Corn Belt Farmers Respond to Climate Change

Gabrielle Roesch, PhD Student
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UCS | January 15, 2014, 5:28 pm EDT
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My family’s direct ties to the land ended generations ago, yet I have been drawn to agriculture, food production and the broader issues of natural resource management since I was a child. It likely started picking raspberries for my grandmother on Long Island, and was further fueled by a food security fellowship in Zambia and Ethiopia.

This orientation towards the land has currently led me to Iowa State University and the Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture, exploring large-scale conventional agriculture in the Corn Belt.  My background and experiences led to my dissertation research project aimed at exploring what Corn Belt farmers think about global climate change, its impact on their farming operation(s), and how they are adapting to and responding to climate change.

Climate Change and Corn Belt Agriculture

Climate models more or less converge on a future scenario for the US Corn Belt that will be driven by greater climate extremes, including increased variability in timing and amount of precipitation and larger fluctuations in temperature. Climate change will have mixed impacts on agricultural producers in the U.S. with some winners and some losers. Some research suggests that greater concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere and a longer growing season could enhance productivity in parts of the Midwest, but these gains could be offset by greater climate extremes. Many scientists and policymakers are concerned about the long-term resiliency of corn-based cropping systems due to climate-change-induced weather variability.

For example, most soils in Iowa and the rest of the Corn Belt are degraded as a result of compaction, loss of soil organic matter, and other issues related to intensive production. Of particular focus is concern regarding increased erosion, with climate models predicting greater erosivity potential in rain, snow and wind events. We might expect then that soil health will decline due to climate change unless measures are taken to enhance the resiliency of our soils.

No-till corn ground

Photo by Gabrielle Roesch

Adaptive strategies are needed, including reduced/no-till, extended rotations, cover crops, tile drainage management (e.g. bioreactors, controlled drainage, restored/constructed wetlands), and precision agriculture among other practices aimed at reducing erosion, nutrient loss and increasing soil health. My current work explores factors that are driving farmer adaptation to climate change, including what kinds of practices they employ and their motivations for doing so. My research consists of survey analysis of nearly 5,000 farmers across the Corn Belt and interviews with close to 200.

Originally, as I began my research I had assumed that many of the adaptation strategies that farmers employ will drive greater resiliency with concomitant environmental benefits. However, my preliminary reading of the data is that this may not be the case in many regions, as farmers respond to greater weather variability by maladapting through increased tillage due to more intense spring rains or limited cover crop plantings due to fall drought. This could exacerbate the projected impacts of climate change and reduce the overall resiliency and health of the Corn Belt region.

Incentives for resiliency

I believe that farmers across the Corn Belt ultimately care about soil health and take seriously their identity as stewards of the land. However, just because someone has a set of values doesn’t mean they can or will always act in adherence to those values. Other factors drive behavior on the landscape, including Farm Bill policy (conservation compliance being a key issue), incentives for conservation, crop insurance policy, increased costs of production among other structural issues related to agricultural policy, and cultural factors such as farmer identity.

From my standpoint as an emerging scholar and citizen, it seems obvious that we must empower farmers to consider new standards for land management by promoting incentives that drive greater resiliency on the landscape while also providing disincentives for behaviors that negatively impact commonly shared resources such as watershed health.

Being part of the solution

I am inspired to think creatively about how scientists, particularly emerging scientists at the outset of their (my) careers can engage earlier and more meaningfully in a dialogue about how to address social and ecological challenges. Doing so without being afraid that our perspectives will be considered biased and non-academic is a challenge. Clearly there are wicked problems associated with climate change, agricultural externalities (declining water quality, soil loss, etc.), and corporate consolidation in the food system. Existing and emerging scholars in sustainable agriculture fields must rise to the challenge and assist policymakers and research institutions in developing solutions that address systemic issues as well as knowledge and adoption of new management practices that will ensure more resilient landscapes. Working towards these aims is something that I will continue to explore, holding true to that little girl with raspberry stained hands.

Learn more about UCS’s plan for healthier food and farm solutions. If you’re interested in using your expertise to become more involved in science-based policy making on this issue, please email the Science Network.

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  • These are huge questions, and Gabrielle is brave to take them on. My view is that the biggest farm policy issue related to climate change, (the biggest policy issue in the farm bill,) is a policy that doesn’t exist. It’s the absence of market management (Price Floors and Ceilings, supported by Supply Reductions and Rerverves, respectively, as needed). I see almost nothing written on this, (including in the sustainable agriculture movement and in the agricultural academic world). Congress reduced (1953-1995) more and more these programs then eliminated them, starting in 1996. We see the results much better in hindsight. For example, we’ve lost our livestock, (cheap, below cost feeds for CAFOs, cheaper than farmers can raise them,) with only 4 corporations owning most US hogs, for example. This then removes a large part of the economic justification for Resource Conserving Crop Rotations, as farmers no longer have any use for hay, straw and feedgrains. This then has led to the increasing dismantling of the infrastructure, (on and off farms,) for these kinds of farming. Ditto for our knowledge base for real “farming,” as opposed to “producing” or “growing.” Absurdly, one major policy step in this radical reduction in farm resiliency and flexibility was called “freedom to farm.” Subsidies, the topic that everyone talks about in the farm bill, have little to do with these changes. They merely reduced the rate of decline in crop farm incomes (but not the benefits to CAFOs and other commodity buyers). Most farmers that might be surveyed likely would have little to say about this story, as they’ve never heard it framed in this way. So far, in Iowa, corn and soybean farmers seem to have largely escaped the consequences of climate change. We’ve seen 1 big drought year, and one harvest season with one of the wettest Octobers on record (2009?). They’ve been able to get a crop in the ground and harvest it. Meanwhile, for those who farm all summer long, we’ve had some horrible wet years, throwing a wrench into small grain and hay production. So organic (and similar) farmers seem to have been the ones who have been hurt most. One other issue continues to be tax loss farming, where people with large off-farm incomes have had a huge advantage. While regular subsidies come at a lower rate for big farms, tax subsidies are 4 x bigger in the biggest tax bracket vs the smallest. With recent higher prices, those in need of write-offs have bid up land prices, so as not to pay taxes.

  • JackWolf

    When I read about how we have experienced yet another climate record, or another quake undoubtedly caused by injection wells, or any of the many record breaking weather events of late, my heart sinks. And, they just keep coming on, and on, and on..
    I get this sickening pit at my bottom of my stomach that won’t go away. And, I fear that if I don’t do something, my punishment will be Al Gore haunting me in the afterlife. Forever and ever. Now, I just can’t let that happen, can I? He’s much too professorial to be much fun I’m sure, and when I die (most likely in a new record breaking beyond biblical climate event), I just want to have fun. So, no Al please, not that, anything but that.

    As such, I have decided to participate in the Great March for Climate Action that begins in March and comes to my state in October. I don’t want to go, I have better things to do, but I must and so I shall. It is for all of our sakes, young and even the old at this point. And to get that Al out of my future dead head.