Bert Paris loves farming. After nearly 30 years of operating his dairy farm near Belleville, Wisconsin, Bert is in the process of passing on his farm to his daughter, Meagan. She faces serious challenges: Wisconsin led the nation in farm bankruptcies last year, with an average of two dairy farms per day going out of business. And when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted agricultural supply chains this spring, some farmers were forced to dump their milk as waste.
Despite a growing crisis in the Wisconsin dairy industry and other hardships throughout Midwest farming communities, farmers are continuing to seek opportunities to continue their legacy on the land. Bert Paris is one of those farmers, and he sees that opportunity in managed grazing. “Grazing, financially, was the best thing I’ve ever done for my business,” he says.
Paris is a part of Grassland 2.0, a newly formed collaborative group based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that is working to create more opportunities for grazing and other types of perennial grassland farming. As a contributor to the Grassland 2.0 project, Paris joins a network of UW-Madison researchers, state and local agency staff, milk and meat processors, citizen groups, and other farmers coming together to seek transformative solutions to the growing number of threats facing Midwest food and farming systems. As the project’s name suggests, it envisions a future of profitable, productive farmland that also provides many of the benefits of the region’s original prairie such as clean water, healthy soil, biodiversity, and resilience to extreme weather.
Grassland-based farming practices represent a bright spot in an industry that is feeling the combined effects of low commodity prices, extreme weather events, rising production costs, and limited processing and marketing options. Consumer data suggest that while red meat and milk consumption are declining overall, both grass-fed dairy and meat sales are surging. A multi-decade analysis by the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability found that although grazing-based dairies often produce less milk per cow, the money they save by grazing ultimately increases their profitability.
The Grassland 2.0 project is funded by a grant from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture and based at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. According to Randy Jackson, a UW-Madison agronomy professor leading the project, this is noteworthy in itself. “We’re going to need farming practices that simultaneously produce healthy food, support thriving communities, and restore ecosystem processes. Grazed perennial grasslands do that,” says Jackson. “This grant is a major win for the thousands of farmers who are grazing across the state and beyond, and a major win for citizens of the upper Midwest, who desperately need incentives, expertise, and policies that promote sustainable agriculture.”
The benefits of grass-based systems are many, and they aren’t only for the farming community. According to research by the USDA, UW-Madison, and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, well-managed grasslands can reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff, sequester carbon, increase water retention, reduce flooding, and support wildlife such as native pollinators, trout, and birds, all while providing an income source for farmers and maintaining investment in rural communities.
With all the benefits provided by well-managed pasture, municipalities and local governments are taking notice. In 2018, Dane County, Wisconsin launched a pilot program offering payments to farmers for converting to grassland-based farming systems. This program was considered so successful in its first year that its budget has more than doubled.
At the same time, there are technical and economic challenges to entering and adopting grassland agriculture. To that end, the Grassland 2.0 group will focus on sharing existing information and grazing resources with farmers. They are also working to expand grass-fed markets, identify policy tools that facilitate managed grazing and perennial land cover, and bring together diverse partners at the local and regional level to explore different approaches to expanding grassland agriculture.
“We recognize that for restorative agricultural systems to work,” says Jackson, “we need to do more than just provide resources and information to producers. We need to work with processors, lenders, policymakers and state and federal agencies to confront these challenges to agriculture in a holistic way. We have to bring everyone together to map transformative pathways forward.”