30 Harvests: Farmers Waking up to Climate Challenge

December 12, 2019

Not all heroes wear capes. The shock troops for climate mitigation and carbon sequestering may be wearing blue jeans and muddy boots.

Stunning video speaks to the challenges and opportunities for farmers waking up to the carbon storing potential of soil, and the need to manage not just the soil, but the planet.

Long, astonishing article in Politico, I’ve excerpted below, but do check out the whole thing.


The meeting last June in a wood-beamed barn in Newburg, Md., an hour due south of Washington, had all the makings of a secret conclave. The guest list was confidential. No press accounts were allowed. The topic was how to pivot American agriculture to help combat climate change — an issue so politically toxic that the current administration routinely shies away from promoting crucial government research on the issue. 

But this meeting represented a change. It was hosted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a group made up of the heavyweights in American agriculture. It brought together three secretaries of agriculture, including the current one, Sonny Perdue, among an A-list of about 100 leaders that included the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation — a longtime, powerful foe of federal action on climate — and CEOs of major food companies, green groups and anti-hunger advocates. 

Even a year ago, such a meeting would have been improbable, if not impossible. But the long-held resistance to talking about climate change among largely conservative farmers and ranchers and the lobbying behemoths that represent them is starting to shift. The veil of secrecy attested to just how sensitive the topic remains, but over the course of the two-day gathering, the group coalesced around big ideas like the need to pay farmers to use their land to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, participants told POLITICO. 

“It was a pretty serious meeting,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, and attended the gathering. “It was led by commodity groups and farm groups that didn’t waste a minute debating whether there’s a problem.” 

The June conclave isn’t the only sign that the agriculture industry is waking up on climate change after a truly terrible year in the farm belt, replete with historic levels of rain and disastrous flooding — a body blow that came right in the middle of a trade war. 

In Nebraska, farmers are exploring ways to reorient their farms to focus on rebuilding soil and sequestering carbon — a buzzy concept known as regenerative agriculture. In Florida, where rising sea levels are not a hypothetical discussion, farmers and ranchers have recently launched a working group to discuss climate change and how agriculture can help. Similar groups have cropped up in North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri and more states are expected to follow. In Iowa, faith leaders have been engaging farmers on the topic, hosting discussion groups in churches and building a network of farmers who are comfortable speaking publicly about climate change, whether it’s telling their story to reporters or 2020 Democratic candidates.

At the end of November, Gaesser convened 75 farm leaders to talk about climate-smart agriculture at Iowa State University. Representatives from both of the state’s GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst’s offices attended, as well as Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne. Gaesser said he’s seen an acceleration of interest in talking about climate issues from his peers and commodity groups this year. 

“I think the movement is growing,” Gaesser said. 

“Everybody I talk to, including farmers, they say ‘yeah we need to talk about this,” he added. “We need to find ways to adapt to what’s going on. We’re seeing things we’re not used to seeing.” 

Climate change has been a politically fraught topic in farm country for decades. 

Rural communities tend to be overwhelmingly Republican, which is one reason why talking about climate change has been politically taboo. It’s seen as a Democrat thing. Dig a little further, though, and the resistance runs much deeper than party politics. In many ways, climate change denial has become a proxy for rural Americans to push back against out-of-touch urbanites, meddlesome environmentalists, and alarmist liberals who are seen as trying to impose their will on small towns and farming communities they do not understand. 

Farmers have long felt unfairly blamed for all manner of environmental ills, from drinking water contamination in Iowa to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s impossible for many to reckon with the fact that farming the land they love using widely-accepted growing practices could result in such destruction. It all feels like another attack on their way of life and their livelihood. 

“We agriculturalists get blamed for everything,” said Jim Strickland, a rancher whose family has been raising cattle in Florida since before the Civil War. 

The sense of urgency that many activists bring to the climate change issue also fits with what some farmers see as a familiar pattern of dire environmental predictions that haven’t panned out. Jim Mundorf, an Iowan who raises cattle on his family farm and makes Longhorn art, last summer took to his website Lonesome Lands to explain why he is so skeptical about an area of science that he admittedly knows little about. 

“I’m not denying the climate is changing,” he stated. “I’ve been told there were once glaciers where I am sitting. I’m not denying that humans have an effect on the climate. What I am saying is, I don’t know. What I do know is that for 30 of my 39 years on Earth, climate ‘scientists’ have been saying we have 10 years left.” 

His post links to a 1989 Associated Press story which cites a senior United Nations official warning that “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000.”

“The environmentalists have been crying wolf, so loudly for so long that fewer and fewer people are listening,” Mundorf declared. 

And then there’s the matter of blaming cows for climate change, which has become a third-rail issue for many farmers and ranchers who are quick to point out that American livestock production represents only a small fraction of overall emissions in the U.S., though beef production stands out as carbon- and water-intensive compared to many other types of food. Globally, raising livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. But the fact that do-gooder billionaires have urged a transition away from meat sparks charges of hypocrisy, particularly in the livestock sector. Richard Branson, for example, has given up beef and invested in the development of cell-based meatwhile he also owns an airlines and a space company, both of which have a substantial carbon footprint.

Dairy farmers are already going under at a steady clip as consolidation and overproduction have driven prices below the cost of production for many. Suggesting that dairy cows were to blame for climate change at a time when the bottom is falling out of the industry didn’t sit well. 

But despite the intense resistance to outside criticism, another narrative has been forming across much of the agriculture sector — one powered in part by the destruction wrought by catastrophic weather this year and by a growing recognition that farmers and ranchers should take control of the issue and make sure that any policy fixes work to their advantage. 

It’s been a long six years since there was a major survey of farmer sentiment on climate change, but even back in 2013, researchers found that about 75 percent of corn and soybean farmers in Iowa believe climate change is occurring, though only a slim portion — 16 percent — thought it was mostly caused by human activities. Only 3 percent believed that climate change was not occurring. 

Farmers’ own experience of extreme weather appears to play a significant role in their beliefs. The 2013 survey of Iowa farmers showed that the proportion who believe climate change is happening had jumped by about 6 percentage points since 2011. Those who believe climate change is occurring and primarily driven by human activities also went up, from 11 percent to 16 percent. The portion who responded that there is not enough evidence to know whether climate change is occurring also dropped, from 27 to 23 percent.

Now, on the heels of a year that brought record rain, too much and too fast, across much of the Corn Belt and beyond, some are predicting that farmer sentiment will shift significantly again. This year, the weather was so awful that a record 20 million acres couldn’t be planted — more than twice the previous record. Another large Iowa farmer survey will measure attitudes on climate change in 2020. 

“Experience with drought and excess rain matters a whole lot,” said Lois Wright Morton, a recently retired sociologist at Iowa State University who spent her career studying how and why farmers make certain decisions. 

Sentiment varies quite a bit depending on what kind of crop the farmer is growing, she noted. Concern about climate change among conventional corn and soy growers, for example, has lagged significantly behind growers of specialty crops like apples and strawberries in part because corn and soy have been bred to be very resilient in the face of too much or too little moisture. 

Once farmers recognize that weather patterns are changing in a significant way, the next hurdle is to get past pointing fingers. 

“Farmers know that variable weather is increasing,” Morton said. “I’ve never talked to one who doesn’t. They know the climate in their region is changing. The conversation they feel is not well established is whose fault it is. It’s not even productive to talk about whose fault it is…if you want them to adapt.” 

“We have to jointly figure out how to do this and laying blame doesn’t get us there,” she continued. “Laying blame polarizes us. This blame aversion is a human response, not a farmer response. None of us want to be blamed.” 

Morton is now working with Solutions from the Land, a non-profit group hosting farmer-led discussions on climate change all over the country, including in Iowa, Florida, North Carolina and Missouri. The discussions are generally not focused on the causes of climate change, but instead on helping farmers recognize that their experience with unpredictable and extreme weather is similar to their neighbors and then what can be done going forward.

While individual members of the alliance — the powerful pork and beef lobbies — aren’t particularly comfortable using the term climate change freely, at the June meeting the group debuted a five-minute promotional docudrama that calls on American agriculture to fight climate change specifically — and framed the fight as source of renewed purpose for farmers who are struggling financially right now. The video, which says we have “30 harvests” to transform the sector, has been viewed on YouTube and other platforms more than 1 million times. 

The mighty American Farm Bureau Federation, which boasts nearly 6 million members, even promoted the video on its blog, with a guest post from Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance: “U.S. farmers and ranchers are signaling a change – we have to stop talking and start taking action, because time is of the essence,” she wrote. 

A decade ago, the Farm Bureau and its network of members was crucial in tanking a bill to cut carbon emissions on Capitol Hill, a move that fits a long pattern of opposition to federal environmental mandates. Right now, no one expects the group to change its stance on Capitol Hill. It is currently holding meetings with lawmakers to preemptively knock the Green New Deal by arguing that the agriculture sector is already doing quite a lot. 

“As we see a discussion gearing up, we want to make a space for us to be in that discussion,” said Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations at the Farm Bureau. This year, the group convened nearly two dozen farm and commodity associations to try to find common ground on climate issues. The lobbying materials they’ve come up with are vague and don’t use the term “climate change.” 

A more stark conversation is starting to percolate at the state level, however. And state farm bureaus ultimately drive federal farm bureau policy. 

In Iowa, for example, the state farm bureau is not diving headlong into the climate change discussion, but dipping its toes in it. As Gaesser explained it: “It’s a slow process there. That big ship takes a long time to turn.” 

“They’re hearing from their members and seeing that their members are concerned and willing to talk about it,” he added. “It’ll change and pretty soon they’ll take a hold of it.” 

A few weeks after the meeting on Bowling’s farm, Martha Shulski, Nebraska’s state climatologist, was excited to give a presentation on climate science to an influential policy committee within the Nebraska Farm Bureau. 

It was surprising that she had even been invited. As is still true in many states, the Nebraska Farm Bureau is simply not comfortable talking about climate change, and it’s gotten even more prickly after this year’s catastrophic flooding, which prompted a deluge of questions from the press. Thousands of acres along the Missouri River remain underwater after record-breaking flooding last spring and the region is bracing for another wet winter and spring. Thousands more acres were simply too wet to be planted, leaving farmers with significantly less income after years of struggling with low prices. 

Still, climate change is a politically toxic issue in the Cornhusker State. The Nebraska Legislature has repeatedly killed a bill to require the state to come up with a climate plan — something Shulski has supported. 

When she arrived to give her talk to farm leaders in early August, Shulski immediately noticed that there was no flooring in the conference center where they were meeting in Kearney, Neb. — it had been ripped out after being damaged under several feet of water. 

“Standing there looking at this bare floor, I thought: I’m going to mention this because intense precipitation is going to increase,” Shulski recalled. 

“I had people who came up and said ‘thanks, that was a great presentation,’ ” Shulski said. “ ‘I read your monthly weather summaries — those are great.’ ” But she also fielded questions from skeptics. Shulski suggested she understands why many Nebraskans don’t trust the science, especially if they don’t hear anything different within their own echo chamber. “Within their circle, there’s no change agent.” 

It’s impossible to blame climate change for any single weather event — something Shulski makes clear in her talks — but climatologists have documented more intense rain events across much of the Midwest. It’s becoming much more common to see storms that drop several inches of water in a matter of hours, which is too much for the watersheds to handle. 

Kearney was at a fitting place to talk about how these extreme weather events fit into a broader pattern of change. The area had already flooded twice in the last few months. When the city flooded in July, the National Weather Service reported that the area had gotten more than 4 inches of rain in short order. The average precipitation for the entire month of July in Kearney is just over 3 inches. In nearby Loomis, residents saw nearly 9 inches of rain. 

The extreme weather has sparked an increased interest in climate change in the state. Shulski and her colleagues in the state climate office, which is located on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus, say they are getting roughly double the inquiries they did a year ago and more groups are asking for presentations on climate change, she said. There’s also been an increase in local news outlets interested in running segments on climate change, she said.

5 Responses to “30 Harvests: Farmers Waking up to Climate Challenge”

  1. Keith Omelvena Says:

    “the agriculture industry is waking up on climate change after a truly terrible year in the farm belt, replete with historic levels of rain and disastrous flooding” Shame these “conservative” morons didn’t act 30 years ago, before the destruction of their industry was already a certainty? Being blind to reality=conservative apparently.

  2. Regarding action on climate change, it basically boils down to waiting for leopards to start eating the right people’s faces.

  3. jimbills Says:

    It is a long read, but very worth it.

    The mentions of ‘blame aversion’ and the fear of mandates are critical to understanding why the rural sections of the country lean so heavily towards climate change denial and voting Republican. It’s really important for the liberal and urban areas of the country to understand that these are just people trying to make a living – denigrating them only serves to further isolate them and create more hardened beliefs.

    75% of Iowa farmers know climate change is happening right now, but only 16% believe it’s human-caused. That’s huge, and there’s a reason for it. Farmers know the seasons far better than most. They can see with their own way what is happening. But when they get constantly blamed, and as they are in their own echo chambers (as most to all people exist within others echo chambers, including us), they react against the blame being heaped on them and form beliefs about the cause of the change.

    A vital, and absolutely necessary step, would be governmental payouts for no-till and cover crop practices. There’s no blame there. It supports farmers and it helps fight climate change. Total win win.

    I don’t believe soil carbon sequestration is a major answer to climate change, but it is definitely something that would help in multiple ways environmentally – not just on climate change. The video overplays the superhero thing and the promise of sequestration, but it’s still touching.

    Last paragraph of the Politico article is worth repeating:

    ‘“It’s not about turning people into Democrats,” said Russell. “It’s about building on-ramps. It’s too important to leave it in political corners.”’

    The Republicans have and will block helpful measures on this. But change the people’s attitudes about all this, and the Republicans will have no choice but to change as well.

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    His post links to a 1989 Associated Press story which cites a senior United Nations official warning that “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000.”

    That’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. The latency in the system means that flattish island countries like the Maldives, Nauru, etc., still might have been wiped out if the CO2 level was kept at the ~370 ppm, though it would have taken longer for the planet to reach that state.

    • jimbills Says:

      Yeah, I was thinking that as well. It’s just a matter of time as far as sea level. People discount sea rise claims as alarmist if it doesn’t happen immediately, when it’s really a centuries long process.

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