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The government wants to make beef production climate friendly. Here's how it's going

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Agriculture is responsible for about 10% of America's greenhouse gas emissions. The federal government is spending $3 billion to try to transform the industry from part of the climate problem to part of the solution. The so-called Climate-Smart Commodities money has been rolling out for a year now. Rachel Cohen from member station Boise State Public Radio visited one ranch in Idaho to see how it's being spent.

WENDY PRATT: Yeah, at the mark.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK, so then let's look at...

RACHEL COHEN, BYLINE: In a hilly sagebrush pasture in southeastern Idaho, cattle ranchers Wendy and Mark Pratt are navigating toward a GPS coordinate.

W PRATT: So this is interesting.

MARK PRATT: You're more organized than...

COHEN: The pin they spot in the ground is the starting point for a research project. Mark unravels measuring tape.

M PRATT: We're going to make a box, a monitoring box.

COHEN: A team of consultants from a project called Grazewell is here to help assess their ranching practices over five years. They chose this spot, which looks out to snowy peaks on the horizon, because the soil is sandy, Wendy says.

W PRATT: So this is the one that we can use to figure out the potential of the rest of the sandhills on the rest of the ranch.

COHEN: The Pratts are regenerative ranchers. That generally means they move their cows around a lot to allow plants to replenish in between bites. They started ranching this way decades ago, in part because of pressure from environmentalists.

M PRATT: They're interested in knowing more about where their food came from. And this is just one more step in that process - not only where did it come from, but how did it get here? What process got it to us?

COHEN: All 100 ranches in their beef co-op, Country Natural Beef, are part of Grazewell, too. The idea is that healthy rangeland is not just a boon for business but the climate, too.

W PRATT: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELS CLINKING)

COHEN: On the pasture, they dig up soil samples to send to a lab. Healthy soil can soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The Grazewell team working here will travel to 120 ranches to conduct baseline assessments. It's part of the $3 billion the Department of Agriculture is spending on 141 projects, like planting cover crops on millions of acres, converting waste to biofuels and restoring forests. The department thinks all this could capture more than 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That would be like taking 12 million gas-powered cars off the road for a year.

OMANJANA GOSWAMI: I think the right word to call this sort of set of money is historic.

COHEN: Omanjana Goswami is a food researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She says Climate-Smart Commodities opens up climate action to way more farmers than ever before. But proving carbon reduction on farms and ranches is tough. In the first year, Goswami says, there's insufficient data for most projects.

GOSWAMI: On what each project was setting out to do, who was doing them? And what was the role of each partner within them? And a lot of those questions are unanswered even to this date.

COHEN: The USDA requires regular monitoring, but Goswami isn't sure what will be publicly available. So she says it may be tough to know if the projects are delivering results. But the Pratts are hopeful that consumers understand the benefits of Grazewell.

W PRATT: We hope that there's a message out there that cattle production can be a good thing.

COHEN: The Pratts' co-op is working on a label to tell supermarket shoppers that its beef is climate-friendly. The plan is for the label to start appearing in stores next year. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cohen.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Cohen
Rachel Cohen joined Boise State Public Radio in 2019 as a Report for America corps member. She is the station's Twin Falls-based reporter, covering the Magic Valley and the Wood River Valley.
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