Tom Vilsack

Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Testimony at a recent Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on solutions to climate change focused on what farmers and ranchers are already doing to lighten their impact on the environment and improve sustainability.

They also stressed that solutions must be economically feasible, and that these are difficult times for producers to invest in new conservation practices.

But Tom Vilsack, president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council and former U.S. secretary of agriculture, took the conversation to another level, pointing out the opportunities that lie in sustainable practices.

“People are very interested in making sure that their food is sustainably produced,” he said.

He encouraged the committee to continue to fund and support conservation programs and urged the involvement of land grant universities to create better systems for measuring the results of sustainable practices.

“If you can quantify, measure and verify a conservation result, you can market it. The challenge is for us to have accurate measurements,” he said.

That’s why it’s important to create pilot farms to measure, quantify and verify what specific conservation activities will do and use it as a basis to create a large-scale ecosystem market, he said.

“You cannot ask farmers to do this on their own. They simply do not have the resources. They have the will but not the resources. So it needs to be a partnership,” he said.

The dairy industry has launched an initiative, the NetZero Project, to work toward carbon neutrality and improved water quality. Demonstration farms on working dairies are part of the plan to quickly identify and showcase technologies and management practices that will achieve those goals.

Federal funding to establish those demonstration farms will be needed, but the goal is to work with policy makers to create an environment conducive to increased investments by farmers, technology providers and those benefitting from their ecosystem services, he said.

The committee should encourage USDA to target its resources at creating a series of pilot farms that take all the technology and all the things farmers are doing individually and put them in a central location, he said.

USDA should measure, verify and quantify the results and create an ecosystem market that supports sustainability goals and then develop revenue opportunities for products, he said.

“We have to show people what is possible. In doing so, you’ll also be able to evaluate the costs. There’s just no question, farmers can’t do this on their own,” he said.

There needs to be a significant partnership with government and the private sector, he said.

“If we establish ecosystem markets, if we establish new business opportunities, then I think you’ll see tremendous adoption on the part of American farmers. They are interested in doing this, they want to do it. They just have to have partnerships to be able to do it,” he said.

It’s government’s responsibility to not only provide resources but also create ways in which those resources can be leveraged, he said.

Conservation results can be marketed, sold and invested in to create a multitude of revenue streams and bring resources back to the farm, he said.

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