Corn Belt Farmers Respond to Climate Change

January 15, 2014
Gabrielle Roesch
PhD Student Iowa State University, Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Sociology

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.