March 1, 2014

Even while adapting, most Wisconsin farmers are climate skeptics

Graphic: Wisconsin growing season changes

Chris Kucharik / UW-Madison

Excerpt from a presentation by University of Wisconsin-Madison agronomy professor and climate researcher Chris Kucharik about climate change’s effects on Wisconsin agriculture.

Project: Water Watch Wisconsin

This story is part of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s ongoing coverage of water quality and quantity issues in Wisconsin. See more at the Center’s endocrine disruptors and groundwater quantity project pages.

Audio

Reporter Kate Golden interviewed researcher Paul Mitchell at UW-Madison’s Sustainability Forum 2014: “Don’t talk about climate change. Talk about the weather,” he says.

Most Wisconsin farmers remain skeptical about climate change, although data show they have already begun adapting to shifts in weather patterns, scientists said at a University of Wisconsin-Madison conference this week.

Farmers, the scientists said, are key actors in adapting to climate change or mitigating its effects. They manage 61 percent of the nation’s land. They are vulnerable to droughts, cold, heat and hail — crop insurance paid out $17.4 billion dollars in indemnities nationwide after the 2012 drought.

“Farmers are at ground zero for climate change,” said Paul Mitchell, an associate professor of agricultural and applied economics at UW-Madison, speaking Thursday to more than 100 academics and others at the university’s annual Sustainability Forum.

But they do not believe in it, by and large.

UW-Madison professor Paul Mitchell Feb. 27, 2014, at UW-Madison’s Sustainability Forum 2014. Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The upshot: “First thing about climate change: Don’t talk about climate change,” Mitchell said. “Whatever language you need to use to work with your audience — that’s the language you would use.”

In a 2009 four-state survey of about 1,300 farmers, published in the November 2013 Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics, less than half of farmers agreed that climate change had been scientifically proven.

The team found that about 42 percent of Wisconsin farmers said humans are changing Earth’s climate, while two-thirds said normal weather explains recent events.

The findings are consistent with another national study from 2012, which found 60 percent of farmers believed climate change was either mostly natural, not happening, or they were uncertain about it.

Other studies have shown about two-thirds of the general public believes in climate change.

While there were differences in perceptions based on age, education, farm size and other factors, Mitchell said the clearest finding was that farmers across a broad geographical swath — Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin — had similar beliefs, with a little less skepticism in North Carolina.

The survey, conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, had a 23 percent response rate. It omitted the smallest 20 percent of farms in each state.

The survey did not examine the reasons behind farmers’ views, but Mitchell said he had seen enough controversy to know that “it’s not a scientific issue; it’s a political position.”

Climate change in Wisconsin

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-established body that assesses the state of climate science, says climate change is under way and it is “extremely likely” that humans are the cause.

Global temperatures have risen about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, most in the last half-century. Wisconsin’s warming has roughly followed global patterns, and temperatures are likely to rise 3 to 9 degrees by midcentury.

In Wisconsin, climate change over the past half-century has meant fewer very cold winter nights, more annual precipitation overall, and a steady rise in the number of extreme rainfalls.

For farmers, the growing season has lengthened by one to four weeks since 1950.

Corn and soybean yields have risen, as has year-to-year variability in those yields. Some of the increase is due to better practices and technology, but earlier planting explained nearly a quarter of the increase in yields from 1979 to 2005, according to data from Chris Kucharik, a climate researcher in UW-Madison’s agronomy department who regularly gives talks on climate change to farmers and others.

Climate change could also affect weed and pest infestations and dairy productivity, according to the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, a public-private network intended to “generate and share information that can limit vulnerability to climate change.”

DATCP: ‘You lost the farming community’

Mitchell’s study calls the climate change debate “one of the most fundamental political debates of our era.”

But there is barely a peep about it on the website of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, which says it represents 44,000 families from farms of all sizes. Its parent, the American Farm Bureau Federation, is skeptical about climate change.

A web search turned up a handful of results, one of them including the state Farm Bureau’s terse official position on climate change: “We oppose climate change legislation at the state level that would increase costs to production agriculture. This issue needs to be addressed at the national and international levels.”

The group did not respond to calls Thursday afternoon or Friday morning.

Ben Brancel, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said he could understand why farmers were skeptical and said academics must “convince them that climate change is real in their world.”

“Farmers that have spent 40 days in wind chills below zero have a hard time translating climate change to their personal life,” he said.

Brancel agreed with Mitchell that it was time for a different tack.

“You lost the farming community,” he told the audience.

More slides from Chris Kucharik’s presentation show how farmers have begun planting corn earlier. Fall harvests have also gotten later, Kucharik said.

Brancel suggested that researchers talk to farmers about how to use less nitrogen and phosphorus, rather than climate change.

More heavy rains are expected to increase runoff of these nutrients, which cause murky surface waters, dead zones and fish kills.

Farmers will reduce usage if they can, because they will save money, Brancel said.

“If you do it correctly, you know what happens? The climate changes. And it changes without focusing on the climate change, but focusing on all the attributes that have impacted and affected climate change.”

Already adapting

Whatever they believe, Kucharik said, farmers are already adapting.

“Most of them will say no, I’m not really doing anything different. But the facts show that they’re planting earlier and earlier for their summer crops,” Kucharik said.

Kucharik said he tries to stress facts that farmers can relate to, like extreme weather events.

Mitchell’s strategy: Talk about the weather, a safer topic. Focus on adaptation — not mitigation, since that would require them to acknowledge humans have caused climate change. Listen to farmers, who have plenty of their own ideas about what sustainability means.

And focus on opportunity, he said. Like new potential markets.

“We used to have a large lettuce industry, but the Californians drove us out of business,” he said. “Maybe a drought or two (there) will drive us into business in lettuce.”

  • Glen Jenkins

    The 2009 article from the Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics is titled, “U.S. Agricultural Producer Perceptions of Climate Change”. This information was their “perceptions” from 2009. That leads one to wonder what their “perceptions” would be in 2013. After four years of drought and high temperatures their “perceptions” may have changed. This study goes on to say, “ the number of producers without any strong opinion cannot be ignored (21-31%). So, one fifth to one third of the people surveyed had no strong opinion, which is a significant number to discount.

    Their conclusion made these three points:

    • First, climate change is a gradual process with effects that are obscured by random weather events and cyclical climate patterns so that farmers are more skeptical about whether they are observing its effects (Weber, 1997).

    • Second, it appears that farmers with more assets invested in farming tend to be skeptical about the science of climate change but are likely to believe that normal weather explains recent climate changes. One wonders whether this skepticism about climate science provides a screen for those with a lot more at stake if
    mitigation policies were implemented such as a cap-and-trade policy.

    • The current research is only an initial step in understanding farmers’ perceptions about climate change and the possible strategies to implement climate mitigation/adaptation policies.

    The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) tells us these are the climate challenges we know farmers in Wisconsin will face:

    • For dairy cows, the best temperature range is between 32°F and 68°F,5 with any temperature above that potentially leading to heat stress. Heat stress can have significant impacts on farm economics, including food intake, milk production, and reproduction and death rates of dairy cows.

    • Prolonged drought causes aflatoxin mold on corn. Aflatoxins are most harmful to children and they can cause cancer. As a result of the drought last summer, milk and cheese had to be tested for aflatoxins in Iowa. That could easily become a problem in Wisconsin.

    • Dairy farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin have lost nearly 2 million acres of alfalfa to the long, icy winter (2012-13). The protein-rich alfalfa is an important food source for their cows, and it normally emerges after winter. But last year’s drought weakened the plants and the hard winter killed many of them. Farmers normally can harvest three or four cuttings of alfalfa in a normal summer. But this year, farmers who have to replant will be lucky if they get one or two — so they’re facing a short-term shortage and potential long-term problem should they be unable to replant.

    • Perhaps no other sector of the economy is more sensitive to climate than cropland. In 2012, record warm spring temperatures followed by a late spring frost decimated cherry crops, and severe drought conditions pushed much of Wisconsin’s corn crop past the point of return.

    • Changing conditions could bring new weeds and pests, and uncertain weather patterns may threaten the productivity of crops critical to Wisconsin’s economy.

    • Indeed, crop insurance losses in Wisconsin have been on the rise. Wisconsin was in the top 20 states suffering crop losses in 2012. Wisconsin’s crop insurance losses peaked during the heavy flooding year of 2008, at $258 million.

    Monsanto scientist David Gustafson writes that while our agricultural systems can adapt to the types of changes expected through 2050, “Beyond that time, modeling suggests that crop productivity in all regions could begin to be harmed by higher temperatures predicted for that period … unless successful greenhouse gas mitigation measures are implemented soon.”

    Businesses, farmers and citizens can no longer wait to deal with the issue of Global Climate Change-it is here and it is real. The Citizens Climate Lobby offers the solution of a Carbon Tax and Dividend to reduce and replace the use of fossil fuels. This is a fair and balanced approach to begin to effectively eliminate our carbon (CO2) emissions. Find out how you can get involved by going to their website at: citizensclimatelobby.org.

  • Lynn

    The greatest challenges farmers will have in the future will be soil depletion, aqua fir depletion and climate change. If it makes you feel better, global warming. If that bothers you– then how about “fluctuations in weather patterns”. The time for the debate on weather this is happening or not should end. Smart farmers are already trying to best prepare for the future and adaptations that may help in farming.
    Mother nature always bats last, in spite of mens best intentions to outsmart her.