|How a closed-door meeting shows farmers are waking up on 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.
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.”
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.”