Taste the Change: Emerging climate-smart perennial crops 


Growing Problems 

For decades, farmers have produced abundant and inexpensive food, but at great environmental cost. In Wisconsin, conventional agricultural practices (growing a single crop, such as corn, soybeans, or wheat, on the same land, year after year) have resulted in tired soils. Often, these soils are put on “life-support” through the intensive annual application of fertilizers to replenish what has been lost. Annual production of these short-lived commodity crops means that after the harvest season, plant roots are removed from the fields and farmland soils are left exposed to the elements, leading to drying, erosion, and runoff of both topsoil and fertilizers into our waterways.   

Only 6-8% of agriculture fields in Wisconsin use cover crops to protect exposed soils from runoff and erosion. Excess fertilizers and manure end up flowing off fields with no plant roots to hold them during rain events. This runoff contaminates our groundwater, streams, rivers, and lakes… even the water we drink. Tens of thousands of private wells in Wisconsin are polluted with unsafe levels of nitrates, 90% of which come from agricultural sources like chemical fertilizers and livestock manure.  

Our state’s agricultural sector is the only industry in Wisconsin that has seen an increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 2005— emissions from agriculture have grown by 21.3% over the last 18 years. To put this in perspective, all other sectors in Wisconsin (building, transportation, and electric energy sectors) have shown an 9% decrease in emissions. Nationwide, this puts Wisconsin in the top 10 of states with the highest agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases. The source of these emissions? Soil and livestock management (fertilizers, manure, lime, pesticides, and annual disturbance to the topsoil).   


Is there another way to grow our food without applying toxic chemicals that poison our water, without disturbing the soil and contributing to the emissions of noxious greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide?  


What’s in a Name 

Increasingly, we are seeing new options populate grocery store shelves. Products that feature not only organic practices, but also regenerative practices (farming methods that actively regenerate by focusing on improving soil health through companion planting, biological soil amendments, and raising animals on pasture) are increasingly common. These ecologically beneficial practices are challenging the dominant paradigm of growing food with agrochemicals and keeping animals contained and surrounded by concrete. Regenerative and pasture-raised practices are now being featured in the dairy and meat aisle and are even being touted on the boxes of some of our new favorite cereal, cracker, and cookie options.  

With higher market prices for these products, many opt to bypass them, sticking with their low-price alternatives— hardly an unreasonable choice in a year where inflation has had a significant impact on our wallets. But those lower-priced, conventional products hide a secret in their deceivingly low costs: we are paying for them twice. Many cheap, conventionally grown foods are heavily subsidized by our own tax dollars. When we buy these foods, we are paying for them once at the cash register and again through our tax contributions for tax-funded subsidies. If you were to quantify the cost of degradation on our water, air, and the medical bills that follow from long-term exposure to agrochemicals, we are paying for them way over the market price. When we add it all up, those “higher end” organic, regenerative, and pasture-raised products are quite a bargain! 


But do these regenerative or pasture-raised products move the needle on climate change?  


According to a soon to be released analysis conducted by Clean Wisconsin’s Science Program, the agricultural practices that are the most effective and efficient at sequestering carbon, and reducing fertilizer emissions (methane and nitrous oxide) are: agroforestry (woody tree or shrub crops), perennial fields (perennial field crops, perennial cover crops, perennial grasslands—all plants with deep taproots that don’t need to be replanted year after year), and rotational livestock grazing (grass-fed livestock feeding on perennial grasslands and/or in perennial pastures with tree crops interplanted for summer shade).   


That Wisconsin grass-fed beef you bought? That’s a climate solution! Those crackers from the co-op with the “regenerative” farming label? It’s a little more complex.


Regenerative practices may reduce greenhouse gas emissions of nitrous oxide and methane (otherwise released by improper application of fertilizers and manure to fields) by focusing on the topsoil: maintaining continuous living plants and roots to stabilize the soil, and nurturing the microbes that help make soil nutrients available to plants through biological soil amendments like compost. Because regenerative field practices use cover crops and reduce frequency of ploughing (tillage) to maintain soil cover, soil disturbance and the subsequent release of carbon dioxide from disturbed soils is minimized.   

The potential plants have for taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and holding carbon in the soil (carbon sequestration) is only as good as the length of time those crops are in place. Some ingredients in crackers, like flaxseed, are self-seeding in warmer states and are naturally able to return each year (perennial). Other ingredients, like wheat, have a short life span and must be replanted each year (annual). It takes time for annual plants to establish both above and below ground. When plants are still growing, their ability to hold carbon in the soil is minimal, and they’re not quite big enough to effectively filter surface contaminants before they reach waterways. To add further complexity to our food system, if the ingredients used to make the crackers were grown in a state like California, they are likely drawing irrigation from threatened western aquifers and then are shipped across the country, resulting in further greenhouse gas emissions.   

Overall, if the ingredients come from a perennial plant and the product is grown in Wisconsin, it’s absolutely part of our climate solution! If it’s not, but it is grown using regenerative practices, it’s still undoubtedly a solid choice to support practices that regenerate soil health and improve water quality. It just might not be moving the needle on climate change like you might think at first glance.  


What power do we, consumers, have to influence these changes? Aren’t all the decisions made in legislative offices and company boardrooms? 


Power in your pocket: Paying for Natural Climate Solutions   

Farmers, like all business owners, are driven by the market. Where demand goes, money flows, and farmers will deliver. One of the most powerful and efficient ways we, as consumers, can influence how our food is being grown is at the cash register. There are dozens of perennial woody fruit and nut-bearing species that yield abundant harvests in Wisconsin’s climate— under both current climate conditions as well as projected future climate conditions— but not all those species have the market demand they need for necessary investment into supply chain development. The more we put our money where our values are, the more we’ll see those investments rise to meet our demands. You vote with your wallet, every time you put food on your plate.  


New foods for your plate! 

In coming issues of the Defender, we’ll profile climate-smart perennial crops and products that innovative farmers across Wisconsin are already bringing to market. Starting with our summer issue, discover some of our favorites, and a few examples of where you can buy them to support farmers doing the hard work of growing climate-smart crops. In the meantime, keep checking labels and asking questions, with an eye toward sourcing the foods on your plate from farms close to home, right here in Wisconsin.