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Deep Dive: Climate Change and U.S. Farmers

2020 Election Activities, Agriculture, Agriculture/Food Processing Residues nonfield crop, Farming/Growing, Federal Agency, Feedstocks, Field/Orchard/Plantation Crops/Residues, Florida, Forestry/Wood, Infrastructure, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Opinions, Other Conferences/Events, Policy, Presentations, Sustainability
December 9, 2019

by Kelsey Tamborrino (Politico’s Morning Energy) A meeting last June in Newburg, Md., represented a change for U.S. farmers, Pro’s Helena Bottemiller Evich reports . The event was hosted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a group made up of the heavyweights in American agriculture. It brought together three Agriculture secretaries, including current Secretary Sonny Perdue, as well as about 100 leaders that included the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation — a longtime foe of federal action on climate — and CEOs of major food companies, green groups and anti-hunger advocates. The topic? How to pivot American agriculture to help combat climate change.

“Even a year ago, such a meeting would have been improbable, if not impossible,” Helena writes. “But the long-held resistance to talking about climate change among largely conservative farmers and ranchers and the lobbying behemoths that represent them is starting to shift. The veil of secrecy attested to just how sensitive the topic remains, but over the course of the two-day gathering, the group coalesced around big ideas like the need to pay farmers to use their land to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, participants told POLITICO.”

“It was the most balanced meeting I’ve ever attended in terms of people from different parts of food and agriculture,” said Dan Glickman, who served as Agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration. He called the meeting “heartening.”

SEE IT: Net greenhouse gas emissions from human use of forest lands have fallen more than 40 percent since 1995, according to data from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. But, as Pro DataPoint’s Patterson Clark breaks down, net emissions from burning biomass and agriculture are holding steady.   READ MORE

How a closed-door meeting shows farmers are waking up on climate change (Politico)

 

Excerpts from Politico:  In many ways, climate change denial has become a proxy for rural Americans to push back against out-of-touch urbanites, meddlesome environmentalists, and alarmist liberals who are seen as trying to impose their will on small towns and farming communities they do not understand.

“I’m not denying the climate is changing,” he (Jim Mundorf, an Iowan who raises cattle on his family farm and makes Longhorn art) stated. “I’ve been told there were once glaciers where I am sitting. I’m not denying that humans have an effect on the climate. What I am saying is, I don’t know. What I do know is that for 30 of my 39 years on earth, climate ‘scientists’ have been saying we have 10 years left.”

His post links to a 1989 Associated Press story which cites a senior United Nations official warning that “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000.”

“The environmentalists have been crying wolf, so loudly for so long that fewer and fewer people are listening,” Mundorf declared.

And then there’s the matter of blaming cows for climate change, which has become a third-rail issue for many farmers and ranchers who are quick to point out that American livestock production represents only a small fraction of overall emissions in the U.S., though beef production stands out as carbon- and water-intensive compared to many other types of food. Globally, raising livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. But the fact that do-gooder billionaires have urged a transition away from meat sparks charges of hypocrisy, particularly in the livestock sector. Richard Branson, for example, has given up beef and invested in the development of cell-based meat while he also owns an airlines and a space company, both of which have a substantial carbon footprint.

Dairy farmers are already going under at a steady clip as consolidation and overproduction have driven prices below the cost of production for many. Suggesting that dairy cows were to blame for climate change at a time when the bottom is falling out of the industry didn’t sit well.

But despite the intense resistance to outside criticism, another narrative has been forming across much of the agriculture sector — one powered in part by the destruction wrought by catastrophic weather this year and by a growing recognition that farmers and ranchers should take control of the issue and make sure that any policy fixes work to their advantage.

It’s been a long six years since there was a major survey of farmer sentiment on climate change, but even back in 2013, researchers found that about 75 percent of corn and soybean farmers in Iowa believe climate change is occurring, though only a slim portion — 16 percent — thought it was mostly caused by human activities. Only 3 percent believed that climate change was not occurring.

“We have to jointly figure out how to do this and laying blame doesn’t get us there,” she (Lois Wright Morton, a recently retired sociologist at Iowa State University who spent her career studying how and why farmers make certain decisions) continued. “Laying blame polarizes us. This blame aversion is a human response, not a farmer response. None of us want to be blamed.”

Morton is now working with Solutions from the Land, a non-profit group hosting farmer-led discussions on climate change all over the country, including in Iowa, Florida, North Carolina and Missouri. The discussions are generally not focused on the causes of climate change, but instead on helping farmers recognize that their experience with unpredictable and extreme weather is similar to their neighbors and then what can be done going forward.

“What we need are young farmers, middle aged farmers, old farmers to stand up and say this is my experience,” she said. “And I think that is what’s happening right now.”

Instead of buttoned-up Washington-style panels, attendees were sent to breakout sessions that used extra-large neon Post-it notes for brainstorming. They were even asked to perform skits.

During breaks, attendees were invited to take a spin on farm equipment.

Vilsack (Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, now president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council) who served as Agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, was especially pleased to see every corner of the supply chain in one place. It simply doesn’t happen very often. Getting food from farm-to-fork is an incredibly complex and massive logistical dance, where food manufacturers and the farmers who produce the ingredients largely operate in different worlds. Agricultural commodity leaders are not often at the same table as the foodies and environmentalists trying to change their farming practices, often from thousands of miles away.

In the wake of all these commitments, many of these companies are increasingly recognizing they can’t meet their goals without significant changes to farming practices at the base of their supply chains.

In November, a consortium made up of agribusinesses including Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Tyson Foods as well as green groups like The Nature Conservancy announced it had raised $20.6 million to help stand up a new marketplace to pay farmers and ranchers for sequestering carbon and providing other environmental services. Half the money is from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which was created by Congress in the 2014 farm bill, and half matched from corporate and other contributions. The goal is to have a marketplace up and running by 2022.

There’s also been a rush of capital into the agriculture tech space that’s spurring more interest in carbon capture. Indigo Ag, a Boston-based tech company that was recently named the number one tech disruptor of 2019 by CNBC, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. This year, the company enrolled 12 million acres of U.S. farmland for its carbon sequestration initiative with promises to pay farmers $15 per metric ton of carbon they sink into their soil.

Still, for many farmers, there’s a deep worry that opening the door to talk about climate change will lead to burdensome mandates. (Chip) Bowling (former head of the National Corn Growers Association; chairman of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance) has been there. He’s already lived through a nearly two-decade fight over water quality in Maryland. Ultimately, the state adopted a mandate to manage nutrient runoff on farms with money to compensate farmers for adopting certain practices such as growing cover crops — a practice that dramatically cuts down on nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland now leads the country in cover crops. In 2017, a whopping 43 percent of farming acreage had a cover crop on it; in Iowa, by contrast, just 4 percent of acres utilized cover crops the same year, though the rate is increasing as the state reckons with its own water quality problems.

Bowling thinks the tug-of-war over water quality has made Maryland farmers more open to talking about climate issues. After all the stress about state mandates, farmers are now being paid to help solve the problem and they’re getting credit for all the environmental practices they’ve voluntarily adopted.

The House Climate Crisis Committee is expected to release a report with policy recommendations on how agriculture can mitigate and adapt to climate change in March — an effort that’s seen as laying the groundwork for when Congress is ready to legislate on the issue.

A more stark conversation is starting to percolate at the state level, however. And state farm bureaus ultimately drive federal farm bureau policy.

“They’re hearing from their members and seeing that their members are concerned and willing to talk about it,” he (Ray Gaesser, a political conservative who served on President Donald Trump’s agricultural advisory committee)  added. “It’ll change and pretty soon they’ll take a hold of it.”

The extreme weather has sparked an increased interest in climate change in the state. Shulski (Martha Shulski, Nebraska’s state climatologist) and her colleagues in the state climate office, which is located on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus, say they are getting roughly double the inquiries they did a year ago and more groups are asking for presentations on climate change, she said. There’s also been an increase in local news outlets interested in running segments on climate change, she said.

Elsewhere in Nebraska and across the Midwest, there’s a growing number of farmers who are changing how they farm to try to be more resilient to climate change and even to help mitigate it. Cutting back on tilling, or disturbing the soil, adding in cover crops to keep soil covered between traditional harvest and planting times are both practices that improve soil’s ability to handle either too much or too little rain — and they help farms sequester carbon, either by not emitting it in the first place (by not tilling), or by using plants to actually draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into the ground — a shrewd use of photosynthesis that if adopted at a wide scale could actually help offset the country’s emissions.

Agriculture may actually be offering Nebraska a politically palatable way to promote adaptation to climate change without using any such terms. The legislature appears to have little interest in adopting a climate plan, but lawmakers did pass a bill earlier this year to establish a Healthy Soils Task Force, which will make recommendations on how to improve soil health across the state. Nebraska currently lags far behind most other farm states in terms of cover crop adoption, for example.

But agriculture has recently been under fire in Florida in a way that it hasn’t been in years. Red tide and other toxic algae blooms have plagued the states waters, with devastating consequences for marine life, recreational fishermen and coastal residents. With many pointing the finger at farmers across the state for contributing to an overload of nutrients in the state’s waters, it’s created a bit of an opening to get farmers and ranchers to be more proactive on environmental issues.

There’s starting to be more attention given to how farmers are a key part of responding to climate change and much of the Democratic presidential field has now embraced the idea ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Several candidates, including the front runners in Iowa, have now formally backed paying farmers to adopt more climate-friendly practices as part of their platforms.  READ MORE

Farm State Voters Want Candidates to Talk Conservation (Our Daily Planet)

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