Climate Change Eroding Agriculture, Farmers keep Code of Silence

October 21, 2018

When a slow drip, drip turns into flood.
Climate change is washing away soil and crushing farmers around the country.
Still the “C” word is taboo.

But reality slowly dawning nonetheless.

New York Times:

CAMILLA, Ga. — Renee Moss was standing in her ruined cotton field, boot-toeing a fallen boll that looked like a dirty snowball and debating her husband, Clayton, about how maybe, just maybe, Hurricane Michael was a result of climate change.

“Nope,” was the immediate response from Mr. Moss, a third-generation farmer in rural Mitchell County, where the storm’s 100-mile-per-hour winds last week destroyed a robust cotton crop at the precise moment when the bolls were fattest, fluffiest and set to be harvested.

A few minutes earlier, Mr. Moss’s insurance broker had told him that his losses were likely to be in the 80 to 100 percent range, the same faced by nearly every other farmer in this part of southwest Georgia. The area, which was directly in the path of the storm, is one of the largest bastions of multigenerational family farming in the country, and a major national producer of cotton, peanuts, sweet corn, pine timber and poultry.

“Look, I know the storms are making it unsustainable. If what’s happened this year happens next year, we’re done,” Mr. Moss, 38, told his wife. “But we’ve always had bad weather. Is it getting worse? Have we had three bad years in a row? Yeah. But I’m worried about the weather, not about climate change.”

Ms. Moss, 41, shrugged. “House divided,” she said.

Weather has always been a worry for farmers, and they have been slower to accept the role of human activity in causing climate change as a group than their counterparts in cities, according to surveys conducted over the last decade.

But worldview is colliding with world. Many agricultural areas — even ones 90 miles inland, like the Moss farm outside Camilla — are increasingly vulnerable to intensifying storms that scientists, including those with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have linked to rising sea temperatures. After three consecutive years of bad storms, farmers here are slowly acknowledging what seems to be a fundamental change and, in their own way and their own time, beginning to consider the existential threat that climate change could pose to their precarious way of life.

“I really wish that Al Gore hadn’t been the messenger, it just turned everybody off,” said Casey M. Cox, 27, who studied forestry and environmental preservation at the University of Florida before returning to help run her family’s 2,400-acre farm here. “It allowed people to say that it was just a liberal thing, when we know it is completely sound science.”

In many parts of Georgia, climate change is infrequently discussed. A half-dozen conversations with farmers, academics and agricultural officials were cut short, politely, when the words “global warming” were uttered.

“That’s politics, and I don’t want to get into it,” said Raynor Churchwell, a programs specialist with the Georgia Farm Bureau. “Weather is going to happen, it’s not something we think too much about.”


This year, crops in north-west Iowa are looking spotty. Up into Minnesota they were battered by spring storms and late planting, and then inundated again in late summer. Where they aren’t washed out, they’re weedy or punky. If you go south in Buena Vista county, where I live in Storm Lake, the corn stands tall and firm.

Welcome to climate change, Iowa-style.

It’s the least debated issue of the midterm political season. The weather is the top topic of conversation at any cooperative elevator’s coffee table, along with the markets. Everyone knows that things have been changing in sweeping ways out here on the richest corn ground in the world. It’s drought in the spring and floods in the fall – what were considered 500-year floods in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines 30 years ago are now considered 100-year floods. Iowa has been getting soggier in spring and fall, with scary dry spells interspersed, and more humid at night by as much as a third since 1980.

Everyone knows it has been getting wetter and weirder, especially Dr Gene Takle, a Nobel prize-winning climate scientist at Iowa State University. Takle predicted 20 years ago the floods we see today, already linking it to climate change back then. Farmers just saw ponding and called the tiling company to install more. We’re on our way to doubling the size of the northern Iowa drainage system in the past 30 years as the upper midwest has grown more humid and extreme.

This drainage system is delivering runoff rich in farm fertilizer to the Mississippi river complex and the Gulf of Mexico, where the nitrate from Iowa and Illinois corn fields is growing a dead zone the size of New Jersey. The shrimping industry is being deprived of oxygen so Iowa farmers can chase 200 bushels of corn per acre – and hope against hope that corn will somehow increase in price as we plow up every last acre.

That flow also is creating a toxic source for Des Moines Water Works, which is facing up to $100m in improvements to remove agricultural chemicals from the Raccoon river that supplies 500,000 thirsty denizens. The waterworks sued our county over it, along with two others, but a federal judge threw out the case because you simply can’t sue an Iowa drainage district. And that means that there is no way to regulate agriculture as it responds to extreme weather and market consolidation that seeks immediate return.

Meanwhile, those huge rainfalls on exposed black dirt wash it to the vales even from the flat ground of our neighborhood. We are losing soil at two to three tons an acre a year. Nature can regenerate the soil at only a half-ton a year. So we are washing our black gold down the river four to six times faster than we can regrow it.

Because we have less soil, the corn and soya beans are starting to show it in lower protein in the kernel or pod. Corn is yielding higher starch content, notes agronomist Dr Rick Cruse of Iowa State. He adds that wheat production in China is falling because of degraded soil wrought by extreme weather and poor stewardship. It follows that overall corn yields, or at least relative value for the most-used crop in the world, will decline.

Here, this year, we see it in variable crop yields from township to township. It is starting to factor into land prices, which is the foundational wealth of the upper midwest and especially in Iowa.

The University of Minnesota forecasts, based on research at Nasa, that Iowa corn yields could drop in half within the next half-century because of extreme weather and soil depletion.

Yet nobody is talking about it. We expect that the chemists and geneticists will handle it and keep those yields ramping up come hell or high water.

Farmers are taking action on their own, after losing money six straight years in Iowa and wondering where the corn ethanol bubble of 2008 went. They are starting to look into cover crops like rye to protect the soil and hold nutrients in place during these increasingly harsh flushes. They also can help store moisture by building soil tilth to ward off dry spells, which could span decades. “You have flavors of the Dust Bowl,” Takle said, sprinkled by torrents in the future.

Another soil scientist, Jerry Hatfield of the National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, told my reporter son Tom that we can make agriculture resilient to a changing climate. But it will take a transformation in thinking that is not yet reflected in the political conversation.

Few politicians in the five states around here are talking about regulating agriculture in an era of warmer and wetter nights and long droughts. Yet farmers are paying attention. Hatfield says that conventional producers in the Raccoon river watershed are starting to focus on profitability reports from sustainable agriculture groups like the Practical Farmers of Iowa. They advocate a rotating crop-livestock land use with more diverse plantings that can restore soil and make farmers more resilient – and get them off that expensive chemical jones. Because, the government doesn’t appear equipped to deal with it.

The state of Iowa and the state of Ohio each spend about a dollar per acre per year on water and soil quality – on land that costs up to $10,000 per acre. Politicians are still talking bioswales and mini-marshes when we all need to be thinking, at least, about retiring a third of the land in the upper midwest from corn and soy rotations.

That isn’t something that the ag supply chain – controlled by the Koch brothers, Bayer-Monsanto and Dow-Dupont – can readily accept, because to give up acres is to give up revenue. And they happen to control the political infrastructure in the Corn Belt.

But at some point the construct fails. In western Kansas, they’re having a tough time growing corn even with irrigation and chemicals. It is getting so warm that the plant simply cannot service itself.


13 Responses to “Climate Change Eroding Agriculture, Farmers keep Code of Silence”

  1. renewableguy Says:

    From the first article and blaming Al Gore for problems of acceptance, when in reality there is very poor leadership on the conservative side of things. Its time for conservatives to step up and move.

    • greenman3610 Says:


      If only the world’s top scientists had started warning us 30 years ago.

      Oh, right.

    • Bryson Brown Says:

      Too right– this has become an excuse for right-wingers to ignore inconvenient facts- how dare those liberals (women, black people, scientists, immigrants…) tell us something? (I wonder if they ever ask themselves why more ‘acceptable’ politicians don’t step forward to do the job…)

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    A hugely depressing piece. RN Guy got it right when he said “…there is very poor leadership on the conservative side of things”.

    As long as the morons reject the science and continue to say climate change is “politics” and a “liberal (or Chinese) hoax”, we will NEVER make adequate progress.

    Until, of course, the SHTF climate-wise, at which time it will be Chicken Little time (but for real).

  3. John Kane Says:

    “It allowed people to say that it was just a liberal thing, when we know it is completely sound science.”
    So if your oncologist is a liberal you ignore the diag“It allowed people to say that it was just a liberal thing, when we know it is completely sound science.”nosis?

  4. ubrew12 Says:

    ” ‘Nope,’ was the immediate response from Mr. Moss, a third-generation farmer in rural Mitchell County” Well, I’m a climate scientist, and I’m here to tell ‘farmer’ Moss that he doesn’t know the first thing about growing cotton.

    The victory of the denial industry is when ordinary people can’t even tell, anymore, when they are being hopelessly arrogant.

    • Bryson Brown Says:

      The point of the way the right has treated the issue is precisely to license this kind of attitude– suddenly science is just another religion or political point of view, and we can ignore it if we don’t like it… It won’t work out well, but certain parties really don’t care.

      • ubrew12 Says:

        “Of course Iraq has WMD. Why would I question our Patriots gathering Intel about the Bedouin?”
        “Nothing those quiche-eating climate scientists predict is going to happen. They are purely political!”

        Yes, its the license, as you call it, that people are given by their trusted media and political leaders. What a tragedy! For the cost of the Iraq War, America could have gone about half-way toward a totally green economy.

  5. […] via Climate Change Eroding Agriculture, Farmers keep Code of Silence | Climate Denial Crock of the Week […]

  6. indy222 Says:

    …what a species. A waste of a cerebral cortex for far too many of us.

    It would at least be an invigorating fight if we acknowledged the truths and frantically tried to battle the problem. But this isn’t the Alamo, clearly…. but instead we’re like the Bill Paxton character in “Aliens” ….. “this ain’t happening, man!” as he slowly turns into a sloppering cowering terrified shell of the previous bravado. I’ll predict Trump will get there at some point, when reality is too oppressive to keep out of his shrinking mind.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      I’ll take that bet and even give odds—-a dollar against your dime—-no, wait! TEN dollars against your penny.

      Trump will NEVER live in a real world—-if and when a category 7 hurricane brings down the White House on his head, he will be seen sitting behind the Resolute Desk muttering “lock her up…Putin is my friend…build the wall….”.

    • ubrew12 Says:

      I agree that Trump will never come around. The whole advantage of believing what you want about reality, is the advantage of ‘consistency’ (people who bend to reality are perceived as weak). Witness the amazing crowd size of Trumps inaugural address! At over 70, Trump knows he can carry water for the Putin mafia, and get paid for doing so, until the grim reaper calls, and never have to deal with the consequences of climate change, so when you’re a selfish narcissist, that’s a ‘win’.

  7. rsmurf Says:

    Gee if all you have to do to get a republican to stop doing something is to tell them a “liberal” is behind it I got a list of things i’ll tell them liberals created, after all they are too damn ignorant to research it themselves!

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