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Why Don't Farmers Believe in Climate Change?

Environment  (tags: animals, climate-change, CO2emissions, conservation, destruction, ecosystems, energy, environment, globalwarming, habitatdestruction, nature, pollution, protection, science, Sustainabililty, water, weather )

- 1766 days ago -
If it isn't torrential downpours, then it's too dry. If there's one thing US farmers can count on, it's bad weather, and perhaps as a result, many of them don't think humanity is to blame for the long-term shifts in weather patterns known as climate-->

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Kit B (276)
Monday July 22, 2013, 11:15 am
Photo Credit: Austin Venues

This story first appeared in Slate and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

If it isn't torrential downpours, then it's too dry. If there's one thing US farmers can count on, it's bad weather, and perhaps as a result, many of them don't think humanity is to blame for the long-term shifts in weather patterns known as climate change. But even though agriculture is a major contributor to global warming, it may not matter whether farmers believe in the environmental problem.

Take, as an example of skepticism, Iowa corn farmer Dave Miller, whose day job is as an economist for the Iowa Farm Bureau. As Miller is happy to explain, it's not that farmers in Iowa don't think climate change is happening; it's that they think it's always been happening and therefore is unlikely to have much to do with whatever us humans get up to down at ground level. Or, as the National Farm Bureau's spokesman Mace Thornton puts it: "We're not convinced that the climate change we're seeing is anthropogenic in origin. We don't think the science is there to show that in a convincing way." (Given the basic physics of CO2 capturing heat that have been known for more than a century and the ever-larger amounts of CO2 put into the atmosphere by human activity, it's not clear what "science" he's holding out for.) The numbers back that up: When Iowa State University sociologists polled nearly 5,000 Corn Belt farmers on climate change, 66 percent believed climate change is occurring, but only 41 percent believed humans bore any part of the blame for global warming.

It's not just the Corn Belt: Farmers across the country remain skeptical about climate change. When asked about it, they tell me about Mount Pinatubo and weird weather in the 1980s, when many of today's most established farmers were getting their starts. But mostly I hear about cycles in the weather, like the El Niño–La Niña cycle that drives big changes in North American weather. Maybe it's because farmers are uniquely exposed to bad weather, whether too hot or too cold. Almost any type of weather hurts some crop; the cereals want more rain, but the sweet potatoes like it hot and dry.

Year-to-year variability in the weather dwarfs any impact from a long-term shift in the climate. Consider this: A farmer in Iowa might deal with a 10-degree-Fahrenheit shift in average temperatures from year to year, so why worry about a 3- or even 4-degree shift over 100 years? As the old saying goes: If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.

The long-term prediction for the Corn Belt in Iowa says that the weather will get hotter and drier—much like western Kansas is currently. Yet, over the decades of Miller's farming career, conditions have been increasingly wet. "If I had done what climate alarmists had said to do, I would have done exactly the wrong thing for 20 of the last 25 years," Miller says.

Miller doesn't speak for all farmers, of course, and there are few less monolithic constituencies. This is a group whose holdings range from a small farm in the Northeast following biodynamic principles to big agricultural outfits that count farmed land in square miles, not acres. A fifth-generation wheat farmer in Oregon, like Kevin McCullough, might say, "I think it's just normal swings in the weather." But an organic farmer in upstate New York who is the first in recent family history to work the land would say, "There is a scientific consensus that there is a change of climate even in light of the fluctuations that naturally occur."

The latter is my brother, Tim Biello, and part of why he got into farming in the first place was to do something hands-on about climate change. He wanted to farm with less fossil fuel and fertilizers by working with horses and to use locally available resources to provide food for his neighbors. But he also sympathizes with his big farming peers: "People who have to work for a living and make hard choices about using this or that feel like they are up against the wall when other people, who maybe are removed from work like farming, say this is good or bad."

Tim is not a random sample, of course. But big farmers certainly aren't skeptical about all science, particularly the kind of science that makes them money by improving yields. "Last year's drought was in many places as deep as it was in 1933, and yet we didn't see too many stories of blowing dirt storms," like in the "dirty '30s," notes former North Dakota farmer Robert Johnson, now head of the National Farmers Union. Breeding and genetic modification have brought crops resistant to drought and flood, as well as insect pests. Also important are better tilling practices, such as leaving a cover crop or stubble to hold down the soil, which helped the dirt stay in place. Even in the depths of the 2012 droughts, the United States delivered an abundant harvest.

But the biggest change delivered by science to farming in the past century is the one my brother is working to reverse: the advent of fossil-fuel-powered machinery and fertilizer wrested from the air by chemistry. That, along with cutting down forests to make room for farms around the world, makes agriculture the second-largest cause of the greenhouse gas emissions changing the climate. There's methane from massive meat farms and manure lagoons. There's nitrous oxide—yes, the stuff used at the dentist's office—seeping out of the soil thanks to all that nitrogen fertilizer, and it's no laughing matter since N2O is nearly 300 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a century.

Few would have to change their livelihoods as radically as American farmers if efforts to combat climate change became more serious. Maybe skepticism also flourishes because farmers tend to be more conservative, and denying climate change falls under the same political umbrella as, say, gun ownership. (According to Robert Carlson, who leads the World Farmers Organization, farmers in other countries are more likely to believe in climate change, and many feel they are already facing new weather extremes.)

But even if American farmers don't believe in climate change, there are reasons for them to behave as if they do. The Agriculture Department has begun incorporating climate change into its projections and outreach, such as encouraging no-till practices where applicable. Oregon wheat farmer McCullough is following their advice to reduce tillage, which helps keep the soil from blowing away like it used to do in his forefathers' time, burying the farmhouse in silt that had to be shoveled out. He can now skip the three or four tilling passes in his tractor in favor of clearing a field with herbicides and then using an air drill that injects the wheat seed and fertilizer together. "It's more fuel efficient," he says. Plus, the USDA also provides financial and technical assistance to those who adopt the new practices. "It's cheaper to farm that way, and you still get the same type of crop, if not a bit better."

The key to feeding 7 billion people in a post-climate-change world will be diversity of crops, which will help ensure resilience. To take the example of the farm my brother works, a dry year might see a better crop of sweet potatoes while a wet year promotes the growth of cereal crops. Weather is always changeable and unpredictable in the long term, which means a farmer must take good care of the soil so that the soil can take good care of the farmer when the weather turns challenging.

In other words, many American farmers—even those who would question whether climate change is man-made—are already doing exactly what efforts to combat climate change would require: precision agriculture to cut back on fossil fuel use, low or no-till farming, cover crops, biodigesters for animal waste, and the like. The key to reaching farmers is bringing them practices that improve their farms. "If you can help me deal with weather variability," Miller says, "I can probably adapt to climate variability."

"You've got so much to do anyway, trying to figure out rotations and moving animals and crops through and taking good care of your land and making enough money," says my brother. "It's unclear what the point of talking about climate change would be." Or as I would put it: If many farmers are doing the right thing anyway, does it matter why?

By: David Beillo | Mother Jones |

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. In July, Future Tense will be publishing a series of pieces on agriculture and climate change.

Ben O (171)
Monday July 22, 2013, 11:33 am
I wonder why so many farmers don't believe in organic farming...?

Yvonne White (229)
Monday July 22, 2013, 11:54 am
The "farmers" are mostly sharecroppers for Big Agribusiness. But Big Agribusiness is the only "science" they care about. Sure, meterologists are handy for warning about the Next killer tornado or hurricane, but Monsanto has the patented seeds for surviving that!;) I think "real" farmers know there's climate change & don't care whether it's man-made or not, all they care about is IF they can feed their families AND the world. Organic farming can be done, but on a MUCH reduced scale (Big Abribusiness farms THOUSANDS of acres, organic farmers usually can only handle 20-40 acres tops - but they are More Efficient in using their land!:)

Yvonne White (229)
Monday July 22, 2013, 11:56 am
Sorry about the sloppy edit!:)

Kit B (276)
Monday July 22, 2013, 12:01 pm

Organic farming is just not profitable, not yet. Though individuals and groups can farm for organic foods as a cooperative effort.

Yvonne White (229)
Monday July 22, 2013, 12:17 pm
ALL my flowers & strawberries & tomatoes are organic. But it's very difficult & I don't know how my relatives did it 30 years ago! It's a LOT more work to keep everything nice looking & weed free is impossible (I'm way too lazy for this!;) I can't Imagine doing 5 acres or more this way..but I'm sure people do! Here in the boondocks there are so many critters stealing crops - from raccoons to deer, etc. Worse than Politicians!;)

Past Member (0)
Monday July 22, 2013, 12:46 pm
Just to combine a few thoughts that other commentators have mentioned: organic farms are much more resilient to the vagaries of weather. That being said, maybe American farmers still believe they have the luxury of not believing in climate change. Nonetheless, at the rate at which climate change is accelerating...they don't have to believe, reality will hit them in the face soon enough.

. (0)
Monday July 22, 2013, 4:16 pm

Eternal Gardener (745)
Monday July 22, 2013, 4:37 pm
Profitability needs to be replaced by sustainability!

Peta Clarke (30)
Monday July 22, 2013, 5:32 pm
This article has a very board statement on farmers and farming. It rambles on and on. Please don't insult farmers for lack of common sense, understanding of the land and wanting to protect the land. Maybe a few hard core rednecks but not all. I have the greatest respect for farming communities and how hard the have to work.
No more broad statements.

Kit B (276)
Monday July 22, 2013, 6:09 pm

It's quite normal to speak with generalized statements when talking about many and not one or two specific people and the author was not condemning just explaining. If you read the note below the article you can see these conclusions are based on university studies.

Rose Becke (141)
Monday July 22, 2013, 6:20 pm
I do feel for farmers

Jeanne R (1203)
Monday July 22, 2013, 6:25 pm
It seems that no one cares until it' too late.

Robert Tomlinson (62)
Monday July 22, 2013, 8:27 pm
Maybe the farmers will lead the way in helping to making improvements to help reduce the problems of climate change. After all, they are the ones who have the most to lose.

Sheila D (194)
Monday July 22, 2013, 10:37 pm
I agree with Robert that the farmers will be an important part of the solutions needed, but ony a part.
Noted - good article.

Monica D (580)
Monday July 22, 2013, 10:48 pm
Climate change is very concerning. We all need to do our part.

Kerrie G (116)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 12:41 am
Noted, thanks.

Ada P (25)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 2:59 am
It's hard for a lot of people to understatnd, that not having Spring anymore is somehow connected to their doings...

Jonathan Harper (0)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 4:27 am

Gene Jacobson (290)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 6:41 am
I grew up on a farm, a family farm, that which barely exists anymore as monoliths have bought them out and taken their place. But I was absolutely not surprised by this reaction amongst farmers. They are heavily republican church going people. They are stubborn, want government out of their lives, absolutely cannot work for anyone else as they can't bear being told what to do, by anyone. They are strongly independent and will work 24/7 for themselves and will do so, they are self-starters and believe in the power of what they can see and the traditions they grew up in. In the city, where I have been since the service, I have found another group much like the farmers I grew up with. These are the ones who work for themselves, small business owners, independent sales, CEO's all share the same characteristics as farmers and have the same opinion of government. Leave us alone and let us work. Not long term thinkers, very long term thinkers, I mean. Yes, they see seasonal variations but they have never seen them like they are now. "Organic" farmers are of a quite different makeup, they tend to be socially conscious and purposefully healing toward the earth. Their solution to a bad season is not to dump more fertilizer and pesticides on next season. That the "bread basket" is so heavily republican is explained, for me, just by observation as I grew up and listening to my grandfather's low opinions of government telling him what to do. Some of that will change, more will accept the science as the storms grow fiercer and the weather wilder. It is beginning to happen now, but one of their traits is stubbornness and it takes a long time to move opinion. It will move though, it can't not, smaller growing seasons, entire seasons wiped out by torrential downpours and/or tornadic activity, year after year, will bring that shift about. Once or twice is a fluke and their own oral history proves it, but year after year, well that is what will cause the change. Which will likely be far too long after the tipping point has been reached if it has not already...

Sandi C (98)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 7:38 am

TOM T (246)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 7:50 am
Interesting article,
Thank You for sharing.......

Inge B (202)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 8:55 am
Gene, you are so right, but here in Europe farmers have become bought by EU grants and is now completely controlled by money.
I'm an organic-biological growers and we are also guided by grants


S S (0)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 10:55 am
Thank you.

Twyla Sparks (208)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 12:09 pm
thank you

Past Member (0)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 1:31 pm
I must be totally spaced today, but I can't honestly say I even understand what this article is trying to say.
I DO know that no one spoke to us Pennsylvania farmers. Now we're just a bunch of local yokel small-time family farmers ~ many of us Amish ~ who have farmed and cared for our land for generations. We've always done the *right thing*, we're not very modernized, we tend to not go in for modern contraptions and fertilizers and pesticides. We respect the land because it's our livelihood. I guess you could say we're natural-born organic farmers.
And we're worried to death about the effects of climate change ~ some that we're already seeing. And we know darn well it's a manmade situation. But......we're just dumb ole hillbillies..what do we know?

Andrs Yokers (6)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 2:23 pm

JL A (281)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 9:53 pm
interesting diversity of opinions

greenplanet e (155)
Tuesday July 23, 2013, 10:27 pm
Some are very conservative in their opinions.

Joanne D (38)
Wednesday July 24, 2013, 12:49 pm
If, regardless of what farmers believe, what they need to do to survive is the same things they need to do for the future of the planet, as far as I am concerned, they can believe what they want. But that would include voting for people who will support their needs, and not voting for people who won't.

Sherri G (128)
Thursday July 25, 2013, 1:08 am
Gene Jacobson is exactly right I couldn't agree more. Tried to send you and Kit stars but have to wait 24 hours. Thank you Kit Noted.

Past Member (0)
Thursday July 25, 2013, 5:22 am

Kit B (276)
Thursday July 25, 2013, 5:34 am

Different farmers different ideas. My step father and I talked about something being wrong with the climate 40 years ago. His first sign was in the Texas sage, it began (and stayed) to bloom at the wrong time of the year.
Farmers are far more apt to see things that happen in plants or animals, science is just catching up to the farmers. Others do put political allegiance first, that just might cloud their observations.
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