How a closed-door meeting shows farmers are waking up on climate change

Source: By HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH, Politico • Posted: Monday, December 9, 2019

Perdue, Vilsack and leading agricultural groups gathered in a Maryland barn to talk about the farm-country issue that dare not speak its name.

But almost nothing has provoked farmers and ranchers more than New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rollout of the Green New Deal last February. The resolution didn’t actually mention cows or livestock, but a fact sheet posted by Ocasio-Cortez’s office referenced the need to eliminate “farting cows.” Her office later said the document was posted by mistake, but the talking point had already spread like wildfire across news outlets and farm publications. The memes ran wild, as farmers mockingly pointed out that methane, a potent greenhouse gas released by livestock, is actually more of a burping problem.

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who served as Agriculture secretary during the entirety of the Obama administration and is now president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, recalled being at a meeting with several hundred western dairy farmers right after the Green New Deal had been released. A man stood up in front of the group and said “You’re a Democrat. Why are you trying to put me out of business?”

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.

One big thing happened in between the two surveys: A devastating drought across much of the Midwest.

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.

“What we need are young farmers, middle aged farmers, old farmers to stand up and say this is my experience,” she said. “And I think that is what’s happening right now.”