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First ‘climate-smart’ food in US is now shipping from Wisconsin

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Wisconsin to celebrate first consumer product from federal Climate-Smart Commodities program

New "climate-friendly" rice moves through processing equipment.
New “climate-friendly” rice moves through processing equipment at Great River Milling in Fountain City, Wis. on March 26, 2024. It’s the first consumer product created through USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program. Hope Kirwan/WPR

The first “climate-smart” food produced under a federal sustainability program is now shipping to consumers from western Wisconsin.

Long grain white rice and brown rice from Great River Milling in Fountain City are the first consumer products created under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program. 

The $3 billion grant program was launched in 2022 to support farmers and agribusinesses in finding ways to invest in more sustainable agricultural practices. The program has supported 27 potential projects in Wisconsin, involving 43 different commodities in the state.

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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited the milling facility in Buffalo County on Tuesday to celebrate the first products heading to market, on what he referred to as a “historic day.”

“It’s an opportunity for us to create a different narrative about American agriculture,” Vilsack said during his remarks. “You get a benefit environmentally, you get a benefit economically and you also get the opportunity to create an image of American agriculture that is innovative and committed to sustainability.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack holds a bag of Great River Milling’s “climate-friendly” rice while speaking at the processing plant in Fountain City, Wis. on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. Hope Kirwan/WPR

The “climate-friendly” rice has so far been produced by a farm in southern Arkansas through a growing technique that uses about half of the water that’s normally needed.

Farm owner Jim Whitaker said during the secretary’s visit that the method has also halved the amount of methane produced on his farm.

These impacts are verified by AgriCapture, a company that certifies climate-friendly farm practices and that received $7.5 million through the Climate-Smart Commodities program to develop the rice products.

Great River Milling general manager Rick Halverson said his company is already hearing from Wisconsin farmers who are interested in trying to replicate the approach.

“We’re not growing rice in Wisconsin, but to grow other crops, like beans, pulses, lentils,” Halverson said, adding that farmers may be more willing to try something new after seeing the success of the new “climate-friendly” product.

Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Randy Romanski attended the event on Tuesday. He said the Climate-Smart program adds value to food products, helping farmers and ag businesses receive a higher profit.

“(It) also provides a value-add for the customer who cares about where their products are produced,” Romanski said. “Fortunately, in Wisconsin, a lot of products are produced not too far away from us … So the fact that the rice is coming here from another state, but being packaged here and shipped from here, is also exciting.”

Vilsack assures farmers, consumers about minimal impact of avian flu in dairy cows

Vilsack’s visit to America’s Dairyland came a day after the USDA and other federal agencies confirmed dairy cows on two farms in Kansas and two farms in Texas tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza. 

In a press release, the agency said the virus appears to have been introduced by wild birds and has primarily affected older dairy cows, causing decreased lactation, low appetite and other symptoms. Additional testing was done last week from other potentially-affected farms.

Vilsack assured consumers the U.S. milk supply is safe and there is no risk of a milk shortage. All U.S. dairy farms are required to only send milk from healthy animals to processing for human consumption.

The secretary said affected dairy farmers have seen their cows fully recover from the virus after about a week.

“It emphasizes the importance of biosecurity,” Vilsack said. “Doing what you can to maintain and make sure that your dairy herds are not sharing water supplies with waterfowl, for example, or things of that nature so that we can reduce the risk.”

The first detection of avian flu in U.S. livestock was confirmed last week by Minnesota officials, who found the virus in a baby goat that lived on a farm where an outbreak had occurred in poultry. 

The USDA’s press release said the National Veterinary Services Laboratories has not found changes in the virus that would make it more easily passed to humans, indicating that the current risk to the public remains low. Avian flu does not normally infect people, but rare cases of human infection have occurred. The first case confirmed in a person in the U.S. was in 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Romanski said the virus is something the state’s dairy industry should be aware of. He said the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is already working with federal officials and other states to learn about potential impacts.

“We’re sharing information, we’re communicating clearly what’s going on,” Romanski said. “It keeps us all vigilant. It makes sure that we’re passing information along to people.”

After two years of avian flu cases on poultry farms and in wild birds, Romanski said the state needs to be prepared for the possibility that the virus could return in migrating birds this year.