Most Farmers Still Doubt They Have Anything To Do With Climate Change

Devastation from extreme weather events like Hurricane Matthew isn't changing their minds, either.
The flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew has been responsible for 26 deaths in the state of North Carolina.
The flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew has been responsible for 26 deaths in the state of North Carolina.

To say it’s been a busy harvest season for North Carolina farmer Peyton McDaniel would be an incredible understatement.

It’s been several days since Hurricane Matthew brought heavy rains to the state that killed at least 22 people, but farmers throughout eastern North Carolina and other regions the storm impacted are still racing to salvage as much of their crops as they can and minimize their losses.

For McDaniel, that’s meant a typical five- or six-day work week at his family’s 2,000-acre farm operation in the town of Whitakers has become a round-the-clock, seven-day affair marked by 18-hour work days navigating muddy fields and flooded roads. The 26-year-old is exhausted.

All the extra rainfall caused many of McDaniel’s crops, like his cotton and peanuts, to germinate early. He expects both crops to take a major hit due to the storm. He also anticipates that his sweet potatoes, still submerged in muck, to suffer immensely. If they stay there too long, they’ll rot.

“Right now, we’re doing the best we can,” McDaniel told The Huffington Post by phone Thursday. “This year might not be the year that everybody is running to the bank, but the bank may be running after you.”

McDaniel is not alone. It is also feared that millions of livestock have died in storm-related flooding. And state agriculture officials expect the impact of the storm will be felt for some time to come, causing millions of dollars in losses.

Hurricane Matthew is just one of many extreme weather events that has had a tremendous effect on U.S. farmers’ operations this year.

In the Northeast region, farmers have struggled with the worst drought they’ve seen in more than a decade. Historic flooding in southeast Louisiana caused an estimated $110 million in agriculture losses. And farmers in California are still dealing with the ongoing drought as it enters its sixth year, costing the state’s industry some $600 million this year.

While no one weather event can be directly tied to climate change, an increasing number of scientists are describing a link between our warming planet and extreme weather like droughts and floods. 

A report released last fall from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine claimed that climate change is making events like these both more common and more extreme. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration came to a similar conclusion in its analysis of 2014 extreme weather and climate events.

For his part, McDaniel doesn’t think climate change had anything to do with the devastation brought to his farm. His family has been farming its land since 1756 and has seen all sorts of weather across all those decades, he noted.

“I don’t think you can point to global warming or a manmade problem on this,” McDaniel added. “It’s more of a cyclical thing.”

The minimal amount of existing research on the topic shows that most farmers would probably agree with McDaniel, even though their industry is both uniquely vulnerable to extreme weather and a significant source of climate change-causing greenhouse gases.

Many farmers would agree that weather patterns are changing and extreme weather is increasing, but most don’t think these have anything to do with human activities, according to Dr. J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., a sociology professor at Iowa State University.

“Farmers in general are taking extreme weather more seriously,” said Arbuckle, who has interviewed and polled farmers in the Corn Belt region on the issue. “But most of them are more in line with there maybe being a human cause, but probably some natural cause to it.”

That could be changing, at least slowly. A 2011 poll of Iowa farmers found only 11 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that climate change is occurring and “is caused mostly by human activities.” Two years later, the poll asked the same question and found that 16 percent of respondents agreed. 

Many farmers are also warming up to agricultural practices like cover crops and reduced tillage that not only make their farms more resilient to extreme weather, but can also reduce greenhouse gases

In Iowa, farmer participation in conservation and pollution reduction programs aimed at encouraging these types of practices is on the rise. The number of cover crops planted in Iowa increased 35 percent last year, for example. 

Progress can also be seen through initiatives like the Risky Business Project, which has seen global agribusiness firms like Cargill partner to support research into the relationship between climate change and agribusiness in the Midwest. 

“It’s coming along but, perhaps like it is in all sectors of society, it could happen a lot faster and probably needs to happen a lot faster,” Arbuckle said.

Some national farm groups have been slow to address the issue.

American Farm Bureau, the nation’s largest farm organization, has expressed skepticism about the impact U.S. action on climate change would have on global temperature or extreme weather events and is opposed to any efforts to regulate the industry’s emissions. The Farm Bureau did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment for this story.

Other organizations are taking a more proactive approach. The National Farmers Union, a group representing some 200,000 farms throughout the country, maintains a Climate Leaders hub. It shares resources on climate change with its member farmers and encourages farmers to consider adopting more “climate-smart” practices. 

Thomas Driscoll, the union’s director of conservation policy and education, admits that many farmers remain hesitant to discuss climate change openly.

But shifting the conversation away from that particular term, he believes, can still have a similar outcome of encouraging some of those practices without alienating farmers who aren’t on board with the climate science. 

“We find more and more that focusing on trends in weather and talking about disaster-resilient farming is more effective than talking about ‘climate change,’” Driscoll told HuffPost.

But in the longer haul, Driscoll believes it’s important to name the problem exactly what it is. And there’s still some way to go on that front.

“Where you can, you really need to get the full climate message across,” Driscoll said “and then we’ll be able to take a more holistic approach and work with the whole picture, rather than just treating the symptoms.”



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