April 18, 2022
This is part one of a two part series to highlight the needs of grassroots voices and celebrate the advocacy of the eight farmers and ranchers who participated in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)’s virtual appropriations fly-in from March 29-31, 2022 to support GLCI and SARE, written by NSAC Grassroots Fellow Madeline Turner.
Working at the nexus of issues related to the climate crisis, land access, and the steep market pressures farmers and ranchers face, livestock producers across the country are looking to their animals and the soil for answers. Graziers, or producers who raise livestock on grass, are making the case for the widespread adoption of pasture based practices that demonstrate synchronous benefits for both local food systems and ecosystems.
The adoption of sustainable and regenerative grazing practices requires a transition away from predominant systems of raising livestock, particularly confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The waste sitting on feedlots and the manure flushed into lagoons at CAFOs continues to degrade water and air quality in rural areas, leading to severe consequences for human health. The systems farmers and ranchers are advocating for present a restorative solution. Well-managed grazing operations build soil health over time and soil health translates into a variety of benefits for people and the environment. Pasa Sustainable Agricultures’ Soil Health Benchmark Study, featured in Lisa Held’s recent article on regenerative grazing, quantifies the benefits of regenerative grazing and states that “perennial pastured livestock farms are the ‘gold standard’ of soil health, achieving optimal scores for every soil health indicator we measured on nearly all fields we measured.”
The benefits of grazing systems are driven by the fact that establishing perennial pastures and utilizing advanced grazing management systems can increase organic matter in soils and encourage carbon sequestration. These grazing systems work cyclically and seasonally to improve soil health, water holding capacity, and nutrient cycling. Healthy soil leads to healthy grasses and year-round maintenance of cover increases water infiltration, improving the landscape’s resilience to both flood and drought. Additionally, grazing operations economically benefit farmers and local food systems as farmers are reporting decreased costs associated with feeding and veterinary care of animals.
The stories of farmers and ranchers leading the “grazing revolution” are being told all over the country, on farms of all sizes, and are not limited to operations that fit the familiar image of cows roaming on thousand acre ranches out west. While a diversity of stories are already being told, adopting sustainable and regenerative practices does require resources that not all farmers can equitably access. Structural barriers to land access continue to present a significant challenge for Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), and other socially disadvantaged and emerging farmers hoping to build their own sustainable farming operations. Additionally, some farmers with access to land lack necessary technical assistance, education, and other resources to aid in the implementation of regenerative grazing practices.
Unfortunately, government spending through some key programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) continues to be disproportionately directed toward confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) rather than towards ecologically sound grazing operations. The EQIP program in particular, which is statutorily obligated to spend 50% of funds supporting livestock operations, is often utilized by CAFOs to pay for structural practices such as waste lagoons, animal mortality facilities, and waste treatment facilities, which negatively impact water and air quality. These same funds could be funneled to farmers implementing practices within advanced grazing systems that create substantial and lasting environmental benefits.
This is where the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) enters the landscape. GLCI provides local and regional resources for farmers and ranchers – both established and beginning – who are interested in understanding and utilizing grazing management practices. These resources include technical support, education, rancher to rancher learning, and funding for partnerships between the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and grazing-focused organizations.
“This is a good program as it teaches through peer to peer experiments and demonstrations under ranch conditions,” Montana rancher and grazing legend Dale Veseth tells us after his meeting with Senator Jon Tester (D-MT)’s office. The Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative presents new opportunities for the collaboration, coalition building, and learning that farmers and ranchers need to implement conservation practices. As with other federal initiatives, such as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, farmer-led and regionally-focused programs address specific local needs while leading to substantial innovations in agricultural methods and technology and community education and empowerment.
GLCI is not a new program, however. the program has been around in some capacity since the nineties, funding for GLCI was included in the 2002 Farm Bill and increased to over $27 million in fiscal year 2008. Earlier GLCI funded projects have left lasting impacts on rural communities.
“He’s taught hundreds of students,” says Eric Cates of Cates Family Farms of his father, Dick Cates. When grant funding initially became available, Dick Cates applied for and used GLCI funding to support the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, where today more than 80% of students go on to start, acquire, or transition into their own farming business. Eric told his family’s story in meetings with Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), highlighting what it means to care for the soil, animals, and community simultaneously.
In Montana, Dale Veseth has also held GLCI close to his heart for more than thirty years. “The original GLCI project I was involved in back in the 1990’s was a solar pump to fill a tank out of an existing reservoir to see if the cattle preferred tank water and had reduced impact on the adjacent reservoir shoreline,” he describes. “We did conclude that cattle and especially calves preferred the tanked water and that the reservoirs with the solar pump had less impact than the reservoirs without the tanked water. I know of several ranches that now use this technology to improve conservation and increase cattle production.”
“Farmers across the nation say that a big obstacle to beginning or converting to managed-grazing is their need for knowledgeable, expert assistance,” says Margaret Krome, a long-term advocate for GLCI and Policy Program Director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in Wisconsin. “Among its offerings, GLCI funds grazing technical assistance. A grazing specialist helps you develop locally appropriate grazing plans and then helps you successfully put it on the ground. What a difference grazing expertise makes!”
Alongside many other federally funded programs, however, GLCI lost funding in 2009 leaving grazing leaders nationwide calling for its restoration. This year, however, due to the diligent efforts of NSAC members, funding for GLCI has been re-established. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 designated $14 million for GLCI. While this is a solid victory for sustainable grazing, it also represents a call to action for folks across the sustainable agriculture movement as the program is still underfunded compared to the historic level of $27 million in 2008. The appropriations cycle for Fiscal Year 2023 is well underway and now is the time to demand $30 million in funding for GCLI and build on the historic reinvestment of last year.
As a grassroots campaign priority, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is participating in the federal appropriations process to advocate for GLCI alongside SARE based upon demonstrated, on-the-ground needs observed by farmers and food systems organizations nationally. But what are appropriations and why are they necessary right now? Congress can allocate money to programs and agencies in two ways, by creating mandatory funding or appropriations authority. Mandatory funding is made available by the law that creates it, but appropriations authority makes a certain sum available for specific Congressional committees to spend at their discretion. Every year, Congress engages in a process where it allocates funds to all functions of the US government that rely on appropriations authority and the final dollars it puts towards particular programs or government functions are considered ‘appropriated.’ Appropriations committees in the House and Senate make decisions about how these funds are spent, informed by constituent requests and advocacy efforts. NSAC engages in this process in several ways, one of which is directly connecting farmers and ranchers with their members of Congress to advocate for particular programs vital to supporting food system resilience.
Most importantly, a virtual fly-in allows farmers to directly advocate for the programs they benefit from in meetings with their legislators. This presents producers and congressional offices with the opportunity to build relationships and puts farmers’ stories at the center of the appropriations process. During meetings with seven different congressional offices, five ranchers advocated for $30 million in funding for GLCI to ensure those who are interested in grazing get the dedicated technical help necessary to implement a regenerative form of livestock agriculture with the potential to mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change in rural areas.
The farmer and rancher advocates who accompanied the NSAC fly-in exemplify how the groundwork for utilization of the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative is already being laid, a preliminary success that is in part a result of the program’s initial iteration. Individual graziers are not alone – there are already vibrant community organizations and grazing coalitions enthusiastic about widespread implementation of advanced grazing management systems.
For example, Dale Veseth works closely with Montana’s Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance (RSA), a rancher-led organization that champions peer-to-peer education efforts and the creation of resilient rural communities through grass-focused conservation efforts. For the folks who work with RSA, ranching and grazing management are tools to foster the ecological, social, and economic conditions to enhance biodiversity and empower anyone who seeks to steward land. RSA applied for and received grant funding through GLCI to support outreach and education projects that their members and partners collaborate on. RSA is still working within their grant and this summer they will be producing more educational materials to support sustainable ranching in North Central Montana.
In North Dakota, Kevin Leier of Heartland Bison is a bison rancher, Executive Director of the North Dakota Buffalo Association, and active member of the National Bison Association. “Come have some awesome barbeque brisket,” he says, inviting Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) to his ranch to kick off the first of six educational on-ranch field days the National Bison Association is holding in 2022 and 2023. Kevin’s family started ranching in 1986 and began raising bison exclusively in the mid-90’s. A self-described holistic grazier, Kevin uses his extensive experience with grazing and developing grazing plans to intensively graze about 120 cow-calf pairs. He has worked with SARE grants, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to implement conservation practices on his ranch and has managed the transition of several hundred acres of land. As a leader of the National Bison Association, an organization with members in all fifty US states, Kevin works to ensure that sustainability is a priority in the bison industry and that adequate support and education are widely accessible. “The work of programs like GLCI is what enables me to do the work I do – I turn sunlight into grass and then into pounds of bison to allow people to have a nutrient-dense protein product on their plate,” he said to Senator Hoeven’s team. “It gives me a competitive advantage because I’m working with nature, understanding the educational side of what it takes to do it, and how the animals are actually working in unison with the ranching operation. And then, we’re able to – whether it’s water filtration, carbon sequestration, or nitrogen fixation, any of them – we’re seeing benefits for the entire ecosystem.”
The stories of these ranchers and their community involvement solidify why their advocacy for GLCI to their members of Congress is so timely. A well funded GLCI would ensure that organizations such as the ones that Kevin and Dale work with are able to fulfill their missions and bring more farmers and ranchers into the folds of sustainable grazing and diversified agricultural production.
Other rancher stories demonstrated models for what advanced management grazing systems might look like, highlighting the importance of sharing grazier experiences with other producers and with policymakers.
Alan Hubbard of Shannon Creek Cattle and Quarter Horses shared his story with Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS). Alan is a cattle rancher in Kansas who has practiced intensive rotational grazing since the 1980’s. He manages 10,000 acres of land alongside a few leasees and three other families, one of which is his son’s. Between the community of four families there are about 400 head of cattle and over 2,000 head of sheep, as well as a band of quarter horses.
Dan Cavadini of the Cavadini Partnership raises wheat and other cereal grains on 7,000 acres of dryland cropland in Central Washington. He grazes 150 cow-calf pairs on 10,000-12,000 acres of native desert vegetation. In meetings with the offices of Representative Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Dan’s innovative grazing practices took center stage. Dan participated in a SARE project about grazing on cover crops and even before harvest, he grazes on his cash crops over the winter. In 2020, the biggest recorded wildfire in Washington state history burned through the vast majority of his grazing land. Since then, grazing on his cropland has been an important and innovative solution as his grazing land recovers and he rebuilds his fencing.
Graziers teach us that conservation work is most effective when it happens as part of a collaborative, local food system-focused effort. Eric Cates, for example, is always on the move. Squeezing meetings with congressional offices between delivery runs to restaurants in Madison and quality time with his family. Eric’s commitment to conservation via grazing and care for his cattle and community echoes what is exemplified across the “grazing revolution.” Farmers and ranchers are uniquely capable of addressing climate change and the issues rural communities face. It is imperative that they are substantially supported in this work.
What are the potential food systems implications of a well funded GLCI? When we think about shifting power to create a more equitable food system, grazing lands are essential. In order to shift power in the United States food system while addressing the climate crisis, we need to implement policy that transforms the current realities of land holding, access to credit and other forms of federal funding, and bolsters resilience in rural communities.
We know that limited resource farmers and wholesale growers both face significant hurdles to adopting diversified farming practices and that issues of access to both land and credit continue to bar BIPOC voices from entering the grazing world. As California FarmLink’s recent guide to regenerative leasing points out, millions of acres of grazing land will likely change hands in the next 25 years with nearly 30% of all grazing lands being leased and 98% percent of all agricultural land being white-owned. Rural communities are uniquely impacted by climate change and conventional farming practices put farmers at greater risk. When asked about the impact of GLCI on rural communities, Margaret Krome of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute describes how pastures utilizing grazing management systems hold deep, complex root systems that secure and retain water in extreme weather events where water may erode soil and tearing out bridges, culverts, and roads. “By avoiding those damages, grass saves local, state, and federal taxpayers the costs of repairing storm-damaged infrastructure,” she says. Innovations in the management of grazing lands do more than just protect our soils; they also can protect rural communities.
There is a demonstrated need for conservation technical assistance broadly to address racial inequity, environmental degradation, and economic insecurity. Data continue to show lower participation rates for farmers of color in federal conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Targeting GLCI funding and other conservation technical assistance (in addition to an increase in dedicated outreach) towards socially disadvantaged producers can shift this trend and result in lasting financial benefits for BIPOC and emerging farmers.
Though GLCI is by no means the end-all-be-all solution to equitable technical assistance across the country, it presents a renewed path towards agricultural production that facilitates human and environmental resilience, rather than exacerbating the impacts of structural failures. “Implementing these regenerative agriculture practices allowed me to survive last year,” Kevin Leir voices about ranching at the epicenter of a severe drought in North Dakota last grazing season. As the key focal points of the program are collaboration, coalition, conservation, at its full potential, this program would do more than simply complement existing conservation efforts. Instead, through conservation efforts the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative will provide farmers and ranchers with the vital assistance, educational tools, and regional communities essential to addressing the climate crisis on the ground.
Pasa Sustainable Agricultures’ Soil Health Benchmark Study
Michigan State University Center for Regional Food System’s An Annotated Bibliography of Structural Racism in the Food System
Categories: Action Alerts, Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Carousel, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, General Interest, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development, Sustainable Livestock