As Climate Change Slams Farming, Farmers (mostly) still Don’t Get it

September 3, 2017

Look, I get it, the Farmer feeds us all, yada yada. My son’s a farmer.

By and large, agriculture is getting slammed worse than almost any sector of the economy. Yet example after example indicates they’re so far down the Fox News rathole, they don’t know who is doing this to them.


When President Trump announced this week that he was taking the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, there were swift and vocal reactions from many industries —- but most of the organizations that represent American agriculture were silent.

Chris Clayton, though, a veteran reporter at one of the leading farm publications in the country, took to Twitter:

Clayton is a Midwesterner and agricultural policy editor at DTN/The Progressive Farmer. He’s also the author of The Elephant in the Cornfield: The Politics of Agriculture and Climate Change, which describes in detail how farmers and farm lobbyists have dealt — or, more often, refused to deal — with a changing climate.

It has sometimes put Clayton in an awkward spot, as he acknowledged when I reached him this week in his office in Omaha, Neb.

Does it make you nervous, as a reporter at a farm publication, talking about climate change?

All the time. I feel like the guy who has to tell people things they don’t want to hear. But if I simply ignore the topic or ignore the issues, am I doing anybody any favors?

You decided to write a book on climate change during a Farm Bureau convention in 2011, when you were hearing lots of climate change skepticism.

Oddly enough, we were at a convention in Atlanta, where a freak ice storm shut us in. I was stuck at a bar, a Trader Vic’s, and got into a long conversation with friends who were analysts and lobbyists for Farm Bureau. [The group represents mainstream commodity farmers.] And I felt like the issue was not being fully addressed by farm groups.

The attitude you were hearing at the convention was ‘efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission are a bad thing and we’re just against them?’

Yes, cap-and-trade specifically, the Waxman-Markey bill as it was called. Farm Bureau came out very aggressively against that bill, after pushing cap-and-trade throughout the decade before. During the Clinton administration, Farm Bureau was really one of the leaders in helping pitch the concept of a cap-and-trade plan that also partially would have paid farmers for sequestering carbon in soil, using the kind of practices that build organic matter. Farm organizations helped pitch this idea to the Clinton administration. By the time you get around to the debate in 2009, Farm Bureau takes a very skeptical attitude, and then starts inviting some of the strongest climate critics to become speakers at its convention.

You go into lots of detail on how the politics of this evolved. But I’m left with the overall impression that farm groups became more and more opposed to doing anything on climate change — and it was driven, as much as anything, by hostility to the Obama administration.


That’s accurate. Farm groups pushed back even before Obama had been officially put into office. There were press releases put out right after the election warning farmers about an impending EPA “cow tax” that was really a myth. But it pushed this narrative that the Obama administration was going to be anti-farmer.

Do you have any explanation for why the farming community is so hostile at this point to efforts to address climate change?

Well, EPA did not help itself at all. It’s a separate topic, but EPA really put a lot of fear into agriculture over the “Waters of the U.S.” issue. [This Obama administration rule defined which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act; farmers considered it too expansive, and the Trump administration has moved to reverse it.] That really was a big driver behind a lot of anti-EPA sentiment out there, so the idea that you would have something involving greenhouse gas emissions which the EPA would oversee [created] a lot of fear of regulations coming back on farmers.

Unfortunately, you’re really going to have the proof in the pudding, so to speak, for farmers and agriculture to really change on this topic. In the meantime, you run more risk of droughts, more risk of floods, more risks of insects and pests affecting crops.

And just to be clear where you’ve ended up: You write that climate change is real and that it could have profound and negative effects on farming.

You know, the science has not changed. The EPA put out a really detailed report in 1989, as the Reagan administration switched to the first Bush administration — so under Republican administrations, it put out this big report on impacts of climate change over the next 30-50 years. Well, we’re almost at that 30-year mark, and you can see a lot of the impacts that EPA said were going to happen. We’ve seen algae blooms, California has water problems because of issues with snow packs.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska have said that North Platte, Neb., could have the same climate as Lubbock, Texas, 60 or 70 years from now. That’s hard to fathom. You don’t grow much of anything in Lubbock unless it’s irrigated. So that is the risk, especially in the Great Plains. The impact that it will have on farmers that don’t have really good irrigation will be pretty devastating. And this is what we don’t talk about much.

Inside Climate News:

Farmers in Texas have taken a battering from Hurricane Harvey as intense as the blows that hit cities and the region’s oil belt.

Bits of cotton—the state’s biggest cash crop—are hanging in trees. Cattle have been standing in feet of water, fatally deep for an unknown number of calves. Grain terminals along the coast, where a quarter of the nation’s wheat is exported, are shuttered, and the railroad tracks leading to them are impassable.

“We’re experienced with flooding,” said Gene Hall, of the Texas Farm Bureau. “But not like this.”

The state’s farmers and ranchers will face more climate-driven challenges in the years ahead, according to projections of future climate change.

Models suggest that the entire Gulf of Mexico region will be especially hard hit by increasing heat, more rain and stronger storms that will wallop the region’s crops and livestock as the atmosphere and Gulf waters heat up.

That could have consequences beyond Texas as the need for financial help from the government, which comes largely through federal crop insurance, escalates with the damage.

Inside Climate News:

In a normal year, midsummer would be abuzz with workers packing July Prince peaches in boxes they pull from hooks swirling overhead. But this year, about 85 percent of Georgia’s peach crop failed. It wasn’t a freeze, though they did lose some fruit to a mid-March dip into the 20s. And it wasn’t hail, though a hail storm in early April took some, too. The harvest failed because it was a warm winter. A very warm winter, even warmer than the warm winter the year before.

It was 1990 when, sitting in an undergraduate biology class at the University of Georgia in Athens, I first heard the term “global warming.” I remember only one fact the professor offered that day: if the Earth’s temperature continued its apparent rise, peaches would no longer be able to grow in the Peach State of Georgia. Now, 27 years later, it was looking like that prophecy was coming true. Could this year’s ruined crop be a harbinger of warmer winters to come?

“I was very skeptical two years ago,” Mr. Bob’s son Robert says. “But with two warm winters I’m beginning to pay a lot more notice to it.”

The Dickeys have been peach farmers since 1897, when Mr. Bob’s grandfather first planted trees in the dirt of middle Georgia, where the soil and elevation and water serve the crop well. Along with a handful of nearby peach growing operations, the Dickeys now dominate the Georgia peach market, the country’s third largest after California and South Carolina.  They cultivate a thousand acres of peaches, and nothing but peaches.

“This is one of the few years that I can remember that we didn’t have enough cold weather,” Mr. Bob tells me as we sit knee-to-knee so he can hear me. “Most of us peach growers, we worry more about spring frost … but this year the crop was decimated on account of lack of cold weather.”

I’ve come to middle Georgia curious if peach growers were experiencing a changing climate that threatened the state fruit—not to mention their generational legacy—but Mr. Bob insisted this year’s crop failure had nothing to do with that thing the politicians call climate change.

Weather, Mr. Bob tells me, “it comes and goes, and you have cycles. I think we’re in a warming cycle this year.” He looks at me with pale blue eyes and smiles. “It might be cold as mischief next year!” he says, laughing. Soon he is out the door, on the way to a friend’s funeral.




4 Responses to “As Climate Change Slams Farming, Farmers (mostly) still Don’t Get it”

  1. Younger farmers in NZ get it and they know the way they run their business will change. Older farmers, not so much. Very resistant to change, to the point of being a mental disorder! The national farmers union sends mixed messages about the climate issue, with the biggest concern around carbon taxes and methane emissions. They officially accept the climate is changing, but the apportionment of blame is somewhat fudged. While the pressure has gone on farmers around the issue of water quality and it’s rapid deterioration, I’d say climate will be the next issue surrounding the industries social license to operate, especially if we get the increasing likely change in government in the upcoming election.

  2. I’d say follow the money — in particular, Monsanto money.

  3. ubrew12 Says:

    Farmers have always been too busy to educate themselves on all the subtleties of modern life. America pioneered the Ag Extension program, in which Ag experts located in Ag-grant colleges traveled among the farmers and educated them about new crops, machinery, financial instruments, etc. These experts were trusted, and did not betray their trust: America’s Ag sector owes a lot to this program. But things have changed, corporations now play a larger role, and rightwing media has been effective in portraying ‘experts’, especially working for the government, as untrustworthy. Today’s Ag Extension agents should be warning farmers about how they will be impacted by climate change and what directions to take their operations to remain profitable. But I worry that their council is not valued as it once was, as is the council of experts in general. There’s a dangerous idea at work that a farmer can work a 14 hour day and trust his own education and council on complicated topics. Faux News warns them repeatedly that they can’t trust the government experts, they can only trust Faux News.

  4. rsmurf Says:

    Lying is not very becoming!

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