Farmers believe they can dodge climate risks, but they’re wary of government rules

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 13, 2013

Farmers and farm groups have usually been opposed to government climate policies. A new study finds they are not so much skeptics of climate change as they are about the rules that may come with them and how they might harm their business.

A group of researchers at the University of California, Davis, surveyed 162 farmers in Yolo County, Calif., comparing what growers thought about climate change, their willingness to participate in government-led climate programs and their takes on four different environmental regulations passed in the last 25 years.

This is one of the first, if not the first, academic papers to confirm the low concern farmers place on climate risks over regulatory ones, said lead author Meredith Niles, a doctoral student in UC Davis’ ecology graduate group.

“What we’re seeing here is that, frankly, the past matters,” she said. Farmers remember the burden of past regulations and worry more about those than the damage of droughts, floods or erratic weather.

The researchers used four California regulations to assess a farmer’s favor: a 1990 law mandating the reporting of pesticide use, a 1991 rule to control rice straw burning, a 2003 water quality conditional waiver program and 2007 regulations for stationary diesel engine air pollution.

Programs are fine; rules aren’t

In Niles’ study, 54 percent of the farmers interviewed believe that the climate is changing, and 35 percent agree that human activity is an important cause of climate change. But fewer than half of all farmers believed that any one of the four regulations was improving the environment. The water quality and diesel engine rules were the least popular with a 24 percent and 36 percent approval ratings, respectively.

Negative past experiences with regulations didn’t prevent farmers from wanting to change the status quo. Of all of the participants, 48 percent said they would agree to enter a government program for climate change adaptation or mitigation, Niles said.

“There is an opportunity for policy to promote incentive programs, whether technical or cost-sharing programs,” she said. “Because farmers do seem to be very interested in those.”

Overall, farmers were much less concerned about climate change risks — like fewer winter chill hours for trees, more heat waves and increased flooding. Niles and her co-authors, Mark Lubell and Van Haden, peppered the study with quotes from farmer surveys.

“We can adapt to the environmental aspects of climate change. I’m not sure we can adapt to the legislature,” one farmer said.

Niles performed a similar survey in New Zealand and is writing a draft of the results. She presented her findings at a conference in May. New Zealanders, it turns out, have similar concerns to California growers.

“Farmers care more about the regulations than the biophysical impacts of climate change,” she said.

A tradition of opposition

The survey was completed in 2011, five years after the California Legislature passed A.B. 32, the bill to create a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases. Farmers were still trying to understand how agriculture would play into the emissions trading system, Niles said.

In the past two years, the implementation of A.B. 32 has slowly begun to address agriculture, a $43.5 billion industry for the state. The California Air Resources Board could soon propose guidelines to generate offsets from reducing methane emissions in rice fields (ClimateWire, Aug. 20).

Meanwhile, President Obama has brought greenhouse gas regulation back to the national stage. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced a number of new initiatives to help farmers cope with a changing climate, including the establishment of regional hubs that would provide information to growers (ClimateWire, June 6).

But, like their members, farm groups remain opposed. For the American Farm Bureau Federation it’s been a tradition. The Farm Bureau heavily lobbied against the House and Senate bills to create a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases in 2009. It also rejected U.S. EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding, which established that climate change is a threat to public health.

“Most of our members understand, realize, that the climate has been changing, since the beginning of established agriculture,” said Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations for the Farm Bureau. “I don’t know if their alarm is as big as others.”

However, he said, the Farm Bureau does recognize that a cap-and-trade system can offer benefits to growers, who sequester carbon by planting crops and trees.

Farm Bureau members want easy access to the tools — biotech seeds or upgraded machinery, for example — to adapt to changing weather patterns, Walmsley said. But they don’t want to be stifled by regulation.

What’s the bigger risk?

The perceived severity of the risks of climate change varies, Walmsley said. But farmers see clear problems in climate regulation. EPA’s forthcoming regulations on new and existing power plants are no exception, especially in regions dependent on coal-fired electricity.

“A lot of our folks don’t have the luxury of having wind or nuclear,” he said. Dairies, temperature-controlled poultry houses and grain-drying units are examples of energy-intensive infrastructure.

J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., an associate professor and extension sociologist at Iowa State University, has done extensive research on how farmers view climate change. “Here in the Corn Belt, farmers have a long relationship with the government because of the farm programs,” he said. “There’s much less wariness of government than in other parts of country.

Still, though, the wariness is there. Rather than climate change, he added, Midwestern growers are more concerned about water quality regulations to curb runoff fertilizer pollution in rivers, lakes and oceans. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers create algae blooms that kill fish and can be toxic to humans.

Arbuckle surveyed 5,000 farmers across 22 Midwestern watersheds in February 2012. He found that two-thirds of farmers believe that climate change is occurring but 8 percent of the total thought it was mostly due to human activities.

A plurality of the total number surveyed — 33 percent — thought it was caused by a mix of natural and human influences. One-quarter believed it was strictly a natural phenomenon.

A small portion, 3.5 percent, of farmers didn’t think climate change was happening at all. The rest, 31 percent, were unsure.

“Those farmers that believe it’s primarily human-caused are much more supportive of mitigation, both individually and at the government level,” he said.

An attitude that comes with the land?

Some people call farmers gamblers because they are always betting on or against an imponderable: the weather. Arbuckle prefers to call farmers “professional problem solvers.” More than any other profession, he believes, “farmers are constantly adapting.”

Farmers who do believe in the advance of climate change are confident they will be able to beat it, Arbuckle said. One of the farmers quoted in the Niles study of California growers reflects this train of thought.

“I still have to be a farmer just like I’ve always been and I still have to react to it [climate change] and adapt to it,” the Yolo County farmer wrote. “But that’s been my business. In agriculture, you’re dealing with the weather, that’s what you have to deal with.”

Others, it seems, just can’t be bothered.

“For me, to be concerned about it [climate change] at my level and at my point, I don’t think it’s useful for me,” said another farmer in Niles’ study.” I have other more important things that affect my business or my family that I want to spend time on versus something that could happen ten thousand years from now.”

The study is published in the journal Global Environmental Change.