How Should We Talk About Climate Change With Farmers?

by Kristin Hyde via Climate Access

At a gathering of ranchers in Kansas City last weekend, every meeting and meal was opened with a prayer, including a plea for rain to end this devastating drought.  Drought-caused price spikes for feed are forcing many livestock producers to slaughter their herds to a level they can afford to feed.  You won’t often see a direct link in these stories to climate change, and you are even less likely to hear such a link made by the farmers and ranchers themselves.   The key is to understand farmers’ perspectives, be strategic about effective engagement and find common ground.

Farmer Attitudes

While working to help the David & Lucile Packard Foundation develop their grantmaking program aimed at improving the environmental footprint of agriculture, I was part of a team that researched the attitudes of conventional farmers on issues such as conservation programs, subsidies, and climate change.  Through dozens of interviews with producers mostly in the Midwest in 2010, we came away with valuable insights that should be taken into consideration when developing strategies to engage farmers and ranchers in environmental issues, and particularly the climate issue.

Most of the farmers we talked to participated in both federal farm subsidy programs and conservation programs, most were large — average 2400 acres — and many were under age 65, excited about technology, embracing thoughtful change in operations, and internet savvy.  Many have “conservation-positive” perspectives, have adopted no-till practices (that reduce soil erosion, water input, air pollution and climate impact from fuel used to till), were open-minded about farm policy changes, and only mildly anti-government. They are proud of their role as “stewards of the land.”

Climate Change is a non-starter

Despite this pro-conservation bent, very few farmers believe climate change is a serious issue caused by human behavior.  Most feel it’s a “political ploy” by Al Gore, and most echoed similar talking points about “natural cycles.”  Even believers warn against “being fanatical.”   And while most don’t believe ethanol is the answer to energy independence, they support biofuels as a market, which has provided a much-needed additional source of income.

Language is critical

The words “environment” or “sustainable” can mean very different things to them.  For most, “sustainable” means being able to keep their business running for another year.   Many farmers feel the public doesn’t understand or appreciate them for the hard work they do as stewards of the land, the financial risk they take on, and their dedication to producing abundant, safe, affordable food.

Many farmers also hold the belief that environmental regulations are part of the reason they are struggling to make ends meet.   How much truth that belief has doesn’t really matter.  To change production practices in ways that will deliver more environmental benefits, producers need to be convinced of an economic return on investment in change.

Opportunities for engagement

One of most important findings is the existence of a long-simmering, and increasingly urgent, feeling among family farmers that they are being squeezed, subjugated, and forced out of business by large corporations. Agriculture is being “Walmart-ized” in the words of some.    And while this came as a surprise to some of us who have seen how incredibly powerful the farm lobby is in federal legislation, most of the farmers we talked to don’t feel they have a significant voice on policy.  They believe the Farm Bureau, commodity organizations and elected leaders have all the influence, and that they are up against the strength of corporate interests and environmental forces.

As I mentioned, I recently returned from a gathering of independent family-owned ranchers in Kansas City, MO sponsored by the Organization for Competitive Markets.  These guys have been at it for 14 years trying to fight the trend towards mega-corporate consolidation of livestock production.  They are losing.  Four huge companies own huge majorities of the beef, pork and poultry produced in the U.S., as well as near majority control of dairy and grocery retailers themselves.  The same corporations running factory farms who are responsible for the most destructive practices on the environment, labor, public health and rural economies are also the enemy of the independent family farmers and ranchers.  There are farmers and ranchers who understand the need to build coalition and common cause with other stakeholders in this fight.  I heard said at the meetings, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Exhibit one, a keynote slot was given to Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States – a very effective organization that works to put an end to abuse of livestock and has proven its muscle with wins against battery cages for hens in California, and created a domino effect of retail chains pledging to phase out pork produced with gestation crates.  I don’t have to tell you how much historic animosity and distrust there is between the animal welfare organizations and ranchers.  Well, these guys have built a bridge, and they are anxious to do the same with the so-called “good food movement” and consumer advocacy groups as well.   While there was less mention of environmental organizations, there are opportunities for bridge-building if groups are thoughtful about language, messengers and approach.

Common ground

Working to support the vestiges of independent family agriculture in the fight for fair and competitive marketplace for producers and consumers could be a high-reward strategy for engaging a very important constituency in changing practices that will have a positive impact on the climate.  For example, transitioning farmers from traditional feedlot cattle operations with expensive inputs in feed, antibiotics, and low return in the corporate marketplace to grass-based operations with low input, reduced fossil fuel use, reduced air and water pollution and greenhouse gas impact, and higher returns for farmers and rural economies is a win-win.

We don’t need to walk through the front door with farmers hoping to get them on the same page about climate change.  Rather, we should work to foster peer-to-peer communication, and local, trusted messengers to help incentivize producers towards better practices, including climate preparedness.   A no-till cooperative of wheat growers in the Pacific Northwest for example has grown from just a few farms to include 43 growers as word of mouth spread about the benefits of this change in production practice.

Climate advocates shouldn’t try to convince farmers that change is necessary to address a problem that most may never agree is a problem – even as they struggle for survival and liquidate their herds in the middle of drought.   What we can do is support messengers and solutions that meet the particular needs of this unique and important set of stakeholders.

Kristin Hyde is an independent urban farmer specializing in incubating ideas, strategic communications and policy advocacy.

17 Responses to How Should We Talk About Climate Change With Farmers?

  1. Paul Klinkman says:

    First of all, “God’s work must truly be our own.” You’re mostly dealing with farmers in Christian denominations. Stewardship of the land (and of the earth) for future generations is righteous. That’s what the Good Book tells us.

    Why, why, why specifically is climate change a nonstarter? Is it because every last farmer is an ignoramus? Hold up. Is it because every last farmer ties outright denial of the science of climate change in with his Christian dogma? That would be an unholy mixture of ideas.

    Farmers need to see the science of climate change in concrete terms using “you” and “I”, as in, the forecasters say that your land is never going to be worth what it was. You and your kids in turn are going to have to change your crops in order to cope. You can try to grow your old crop rotation, but you’ll get hurt. I’m sorry.

    Farmers want to pass on their way of life and their land to their kids, if possible.

    Farmers need to know that the previous generation of Congresspeople signed a worldwide environmental treaty banning CFCs in refrigerators. This treaty worked. We have less skin cancer than we could have had. Farmers understand how skin cancer is up in their communities. Then they need to know that their current generation of congresspeople could sign a worldwide carbon dioxide treaty, and signing that treaty might save their farms. The question is, does their Congressional delegation represent the farmers, or some outside profiteers with their cash donations?

  2. Leif says:

    My solar PV of 192 square feet returned $1545 to my coffers in power and production credits. That is a bit over $8/ foot square foot here in the NW. Return on an acer of land dedicated to Solar PV should be in the range of 350 thousand dollars! That alone should help during the hard times of even the rich. Justice demands that free financing and production credit should be on the backs of the denier barons not the people. When they run out of their blood money let them come before “We the People” for assistance. Perhaps food stamps would be in order and affordable to a Green Awakening Economy.

    To be fair, that represents a production credit financed by “we the people” but the ability to profit from pollution is also a hidden tax credit provided to the ecocide fossil barons that has a far higher cost. The Ecocide of the PLANET!

    Stop profits from pollution of the commons!

  3. Doug Bostrom says:

    Four huge companies own huge majorities of the beef, pork and poultry produced in the U.S., as well as near majority control of dairy and grocery retailers themselves.

    And Budweiser and a few other brands dominate US beer consumption but many of us won’t touch those suds with a ten foot pole, prefer better beer that can only be made in smaller quantities.

    We pay extra for better, happily.

    In our house it’s the same deal with beef. There are some ranchers who concentrate on quality as opposed to quantity and the difference is notable even to a person like myself who doesn’t consider every meal to be some kind of deeply emotional event.

    Don’t fight on the same battlefield, pick a better market, sell better product.

    As to delusions about Al Gore and climate change, only better television news is going to help that.

  4. Donald Brown says:

    Even if farmers don’t believe in climate change, to not encourage them to think about it is a big mistake in my view. It is like not telling a girl lying on a railroad track that a train is coming because she thinks mistakenly that no trains are scheduled. Those of us that understand what science is telling us about climate change have a duty to warn those who are vulnerable to climate impacts what may happen to them. There are, of course, important strategic questions about how the message is presented including the need to be respectful of other views but we have a duty to warn farmers of what they may be facing and not back away from sharing what we know about likely deteriorating conditions for farming. I believe most advocates of climate change policies make a mistake by talking about climate change policies in terms of economic benefits rather than in avoiding potential catastrophic harms. Don Brown, Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law

  5. Ken Barrows says:

    I’ll give it a try:
    Hey, farmers, the way you farm will be obsolete in 50-100 years. If climate change doesn’t destroy you dwindling fossil fuels will. Food must be grown differently? What, no good?

  6. Pangolin says:

    It’s here. Deal with it. Or else…..

    It’s my opinion that your average midwestern farmer lives in a delusional world view where their livelihoods are propped up by government supports while they deride urban people who are asking and receiving far, far, less per person than they do.

    Farmers can deal with climate change or they can deal with dust. At this point their politics don’t matter anymore. Politics don’t make it rain.

  7. NJP1 says:

    Farmers get infected with religious dogma just like everybody else, and just like most of their fellow citizens, they are convinced that humanity, well christian humanity anyway. is a separate species given absolution from the laws of physics by a bronze age idol.

  8. David Lewis says:

    “Climate advocates shouldn’t try to convince farmers that change is necessary to address a problem that most may never agree is a problem”

    Kristin jokes with us.

    And now brothers and sisters of the climate advocate faith, let us pray. Let us pray for the Lord to send us a Category 6 hurricane to demolish the Republican Convention. Hallelujah. Let’s all pray for an ubermegadrought to bake the unbelievers, their farms, and the entire surrounding regions into a Dust Bowl the magnificence of which only the Lord can conceive of at this time. Amen. Praise the Lord.

    Something is going to wake these bozos up.

  9. Richard Miller says:

    We are moving into an era of mega droughts. The new research from Aiguo Dai says the series of droughts over the past 12 years are due primarily to colder Tropical sea surface temperatures and they are boosted by CO2 emissions. These sea surface temperatures will persist for 20 to 30 years. By the time they move to warmer SST and thus more precipitation global will likely overwhelm natural variability and we will be move into irreversible drought for 1000 years if C02 Levels remain between 450 – 600 ppm.

    I appreciate the authors concern about building bridges and I found this article helpful to try to understand the farmer’s point of view, but I think explaining to farmer’s the current science is a moral responsibility.

    See below:

    “There’s a highly relevant new Nature Climate Change study by Aiguo Dai, a climate researcher who just moved from the National Center for Atmospheric Research to the State University of New York at Albany. I asked him to read this post and weigh in. Here’s Dai’s contribution:
    In essence, I think the U.S. has been very fortunate to have experienced a wetting trend from the 1950s to the 1990s, in contrast to many other low- and mid-latitude land areas. However, this luck is about to run out, because the tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures apparently switched into a cold phase around 1999 that typically lasts for 20-30 years and brings below-normal precipitation and drought over much of the West and southern U.S. On top of that, the greenhouse-gas-induced global warming is predicted to cause severe drying in the coming decades over the U.S. Even if the tropical Pacific condition changes after 1-2 decades into a warm phase, the U.S. is unlikely to return the wet conditions of the 1977-1999 because of the expected large drying from global warming.”


  10. Joan Savage says:

    I respect the tenacity and practicality of my farmer grandparents and great-grandparents who navigated through difficult situations to keep their farms going from year to year, and raise their families. They did everything they could, and knew that the outcome of the year still depended on favorable weather and market conditions. Living with chronic and serious risk brings out a tendency to pray, or at least have a humble conversation with the Powers that Be. Don’t snub it.

    Farmers today are often in debt and are at risk of bankruptcy if the crop insurance premiums go too high after two or more crop failures. This pushes their time-scale for decision making down to something like the two-year cycle of a congressional representative or shorter.

    If you REALLY want to engage farmers, provide them with spot-on seasonal weather forecasts that incorporate knowledge of climate change factors.

  11. A summary newsletter from the Center for Rural Affairs (Lyons, NE) pointed me to this story from the Kansas City Star and their discussion of climate / drought. Quick quote:
    But in a warming world, climate scientists say, more hot days and heat waves are a virtual certainty. Humans have altered the background conditions of the atmosphere and increased the risks of extreme weather.

    Read more here:

    I just don’t see us working all of the connections, messaging opportunities that exist.

  12. Dale Mead says:

    This is an absolutely critical point. Most people get their weather from TV and radio; but only about half of weather reporters are trained meteorologists, and almost none trained in climatology—that is, long-term vs short-term weather patterns. More than a quarter of TV weather reporters think climate change is a scam! (See New York Times,, “Among Weathercasters, Doubt on Warming”.) The most effective immediate drive we can pursue is to lobby TV broadcasters to hire climatology-trained forecasters.

  13. Chris Winter says:

    Kristin Hyde writes: “You won’t often see a direct link in these stories to climate change, and you are even less likely to hear such a link made by the farmers and ranchers themselves.”

    I’m loathe to dispute someone who’s been out in the field actually talking to farmers, but I have to question how general this is. I often read about farmers, birders, and folks who tend gardens having observed the shifting over several years of springtime, the earlier blooming of flowers, migratory birds showing up sooner, etc. Failing to tie these things to changing climate seems unlikely. I’d sooner believe that they don’t want to raise the issue for fear of backlash from those corporate-friendly farm bureaus you mention — they may feel it’s more expedient to restrict the dispute with the megacorporations to bread-and-butter issues.

    Whatever the reality, convincing farmers that climate change is real and human-caused is not necessarily job one. As the article notes, they can be persuaded to reduce carbon emissions by taking up no-till farming, using biofuels, or (as the book Harvest the Wind points out) leasing some of their land to wind farms and gaining some extra income.

  14. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yes Chris, these people like all others have huge amounts of tacit knowlegde about what’s going on in their world. All that is required is to bring that knowledge to full consciousness in a forum which encourages openness and creative thinking. The key phrase in the article is “peer-to-peer”, people working together with equals that they trust, as equals. The method called the Search Conference has been developed over the last 50 years to create learning, planning communities who make their own most desirable futures and involve others in spreading the action. It works just as well in the USA as in any other country. Try Searching, 1999, Emery M, John Benjamins Publishing or, ME

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Maybe good examples will suffice. I remember seeing a documentary about a Victorian farmer who, decades ago, instead of chopping down all the trees on his property, planted vast windbreaks and shelter beds. His productivity soared, his lambs were better protected from the weather, biodiversity bloomed, and the trees were later cut for timber, and others planted in their place. A lot of his neighbours followed suit, but not all, of course.

  16. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Small farmers are doing it tough and will be doing it much tougher. Yet we need them now and will need them so much more in the future.

    Industrial agriculture is corporatised to an extent that makes decision making a remote and slow affair. The people on the ground are not the ones making decisions. As things change, and they will, I doubt the industrial scale concerns will be flexible enough or fast enough to respond.

    The industrial system is far more interdependent on other systems and ultimately fragile than people realise.

  17. Leif says:

    A modest proposal: The Fossil industry should finance a no interest loan to all farmers, with suitable resources, the ability to build out wind and solar PV energy and other green energy sources as a backup cash stream. In addition the Nation should make Medicare health coverage coverage available to all green energy workers to help lower the costs to companies and consumers attempting to compete with the heavily subsidized ecocide fossil industry. A cash cow on every farm could allow each farmer the ability to steward their land in a sustainable manor.