Climate Change Comes To America’s Heartland, Putting Farmers At Risk

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Climate change is having an impact on farming communities all across America and its effects are threatening to disrupt the way farmers earn their living, according to a research study by scientists at Cornell University. Many believe farmers are climate change deniers but that is a misconception. Because they make their living from the land, they are the first to notice the tiny changes that add up to major alterations in the way they conduct their business.

Farmers and Climate Change

Farming Isn’t For Sissies

People who belittle farmers have never tried farming for a living. It’s a tough, backbreaking business that carries with it the risk of punishing economic setbacks. They are intimately connected to the land they farm, and benefit from generations of experience gained by their forebears. Every planting season, farmers sow their crops in the hope of earning a profit, but they often find themselves with little to show for their efforts at harvest time.

Growing crops successfully is subject to the weather — too much rain, too little rain, and temperatures that are either too hot or too cold — can turn months of work to dust. Through it all, modern farmers often have loans outstanding to pay for their equipment, fuel, seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides. It is not unheard of for them to have a total outstanding indebtedness of a million dollars or more.

Farmers as a group tend to be conservative. Not the radical conservatism of the current Republican party but a distrust of fast buck artists, freeloaders, and city slickers who look down the stem of their wine glasses at people in rural America. They don’t change their minds about things very easily, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be convinced when the evidence is presented in a compelling fashion — something that Mother Nature is doing right now.

The Cornell Study

Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, assistant professor of applied economics and management at Cornell, wanted to assess the impact extreme weather is having on agricultural productivity in the United States. The study collected data from every state over a 50-year period and includes not just crops but livestock as well.

“We’re trying to get a big picture idea of what is going on,” he says. “The data captures every state’s agriculture over the past 50 years. If you see in the aggregate data that something big is happening, this really captures massive processes that are affecting many people at the same time.”

In the Midwest, Ortiz-Bobea says rain-dependent field crops like corn and soybeans have become increasingly vulnerable to warmer summers. The data shows that in the 1960s and 1970s, 2º Celsius rise in average temperatures in the summer resulted in an 11% drop in productivity. After 1983, however, the same rise in temperature caused productivity to drop 29%.

The historical record shows such periods of warmer weather usually occur just 6% of the time, but here’s the scary part. The researchers predict that an additional 1º Celsius of warming would more than quadruple the odds of such a drop in productivity happening. The result? Diminished yields every four years. “Losing almost half your profit every four years? That’s a big loss,” says Ortiz-Bobea.

“Specialization in crop production is a compounding factor,” he says. “Most of the agriculture in the Midwest is corn and soybeans. And that’s even more true today than it was 40 years ago. That has implications for the resilience to climate of that region, because they’re basically putting all their eggs in one basket and that basket is getting more sensitive.”

A Conversation With A 5th Generation Farmer

His words of warning are borne out by Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer with 2,500 acres under cultivation in the Missouri River valley. A former president of the Missouri Farmers Union, he tells The Guardian, “When I was a kid, my dad would say an inch of rain was a good rain. That’s just what we needed. Now we get four inches, five inches, six inches in one sustained wet spell that lasts two or three days.

“I don’t ever remember that as a boy. I’ve never seen the sustained wetness in the land that we have now. Even though the river hasn’t gone on the land, it’s raised the water table so that the rains that we’ve had this fall, which have been unusually heavy, make it muddy. Continually muddy,” he says.

“The changes have become more radical. The way the rains come down and the temperatures. You’re constantly trying to manage it,” said Oswald. “There’s so much unknown about the weather now that it’s pretty hard to do much about it.”

His son, Brandon, who works the family farm with his father, kicks at the soil with the toe of his boot and says, “If you look at this, it’s pretty dry right on top but not too far down it’s mud. Two weeks ago there was water standing here from all the rain and the inability of the soil to absorb that much moisture because the level of the river was such that the water level was pretty close to the top of the ground here.

The increasing frequency of heavy rain means farmers like Oswald have less time to get their seeds in the ground and less time to harvest crops when they are ripe. They are investing in new — and expensive — farm equipment that can do both jobs more quickly.

Climate Change And The Midwest

Gene Takle is one of the authors of the National Climate Assessment released a few weeks ago, the one Donald Trump dismissed by saying with a curt “I don’t believe it.” Takle attributes the increased rainfall in the Midwest to two factors.

One is rising temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. He says for centuries, the Gulf’s waters have been carried as moisture into the Midwest, delivering the consistent rainfalls that made the region America’s — and the world’s — breadbasket.

But as the water temperatures have risen, the amount of water vapor over the Gulf has increased. Enter factor #2. Takle says climate change has moved the Bermuda High, which normally sits above the Atlantic Ocean, westwards and closer to a band of low pressure over the Rocky Mountains.

That has created higher wind speeds across parts of the Midwest which in turn have intensified the flow of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. The result is heavier rains dumping huge amounts of water onto fields in America’s heartland coupled with rising temperatures.

Building Bridges Instead Of Walls

Donald Trump may not believe the National Climate Assessment, but Richard Oswald is seeing the proof first hand. “This year we saw 100 degree temperatures in May, which is very unusual,” he says. “I don’t ever remember that in my lifetime or even heard about it. That’s a first ever.”

Ten years ago, Oswald was undecided about climate change but his attitude has changed over time. “At a certain point you just have to look at what’s going on in your own world and try to decide what you think the impacts of that are,” he says. As president of the Missouri Farmers union, he had some success in getting a discussion going among its members.

But politics keep many of his fellow farmers from wanting to hear what climate scientists are saying. “One of the problems farmers have is when we start talking about environment, a lot of times Sierra Club comes to mind and Sierra Club is pretty radical in their approach. When you have a group that says cows are the problem, you need to get rid of all the cows, and raising corn is a problem, we need to get rid of all the corn, then you’re not going to have a lot of farmers who want to join in and follow you.”

But with changes in weather come changes in attitudes. The problem for farmers is what to do about climate change other than selling their farms and becoming factory workers. “A lot of them will say there’s nothing we can do about it so we might as well not worry because we can’t have an impact, we just have to live with it,” Oswald says.

As farmers spend more money on equipment and seeds to maintain current crop yields, the message of the climate scientists is beginning to sink in. “It’s become almost an annual assault on their ability to produce good crops,” he says. “So they are now starting to ask questions and I think are listening a little more to what the scientists are saying about the potential future.”

An Opportunity For Progressives

farm and renewable energy

The lesson to be gleaned from Richard Oswald is that progressives are making a serious blunder by demonizing members of the farming community. These people could be the swing voters needed to break the corporatist tyranny being visited on America by Donald Trump and his forces of evil.

Alienating farmers is a poor long term strategy. There are any number of ways that farmers and people concerned about climate change could work together to see that both groups get some of what they want. Rental and lease payments from renewable energy developers could stabilize farm income, providing those who till the soil with a reliable base income that would alleviate the financial worry that is part and parcel of everyday life for many farmers.

Corn doesn’t mind growing near a wind turbine and many farm animals can thrive in the company of solar panels. The trick is not to attack these people and drive them away but rather to bring them into the fold and show them how they can contribute to a more sustainable world without forfeiting their livelihood.

Farmers are America’s original entrepreneurs. They are skilled at business and masters of problem solving. They can and should be an integral part of the green revolution. There is an old line in sales that goes like this: “Don’t turn prospects into suspects.” We need farmers and we need to integrate them into the pursuit of a sustainable environment.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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