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From the Heartland: Farmers (2)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 12:20 AM GMT on June 23, 2013

From the Heartland: Farmers (2)

This entry starts from the comment from the previous entry by XuLonn

“Farmers, the military - many groups with a practical interest due to dependency on climate and weather are actively adapting to AGW/CC.

I'm curious about farmers and ranchers, who tend to be politically very conservative, especially in the south, and certainly in Indiana and the Midwest where I was raised.

Do they accept AGW/CC and adapt, or do they deny it and adapt anyway?”

For the past two or three years I have often been in the company of farmers along the Front Range of Colorado. Many of these farmers are from families who have been farming this land for a century or more. Others are owners of small farms that have started to provide local organic vegetables and meat to the line of cities and towns that follow Interstate 25. This region is not a easy place to farm: water is not reliable and depends on the snowfall and snowmelt in the high Rockies, it is 5000 feet above sea level and the sunlight is harsh, there are extreme fluctuations of temperature, the air is exceedingly dry, and hail is likely.

Many of the farmers I talk to tell me that weather is completely unpredictable beyond a week or two. They are used to dealing with harsh conditions and their consequences. Combining these two facts they don’t get too pressed about climate change; perhaps, it does not seem so different from the past. Plus there are larger threats from water-use policy, development, and land-use changes. I do note, anecdotally, that the farm that grows vast amounts of sweet corn a few miles down the road seems to play the weather and climate pretty well. They plant early or late with alarming skill and occasionally get a late harvest planted in July – not an easy achievement in Colorado.

On This American Life recently there was a show Hot In My Backyard. One segment featured the State Climatologist of Colorado, Nolan Doesken. All of the state climatologists I know have farmers as a primary clientele. Much of the segment on This American Life was on how to discuss climate change with farmers. For years in his annual presentation at the Colorado Farm Show, Doesken did not explicitly mention climate change.

2012 was a year of amazing wildfires in Colorado. 2012 was dry and hot in the late winter and spring and the fires started early. Increasingly, there is high vulnerability at the wildland-urban interface. In 2012 there was loss of life, record loss of houses, loss of forest and damage of watersheds. June 11, 2013 was one of those days that had the feeling of the proverbial end times, with fires breaking out all over the state. One in the Black Forest destroyed 511 houses (breaking 2012's record) and killed two people. In the This American Life radio segment, Nolan Doesken talked about how the 2012 fires changed the way he would talk about climate change. His own observations and reports from firefighters about how the nature (ferocity and speed of increase) and the season (not just summer) of the fires were changing convinced Doesken that we were already living the world that the climate models were describing. “He (Doesken) realized, if the climate models are right, he was seeing the future. Seeing where Colorado was headed-- droughts and dead crops and fires-- and it was horrible.” Doesken did mention climate change in the 2013 Colorado Farm Show. The fires of 2012 brought it all together in a way that made it clear.

The best work that I know of about farmer’s opinions on climate change comes from Iowa State University professor, J. Gordon Arbuckle. In a 2013 paper in Climatic Change, Arbuckle and colleagues reported that 68% of farmers he surveyed in Iowa believed that the climate was changing. 28% were uncertain and only 5% believed that the climate was not changing. With regard to attribution, 10% felt that climate change was caused by humans, 23% felt it was natural, and about 35% felt it was caused by both human and natural causes. (Summary Article and Press Coverage )

These numbers are consistent with numbers from other polls, which show relatively large percentages of those in the farming community in both groups of whether or not climate change is occurring. The numbers that I have looked at show that the group that believes climate change is occurring is generally larger than the group that does not. The group that attributes climate change primarily to humans is always a minority, but that group combined with those who believe there is a human component in association with non-human fluctuations is usually 50% or larger.

I end this piece pointing out that both Nolan Doesken and J. Gordon Arbuckle work out of extension services at state universities. Polling results show that extension services are the source of information about climate change most trusted by farmers. Looking at the numbers of farmers who are concerned about climate change, there are obviously many farmers who are also able to be good messengers. This piece, Farmer’s Voices too Often Missing in Climate Reporting, highlights the need to engage these voices more actively in the public discussion. In the next entry I will talk about some of the ideas suggested by these polls.


Some good references:

Climate and Farming

Farming Success in an Uncertain Future (Cornell)

USDA Warns Farmers about Climate Change (and announces plans to set up climate change centers)

Reinventing Farming for a Changing Climate (NPR)

Farm Level Adjustments to Climate Change (USDA)

Climate Change More Expensive to Farmers than Climate Bill

Climate Impacts and Risks Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.