Vilsack: USDA should establish pilot farms focused on sustainability |

Vilsack: USDA should establish pilot farms focused on sustainability

From left, Debbie Lyons-Blythe of White City, Kan.; Frank Mitloehner of the University of California, Davis; Matthew Rezac of Weston, Neb., and U.S. Dairy Export Council President and CEO Tom Vilsack testify before the Senate Agriculture Committee on climate change.
Photo by Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report

Tom Vilsack, president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, said recently the Agriculture Department should help establish “pilot farms” that would bring together all the technologies developed to address sustainability and climate change, and should promote what works best.

Vilsack, who was the Agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, testified at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on climate change that amounted to a defense of U.S. animal agriculture.

In his written testimony, Vilsack said that Newtrient LLC, a company established by the 12 largest milk cooperatives representing nearly 20,000 dairy farmers, has launched a new initiative, the Net Zero Project, to show how U.S. dairy can help feed a projected 9 billion people by 2050, all while minimizing its climate impact to “net zero.”

But in oral testimony, Vilsack said the USDA should help establish pilot farms because farmers don’t have the resources to do it on their own.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., pushed back against that idea, saying she was “worried about the establishment of pilot farms. We need to be sure that practices work in the real world.”

But when Vilsack reassured her that he was “not suggesting the government own those farms or control them, but work with a farmer to use all the technologies” and then inform other farmers what each technology would do, Fischer said, “I would love to work on that.”

Frank Mitloehner, an animal science professor and air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, said that the “misconception” that livestock emit more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than the transportation sector comes from a 2006 United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization global study titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow.”

That study stated, Mitloehner said, that livestock was contributing a staggering 18% of the world’s GHG emissions and that livestock was emitting more GHGs than all modes of transportation combined.

“The claim was incorrect, having come about as the result of an error in the methodology used to gather data,” Mitloehner said. “To its credit, FAO owned up to the mistake,” he said, but the misconception has persisted among the general public, leaving many people with the idea that they could affect greenhouse gasses by giving up meat one day per week.

U.S. animal agriculture is highly efficient, he said, producing more milk and meat per animal than generations ago.

Debbie Lyons-Blythe, a rancher and farmer from White City, Kan., urged the committee not to support any legislation that “unfairly targets the cattle producer.”

Matthew Rezac, a farmer from Weston, Neb., said that his local Natural Resources Conservation Service office is “overworked and overwhelmed,” and that he has turned to a program through Land O’ Lakes, the dairy co-op, for help.

“I know the weather is changing but I try to control what I can control,” Rezac said. But one of the challenges, he said, is for NRCS to have the resources to inform farmers of the all the available techniques to improve sustainability. ❖

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