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

Dec 9, 2019 by

Politico

CLIMATE CHANGE

Perdue, Vilsack and leading agricultural groups gathered in a Maryland barn to talk about the farm-country issue that dare not speak its name.

 

farm-climate

The meeting last June in a wood-beamed barn in Newburg, Md., an hour due south of Washington, had all the makings of a secret conclave. The guest list was confidential. No press accounts were allowed. The topic was how to pivot American agriculture to help combat climate change — an issue so politically toxic that the current administration routinely shies away from promoting crucial government research on the issue.

But this meeting represented a change. It was hosted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a group made up of the heavyweights in American agriculture. It brought together three secretaries of agriculture, including the current one, Sonny Perdue, among an A-list of about 100 leaders that included the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation — a longtime, powerful foe of federal action on climate — and CEOs of major food companies, green groups and anti-hunger advocates.

Even a year ago, such a meeting would have been improbable, if not impossible. 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 a pretty serious meeting,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, and attended the gathering. “It was led by commodity groups and farm groups that didn’t waste a minute debating whether there’s a problem.”

The June conclave isn’t the only sign that the agriculture industry is waking up on climate change after a truly terrible year in the farm belt, replete with historic levels of rain and disastrous flooding — a body blow that came right in the middle of a trade war.

In Nebraska, farmers are exploring ways to reorient their farms to focus on rebuilding soil and sequestering carbon — a buzzy concept known as regenerative agriculture. In Florida, where rising sea levels are not a hypothetical discussion, farmers and ranchers have recently launched a working group to discuss climate change and how agriculture can help. Similar groups have cropped up in North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri and more states are expected to follow. In Iowa, faith leaders have been engaging farmers on the topic, hosting discussion groups in churches and building a network of farmers who are comfortable speaking publicly about climate change, whether it’s telling their story to reporters or 2020 Democratic candidates.

At the center of this shifting conversation are farmers themselves, such as Ray Gaesser, a political conservative who served on President Donald Trump’s agricultural advisory committee in the run-up to the 2016 election. Gaesser farms some 6,000 acres of corn and soybeans outside of Corning, Iowa, in the southwest corner of the state, and he’s become a vocal advocate for changing farm practices to not only improve soil health but also to sequester carbon.

At the end of November, Gaesser convened 75 farm leaders to talk about climate-smart agriculture at Iowa State University. Representatives from both of the state’s GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst’s offices attended, as well as Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne. Gaesser said he’s seen an acceleration of interest in talking about climate issues from his peers and commodity groups this year.

“I think the movement is growing,” Gaesser said.

“Everybody I talk to, including farmers, they say ‘yeah we need to talk about this,” he added. “We need to find ways to adapt to what’s going on. We’re seeing things we’re not used to seeing.”

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Farmers are tired of being blamed

Del Ficke, a vocal advocate of regenerative agricultural practices, smells the soil at his farm.| M. Scott Mahaskey
Del Ficke, a vocal advocate of regenerative agricultural practices, smells the soil at his farm where he raises cattle and crows corn, sorghum and other grains. Ficke is now also working as a regenerative specialist with Indigo Ag, a Boston-based company that’s enrolled 12 million acres in a carbon sequestration initiative. Photographed August 30, 2019 near Pleasant Dale, Neb. | M. Scott Mahaskey

Climate change has been a politically fraught topic in farm country for decades.

Rural communities tend to be overwhelmingly Republican, which is one reason why talking about climate change has been politically taboo. It’s seen as a Democrat thing. Dig a little further, though, and the resistance runs much deeper than party politics. 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.

Farmers have long felt unfairly blamed for all manner of environmental ills, from drinking water contamination in Iowa to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s impossible for many to reckon with the fact that farming the land they love using widely-accepted growing practices could result in such destruction. It all feels like another attack on their way of life and their livelihood.

“We agriculturalists get blamed for everything,” said Jim Strickland, a rancher whose family has been raising cattle in Florida since before the Civil War.

The sense of urgency that many activists bring to the climate change issue also fits with what some farmers see as a familiar pattern of dire environmental predictions that haven’t panned out. Jim Mundorf, an Iowan who raises cattle on his family farm and makes Longhorn art, last summer took to his website Lonesome Lands to explain why he is so skeptical about an area of science that he admittedly knows little about.

“I’m not denying the climate is changing,” he 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.

 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) | Getty Images
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, speaks as Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, right, listens during a news conference announcing Green New Deal legislation in Washington in February. | Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But almost nothing has provoked farmers and ranchers more than New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rollout of the Green New Deal last February. The resolution didn’t actually mention cows or livestock, but a fact sheet posted by Ocasio-Cortez’s office referenced the need to eliminate “farting cows.” Her office later said the document was posted by mistake, but the talking point had already spread like wildfire across news outlets and farm publications. The memes ran wild, as farmers mockingly pointed out that methane, a potent greenhouse gas released by livestock, is actually more of a burping problem.

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who served as Agriculture secretary during the entirety of the Obama administration and is now president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, recalled being at a meeting with several hundred western dairy farmers right after the Green New Deal had been released. A man stood up in front of the group and said “You’re a Democrat. Why are you trying to put me out of business?”

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.

Farmers’ own experience of extreme weather appears to play a significant role in their beliefs. The 2013 survey of Iowa farmers showed that the proportion who believe climate change is happening had jumped by about 6 percentage points since 2011. Those who believe climate change is occurring and primarily driven by human activities also went up, from 11 percent to 16 percent. The portion who responded that there is not enough evidence to know whether climate change is occurring also dropped, from 27 to 23 percent.

One big thing happened in between the two surveys: A devastating drought across much of the Midwest.

Now, on the heels of a year that brought record rain, too much and too fast, across much of the Corn Belt and beyond, some are predicting that farmer sentiment will shift significantly again. This year, the weather was so awful that a record 20 million acres couldn’t be planted — more than twice the previous record. Another large Iowa farmer survey will measure attitudes on climate change in 2020.

“Experience with drought and excess rain matters a whole lot,” said Lois Wright Morton, a recently retired sociologist at Iowa State University who spent her career studying how and why farmers make certain decisions.

Sentiment varies quite a bit depending on what kind of crop the farmer is growing, she noted. Concern about climate change among conventional corn and soy growers, for example, has lagged significantly behind growers of specialty crops like apples and strawberries in part because corn and soy have been bred to be very resilient in the face of too much or too little moisture.

Once farmers recognize that weather patterns are changing in a significant way, the next hurdle is to get past pointing fingers.

“Farmers know that variable weather is increasing,” Morton said. “I’ve never talked to one who doesn’t. They know the climate in their region is changing. The conversation they feel is not well established is whose fault it is. It’s not even productive to talk about whose fault it is…if you want them to adapt.”

“We have to jointly figure out how to do this and laying blame doesn’t get us there,” she 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.”

Leaders come together to push for change

Chip Bowling’s family has been farming in Charles County, Md., near the Potomac River, for seven generations. Hosting the June meeting on climate change on his family farm was among his proudest moments.

“I never thought we would have two past and one current secretaries of Agriculture at our farm on the same day,” Bowling said in an interview, noting his whole family was “elated” to host the gathering.

The exclusive event, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute, looked like a summer wedding set in an open barn, leaving guests exposed to the heat and humidity of the day. Food and farm leaders were seated at round tables with deep blue tablecloths and wildflower arrangements set under draped globe string lights. 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. Bowling was happy to report that even the CEOs took him up on it: “They were driving combines and sprayers,” he said. “They were like little kids on Christmas morning — like they got a new bicycle.”

Vilsack, 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.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue | USDA Photo by Preston Keres
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue jokes with former Agriculture Secretaries Tom Vilsack (L) and Dan Glickman (R) as they attend Honor the Harvest Forum, hosted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance at Bunker Hill Farm in Newburg, Md., in June. | USDA Photo by Preston Keres

“You can take me to any C-suite of any corporation, you can take me to the halls of Congress, you can take me to the White House, you can take me anywhere in this country and I’m telling you, meaningfully and sincerely, the most important work being done in America today is being done right here,” Vilsack said as he addressed the gathering, flanked by a green John Deere tractor.

Bowling, the host of the gathering, has for years been working to get agriculture to lean into engaging on climate change. When he led the National Corn Growers Association, the group launched its first climate task force, going out front on issues that agriculture has been slow to embrace. Now, as chairman of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, Bowling can press the issue in a broader way.

“We were trying to get together and prove that we can talk about tough issues,” Bowling said of the meeting.

“It takes a lot of leadership and a little bit of culture change to talk about it,” he said.

“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.”

Secretary Perdue also spoke at the event. The Georgia Republican has expressed strong doubts about climate science, and his own department has shown it’s skittish about pursuing the topic despite the fact that farmers are already being impacted. In his remarks, the secretary did not refer to climate change or talk about paying farmers for carbon sequestration or offer a list of things his department would do to help.

“We have a lot of challenges, but I think the one that we’re talking about today is one where we can work together,” Perdue said, according to an audio recording provided by USDA. The secretary emphasized that farmers can’t be sustainable without being profitable and he urged producers to become more engaged with the demands being made by consumers.

“No longer can we sit behind that farm gate and say ‘none of your business,’” he said. “It’s everyone’s business.”

Food and agriculture companies are scrambling to meet consumer demands for more sustainably grown food. A slew of major food-makers including Danone, General Mills and PepsiCo have made major commitments to slash their greenhouse gas emissions and work on soil-health initiatives. Corporate giants including McDonald’s and Walmart remain committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Climate accord even as the Trump administration formally withdraws from the pact. Nestlé, Mars, Unilever and Danone North America have broken from industry trade groups and formed their own alliance, in part so they can lobby Capitol Hill in support of climate policy.

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. Bowling 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.

“Everybody — non-farmers, the residents of Maryland — realizes the benefits of that,” he said, adding: “I’ve been preaching for years we need to be proactive, not reactive.”

The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance seems to be following the same mindset: Get ag groups to engage on climate change so they won’t be steamrolled by the policies that are likely to come down in the next few years. 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.

While individual members of the alliance — the powerful pork and beef lobbies — aren’t particularly comfortable using the term climate change freely, at the June meeting the group debuted a five-minute promotional docudrama that calls on American agriculture to fight climate change specifically — and framed the fight as source of renewed purpose for farmers who are struggling financially right now. The video, which says we have “30 harvests” to transform the sector, has been viewed on YouTube and other platforms more than 1 million times.

The mighty American Farm Bureau Federation, which boasts nearly 6 million members, even promoted the video on its blog, with a guest post from Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance: “U.S. farmers and ranchers are signaling a change – we have to stop talking and start taking action, because time is of the essence,” she wrote.

A decade ago, the Farm Bureau and its network of members was crucial in tanking a bill to cut carbon emissions on Capitol Hill, a move that fits a long pattern of opposition to federal environmental mandates. Right now, no one expects the group to change its stance on Capitol Hill. It is currently holding meetings with lawmakers to preemptively knock the Green New Deal by arguing that the agriculture sector is already doing quite a lot.

“As we see a discussion gearing up, we want to make a space for us to be in that discussion,” said Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations at the Farm Bureau. This year, the group convened nearly two-dozen farm and commodity associations to try to find common ground on climate issues. The lobbying materials they’ve come up with are vague and don’t use the term “climate change.”

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

In Iowa, for example, the state farm bureau is not diving headlong into the climate change discussion, but dipping its toes in it. As Gaesser explained it: “It’s a slow process there. That big ship takes a long time to turn.”

“They’re hearing from their members and seeing that their members are concerned and willing to talk about it,” he added. “It’ll change and pretty soon they’ll take a hold of it.”

‘Within their circle, there is no change agent’

Martha Shulski, Nebraska's state climatologist | M. Scott Mahaskey
Martha Shulski serves as Nebraska’s state climatologist. In the wake of devastating flooding this year, Shulski’s office has fielded more inquiries about climate change. | M. Scott Mahaskey

A few weeks after the meeting on Bowling’s farm, Martha Shulski, Nebraska’s state climatologist, was excited to give a presentation on climate science to an influential policy committee within the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

It was surprising that she had even been invited. As is still true in many states, the Nebraska Farm Bureau is simply not comfortable talking about climate change, and it’s gotten even more prickly after this year’s catastrophic flooding, which prompted a deluge of questions from the press. Thousands of acres along the Missouri River remain underwater after record-breaking flooding last spring and the region is bracing for another wet winter and spring. Thousands more acres were simply too wet to be planted, leaving farmers with significantly less income after years of struggling with low prices.

Still, climate change is a politically toxic issue in the Cornhusker State. The Nebraska legislature has repeatedly killed a bill to require the state to come up with a climate plan — something Shulski has supported.

When she arrived to give her talk to farm leaders in early August, Shulski immediately noticed that there was no flooring in the conference center where they were meeting in Kearney, Neb. — it had been ripped out after being damaged under several feet of water.

“Standing there looking at this bare floor, I thought: I’m going to mention this because intense precipitation is going to increase,” Shulski recalled.

“I had people who came up and said ‘thanks, that was a great presentation,’ ” Shulski said. “ ‘I read your monthly weather summaries — those are great.’ ” But she also fielded questions from skeptics. Shulski suggested she understands why many Nebraskans don’t trust the science, especially if they don’t hear anything different within their own echo chamber. “Within their circle, there’s no change agent.”

It’s impossible to blame climate change for any single weather event — something Shulski makes clear in her talks — but climatologists have documented more intense rain events across much of the Midwest. It’s becoming much more common to see storms that drop several inches of water in a matter of hours, which is too much for the watersheds to handle.

Kearney was at a fitting place to talk about how these extreme weather events fit into a broader pattern of change. The area had already flooded twice in the last few months. When the city flooded in July, the National Weather Service reported that the area had gotten more than 4 inches of rain in short order. The average precipitation for the entire month of July in Kearney is just over 3 inches. In nearby Loomis, residents saw nearly 9 inches of rain.

The extreme weather has sparked an increased interest in climate change in the state. Shulski 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.

The use of cover crops has grown considerably in the U.S. over the past several years. The number of acres utilizing cover crops jumped nearly 50 percent from 2012 to 2017, from just over 10.3 million acres to more than 15 million acres. Soil health advocates are thrilled at the progress that’s been made, but the practice is still used on just a small slice — just under 4 percent — of all U.S. cropland.

No-till has slowly grown in popularity over the past several decades. The practice is now used on about 37 percent of cropland in the U.S.

Other practices like more diversified crop rotations and rotational grazing are also gaining momentum across the Midwest as pioneers like Gabe Brown and Allen Williams, who were both name-dropped in an early Democratic debate, evangelize that radically rethinking farm practices to focus on soil health can help farms improve their profitability, in part by drastically reducing their reliance on expensive fertilizers and other inputs.

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.

Keith Berns, co-owner of Green Cover Seed, a seed company in Bladen, Neb. | M. Scott Mahaskey
Keith Berns, co-owner of Green Cover Seed, a seed company in Bladen, Neb., that has seen explosive growth in the past decade as demand for cover crops has grown across the U.S. Above: Berns is pictured on a company test plot for cover crops. Below: A machine sorts cover crop seed. | M. Scott Mahaskey

The effort is not explicitly about climate change, but it’s likely to promote many of the climate-friendly practices that advocates are pressing for.

“We can argue about who caused it,” said Keith Berns, co-owner of Green Cover Seed, a seed company in Bladen, Neb., that specializes in cover crop mixes. Berns is chairing the task force, which began meeting in August. “To me the solution is still the same. The solution is to put the carbon back in the soil. Even if you don’t think there’s global warming… don’t do it to reduce CO2 emissions. Do it improve your soil.”

Florida confronts a crisis that can’t be ignored

Brian Brhel, a longtime no-till, cover crop guru, at his family farm in Denton, Neb. | M. Scott Mahaskey
Brian Brhel, a longtime no-till, cover crop guru, at his family farm in Denton, Neb. where he’s been focused on rebuilding top soil. Brhel grazes cattle on a wide variety of cover crops (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico). | M. Scott Mahaskey

Down in Florida, ag leaders have been shocked at how quickly the conversation on climate change and agriculture has turned around in the state just in the past year.

Jack Payne, a senior vice president who leads the agriculture and natural resources division at the University of Florida, has for years wanted to focus more attention on climate change and how it is already — and will continue to — affect agriculture in Florida, an extremely diverse sector that spans from timber to cattle and tomatoes as well as the citrus that famously grace the state’s license plates.

“It was always something I wanted to talk about, but I got a lot of pushback from the producers,” Payne said in an interview. “Even after Irma caused $2 billion in damages, people were saying ‘well, it’s just weather.’”

Payne had become particularly frustrated that the ag sector in his state was perfectly willing to rally around the science backing the use of GMOs in agriculture, but then turn around and dismiss climate science as a bunch of malarkey. “You can’t pick and choose the science,” he said. “The belief system is so strong.”

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.

Earlier this year, Ernie Shea, executive director of Solutions for the Land, a non-profit that’s been facilitating farmer-led conversations around climate across several states, asked if the university would help set up a farmer dialogue on climate.

Payne was initially skeptical that there would be enough interest to put something together. “I said ‘Good luck!’ ” he recalled. But they decided to roll ahead, and got a $50,000 grant from the Ted Turner Foundation to pay for some meetings.

They put together a group of about a dozen farmers and ranchers for a day and a half-long meeting in February. The event began with producers sitting around a horseshoe-shaped table sharing their experiences with extreme weather events and also featured some presentations from University of Florida scientists about weather patterns and the consequences of sea-level rise and rapid change in Florida. For many in the room, it was the first time they’d ever discussed climate change in a professional setting. It simply wasn’t something you’d find at a farm bureau or run of the mill commodity group meeting.

“As the day wore on, you started getting more questions from the group, once we all warmed up,” recalled Jim Strickland, a longtime cattle rancher in Southwest Florida. “Keep in mind we’re lay people, we’re agriculturalists and cowboys… we weren’t picked because we were climatologists on the side. And that was a good thing.”

After a day of presentations, the facilitators asked the room of farmers if they’d be interested in continuing to meet about climate with the goal of forming a working group. Everyone in the room said they would. And then, as Payne recalls, a large blueberry grower raised his hand: “I just want you to know I’m not a flag-waving human caused climate change guy, but something is changing and it’s affecting my business and I need to learn about it.”

Still, Payne has heard from others in the state that disapprove of the effort. A large peanut grower in the state recently wrote him an email to express that he thought the university was wasting its time. So far, the Florida group has met three times this year, including once with Florida Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor, chairwoman of the House Climate Crisis Committee.

Strickland, who’s now co-chairing what’s morphed into the Florida Climate-Smart Agriculture Work Group, said he’s also taken a little heat for being associated with the effort. He might get teased by another farmer when it’s chilly out, for example: “It sure is cold, I could use a little global warming this morning!”

He laughs this off. But Strickland believes farmers and ranchers need to engage instead of dismissing climate change. “I’m not the guy building an arc and loading up animals two by two. I’m not the guy putting tin foil over my head, but I believe something is happening.”

In Iowa, a fight to pay farmers to draw down carbon

Cattle graze on lush cover crops in Denton, Neb. | M. Scott Mahaskey
Cattle graze on lush cover crops in Denton, Neb. | M. Scott Mahaskey

Over the past year, farmers in Iowa have been talking about climate change not necessarily at the county farm bureau meetings, but in churches. Fifth generation Iowan Matt Russell is adamant that farmers don’t need to be convinced about climate change — a narrative he finds patronizing.

“They get it,” he said in an interview. “What they don’t have is a space to talk about it.”

Russell leads a group called Interfaith Power & Light, which has been getting farmers together in small groups to talk about climate change in religious settings, an effort that’s built a network of his fellow farmers who are comfortable speaking publicly about the issue.

When Russell invites farmers to come to these meetings, he doesn’t shy away from using the term climate: “I say we’re going to talk about climate action,” he said. “I’ve had almost nobody turn me down. Almost to a person, I’ve had no one say I’m not interested — part of that is no one is inviting them to this conversation.”

Russell said he’s been surprised at just how quickly the debate has gone mainstream this year. 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.

As the concept takes hold among Democrats, however, there’s a deep desire to make the issue more bipartisan, to avoid the polarized framing that has plagued climate action for decades.

“It’s not about turning people into Democrats,” said Russell. “It’s about building on-ramps. It’s too important to leave it in political corners.”

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