Farmers to Trump: Don’t Walk Away from Climate Action

April 19, 2017 | 3:48 pm
Jeff Vanuga/USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

There’s a little good news from farm country. Last week, the National Farmers Union (NFU)—a grassroots organization representing 200,000 farmers, fishers, and ranchers with affiliates in 33 states—publicly urged President Trump to keep the United States’ commitment to global climate action.

I was thrilled, and a little surprised, though I shouldn’t have been. NFU has supported the Paris Agreement since its adoption in 2015, and the nation’s second-largest farm organization is progressive when it comes to environmental issues. Still, the NFU’s strongly-worded statement was a good reminder that farmers aren’t a monolith, and that while some farm groups have their heads stuck firmly in the sand, there’s hope for a future in which farmers help avert the worst impacts of climate change on the land and our food supply.

NFU farmers are climate leaders

In his statement last week, NFU president Roger Johnson put it simply: “The Paris Agreement is vital to enhancing the climate resiliency of family farm operations and rural communities, and it allows family farmers and ranchers to join carbon sequestration efforts that stimulate economic growth in rural America.”

At its annual convention in March 2016, NFU members voted to “lead the way” on climate change. The policy resolution they adopted notes that farmers and rural residents are “a large part” of the climate solution because of their role in generating renewable energy and sequestering carbon in soils. It commits NFU to educating its own members about ways they can “adapt to the effects of climate change on their respective operations, as well as the enormous economic benefits that homegrown renewable energy brings to our rural areas.”

And it endorses policy solutions, including a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and voluntary conservation practices that focus on water quality and quantity concerns. Not least, the NFU resolution urges Congressional funding of land-grant universities and the USDA “to do the necessary research to help farmers and ranchers better increase the water holding capacity and resiliency of our nation’s soils through changing cropping patterns, production and conservation practices, and carbon sequestration.” (Otherwise known as agroecology. Nearly 500 scientists agree.)

A year later, NFU is making good on its commitment. In addition to the statement about Paris, the organization has launched a petition calling on Congress to include “opportunities to enhance climate resiliency and mitigate climate change” in the 2018 farm bill. That petition has more than 30,000 signatures. And through its Climate Leaders program and Facebook group, NFU has created a forum to spread awareness and spur action by farmers.

Climate action is good for farmers

NFU says it’s taking this stand because its members are on the front lines of climate change, and are already feeling the volatility of our changing climate. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the nation’s farmers not only can be part of the climate solution, but they must in order to survive.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the media, as evidenced by a spate of recent coverage. A fifth-generation Iowa farmer describes (here, also cross-posted here) the climate challenges and opportunities he sees for himself and his fellow farmers. The New York Times earlier this year identified a subset of farmers in conservative states who are practicing climate-friendly agriculture without ever talking about the climate. And the Huffington Post has the stories of six farmers who are taking a whole range of actions on their land—employing water-conserving practices, or diversifying crops—in order to increase their climate resilience. (One of them even has a 35-page climate adaptation plan!)

Denial and delay put farmers at risk

At the same time, too many farmers will not publicly acknowledge climate change. An annual survey of Iowa farmers asked respondents about their views on climate change in 2011, and again two years later. The 2013 results moved slightly in the direction of agreement that climate change is happening and that humans are mostly to blame. Still, only 16 percent of farmers surveyed took that view, while a much larger fraction of respondents—nearly a quarter!—agreed with the statement that there is “not enough evidence to know with certainty whether climate change is occurring or not.”

This misperception is aided and abetted by the nation’s largest and most powerful farm organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation (Farm Bureau, for short). A lumbering dinosaur, the Farm Bureau continues to pretend climate change isn’t really happening, or if it is, no one can really know why. A cynical policy statement on its website sows doubt: “Some scientists,” the statement says slyly, have connected human activities to increased average global temperatures, and “some scientists” have predicted more extreme weather. Then it cuts to the chase: “Imposing regulations based on unproven technologies or science causes increased costs to produce food, feed, fuel and fiber without measurably addressing the issue of climate.” (emphasis added)

Such rhetoric inflames the worry of many farmers that accepting the reality of climate change will make them vulnerable to new costs, a very serious concern right now with rock-bottom prices for farm products, farm incomes plummeting, and debt escalating. That’s why it’s important to point out how climate-smart farm practices can help farmers save money on input costs, improve soil health, and perform better in drought and flood conditions. And how, instead of imposing new costs, this kind of farming could create new revenue streams for environmental services.

Farmers need information and technical support

While some farmers are plowing ahead with climate action and others are following the Farm Bureau’s non-lead, a third subset is uneasy about what climate change will bring but unsure of what to do. And this group hasn’t received enough help to date. Yes, the Obama USDA boosted climate-related research—spending more than $650 million since 2009, according to then-Secretary Vilsack last year—and in 2014 established a network of regional “climate hubs” to translate science into practical advice and assistance to farmers. But the nation’s farmers need even more information, education, and support, and they need to be hearing about the need for climate action from people they trust.

Unfortunately, President Trump and his agriculture secretary nominee Sonny Perdue (who may finally be confirmed by a Senate vote scheduled for next week) aren’t exactly inspiring confidence on that front. Like his would-be boss, Perdue has a history of public climate skepticism, and it’s an open question whether he’ll move to reverse progress made by his predecessor to help farmers cope.

All this is why NFU’s vocal support for real action to combat climate change and adapt to the reality of our climate future is so important.

So today I’d like to say thank you to the 200,000 farmers of NFU. We need you, and we’re glad to stand with you.