Views on climate change in the Corn Belt inform efforts for agricultural resilience

Post by Amber Mase

Some may revere people who work in agriculture, such as farmers and their lesser-known advisors (e.g., Certified Crop Advisors, University Extension agents, agricultural bankers, Natural Resources Conservation Service staff, etc.), as “mystics” when it comes to the future of weather and their industry. The decisions farmers, also known as producers, make in managing their land, as well as the guidance they receive from agricultural advisors, have widespread and lasting impacts, particularly for water resources. They are key decision makers in the Yahara Watershed and beyond.

Researchers, such as myself, are increasingly eager to tap into their insider knowledge, to understand their views and motivations for how they manage their farms. These insights can help guide efforts to work with the agricultural community to build the resilience of land and water under a changing climate.

Climate change impacts on agriculture generally stem from changes in long-term weather trends that affect the natural resources on which farmers depend, especially water. Weather is a critical consideration for agricultural livelihoods—it is something farmers think, talk, and hypothesize about every single day. But what do they think when it comes to long-term weather trends, such as climate change?

Moreover, how do agricultural advisors’ judgments about changes in the weather in their local area—judgments that subsequently influence the advice they give to farmers—relate to their beliefs about climate change and the future of agriculture? Who do agricultural advisors trust for information about climate change? Identifying trusted and distrusted information sources can improve efforts to encourage farmers and advisors to take steps to make their farms more resilient under climate change.

I was part of a team of researchers who were interested in answering these questions, specifically of the Midwest Corn Belt’s agricultural community. In the spring of 2012, we conducted a survey of over 1700 agricultural advisors and over 4700 farmers across the Corn Belt (see map below) and interviewed Certified Crops Advisors (CCAs) in Indiana and Nebraska. The following selection of results has implications here in the Yahara Watershed.

The research team surveyed farmers and advisors from these Corn Belt states.

The research team surveyed farmers and advisors from these states.

Complex views on climate change

Many farmers and advisors reported noticing less predictable and more extreme weather patterns. Statements like, “We don’t get just a nice rain anymore,” came up several times during interviews. These individuals noticed that rain tended to come as stronger and more sudden events and often after drier conditions, which, together, are bad for crop production.

On the flip side, a few advisors alluded to the volatility of the Midwestern climate as normal, with comments like, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes.”

These comments illuminate some of the complexity in the perceptions of farmers and advisors. They also help to explain some results from our survey. For example, most farmers and advisors believe the climate is changing, but few (about 13 percent of advisors and 8 percent of farmers) believe human activities are the main cause. Over a third of farmers and advisors surveyed attributed climate change to an equal combination of natural variation and human activities, while 25 percent believe climate change is mostly caused by natural variation.

Farmers' and advisors' beliefs on climate change were complex.

Much like scientists who produce future scenarios, the Midwestern agricultural community tends to view the future as highly uncertain and feels that no one can predict it accurately. Even so, the CCAs we interviewed generally had a positive view of the future of agriculture in the United States.

Advisors’ optimism about the future fits with their positive experiences with agricultural technology, including plant breeding and genetic improvements for drought resistant corn. The CCAs I interviewed typically put a lot of faith in Monsanto, Pioneer and other large biotech companies to engineer solutions to most crop production problems, such as drought and excess moisture. Several interviewees also highlighted the abundant resources Midwestern agriculture is able to draw on, including rich soils, generally sufficient rain and state-of-the-art technology, such as GPS and precision agriculture.

These factors together help justify generally optimistic attitudes toward the future of Midwestern agriculture among CCAs.

The climate change messenger matters

The agricultural advisors we surveyed tended to trust University Extension professionals the most for information regarding climate change, rather than agribusiness companies, the IPCC or the mainstream news media. They generally view University Extension and research as unbiased and without an ulterior motive that could slant results.

Surveyed farmers indicated that they rely most on private advisors, such as CCAs, for decision making. These same private advisors are likely to trust Extension for scientific information—particularly about climate change. Therefore, Extension may be more likely to reach Corn Belt farmers indirectly through their private crop advisors.

These results highlight the continued importance of University Extension for communicating science—particularly around climate change and vulnerability—to the agricultural community.

Overall, my research team and I hope these results can guide the outreach government agencies, non-profits and universities conduct with farmers and advisors around managing farm land in the face of climate change. How farmers and advisors view climate change is likely to impact the effectiveness of policies or programs suggested in response to potential future changes to the region. So understanding their perceptions and what messengers they trust is crucial to framing communication and building relationships with them, which are important ingredients to building resilience within an agricultural landscape.

For a more detailed report of crop advisors’ views on climate change and risks to agriculture, see an article I recently published, along with Dr. Hyunyi Cho and Dr. Linda S. Prokopy at Purdue University, in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, entitled “Enhancing the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF) by exploring trust, the availability heuristic, and agricultural advisors’ belief in climate change.” Free access to the full article is available through March 24th.

This research was part of a larger project called Useful to Usable (U2U), a USDA-funded project to development decision support tools, resources and trainings to improve the resilience and profitability of Corn Belt farms amid a changing climate.

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