience hotter days, maybe longer summers, and more intense rainfall, the data from WICCI certainly still points to us having access to natural water sources – a luxury other agricultural areas of the country may not continue to enjoy,” said Walling, who is also a community partner on the FEWscapes project.

Her worry is that water insecurity elsewhere will increase pressure on Wisconsin to produce more food, fuel, and fiber. She urges for policies and programs to prepare farmers and the agriculture industry for climate resilience in a more dedicated and comprehensive manner, rather than in a piecemeal approach.

“As lawmakers, policymakers, and practitioners, we’re doing all these little side projects, but it will take a more concerted approach to move the dial,” said Walling. “I would hope that the data incorporated into the WICCI report can help us as a state or region build a case for change in a more comprehensive way.”

Walling hopes that some of the new federal funding pools, such as the Biden Administration’s infrastructure bill or USDA’s new Climate Smart Agriculture program, can provide low-hanging fruit for supporting state-level initiatives that could move the needle. She also thinks it will be important to put solutions where they make the most sense.

“There’s a reason why we have a slew of different options and ideas for how to mitigate this. It’s going to take that kind of approach to identify where the best fit is for each change and how that fits best within our agricultural landscape, so that we can continue to grow the food we all rely on, but do it in a way that’s sustainable,” said Walling.

Kucharik admits that many of the solutions proposed in the report won’t be surprising to people already working on these issues, but he thinks it can serve as a guide for policymakers and policy-influencing organizations and equip on-the-ground educators, such as from Extension, with the latest information about climate change impacts to use in their public outreach.

He also thinks the report offers examples of land use and land cover management changes and opportunities that could be incorporated into the scenarios that FEWscapes will be developing with input from our community partners.

Walling hopes the report can help inform minds and change hearts, especially among those who might be less willing to accept how climate change will be impacting the major industries of Wisconsin.

“We need to look in a more focused way to help our agricultural industry become more resilient to the current and coming impacts of our changing climate,” said Walling.

Header photo by Anders Gurda for UW-Madison CALS