The difficult art of communicating climate change to farmers

By Niina Heikkinen | 01/28/2015 08:17 AM EST

As a sociologist, J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. spends a lot of time studying what shapes farmers’ views and responses to climate change. It’s a subject that has not gotten much attention, even as more research focuses on how to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and how to make farming more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather.

As a sociologist, J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. spends a lot of time studying what shapes farmers’ views and responses to climate change. It’s a subject that has not gotten much attention, even as more research focuses on how to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and how to make farming more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather.

"Our research so far has shown pretty clearly that although most farmers believe that climate change is occurring, a minority attribute it to human activity," said Arbuckle, an associate sociology professor at Iowa State University.

Arbuckle’s research is not just a matter of academic interest. Previous studies have found that belief in climate change is linked to more support for climate change actions. Getting a better sense of farmers’ views on climate change will also help researchers develop ways to protect food security over the long term.


In 2011, Arbuckle and his colleagues used the annual Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll to survey over 1,200 farmers in the state about their views on the subject.

Only 10.4 percent of participants agreed with the statement, "climate change is occurring and it is caused mostly by human activities."

The highest number of respondents, 35 percent, said climate change was caused about equally by natural changes in the environment and human causes. Just under a quarter (23 percent) said climate change was mostly caused by natural changes, 27 percent said there was not sufficient evidence, and 4.6 percent said climate change was not occurring.

The study’s findings were published earlier this month in Environment and Behavior.

Farmers pushed in two directions

Arbuckle and his colleagues looked at what factors were influencing farmers’ views about climate change. They found a strong positive relationship between trust in specific groups and whether they agreed that human activity is causing climate change.

Farmers who said they trusted environmental groups for information about climate change were more likely to believe that climate change was occurring and that it was due to human activity. However, farmers who said they trusted farm groups, agribusiness and the farm press were less likely to believe climate change was happening and due to human action.

Respondents had the most trust in climate change information from scientists, while the least trusted source of information (for 31 percent of respondents) was mainstream media, followed closely by environmental organizations (29 percent) and federal agencies (18 percent).

The study results raise questions about the best way for researchers and other groups to communicate climate change to an audience that may not trust them as a reliable source of information. Whether or not farmers agree about the causes or even existence of climate change, researchers agree that farmers still have to prepare their farms for the consequences of rising temperatures, increased atmospheric CO2 and more extreme weather events.

"Here in the Corn Belt, it is predicted that climate change will bring more intense rains, longer dry periods and higher heat, and a number of other impacts," said Arbuckle.

Throughout the United States, rising temperatures are expected to negatively affect yields, make production more variable, and put additional stress on livestock and poultry. Heavier rainfall will increase problems with soil erosion, nutrient loss and flooding in coming decades, according to the third National Climate Assessment report.

To engage a farmer: Don’t mention ‘climate change’

In order to get farmers to use adaptive farming practices like low tillage or crop rotations, Arbuckle recommended that extension workers avoid talking specifically about greenhouse gas mitigation or even use the phrase "climate change" at all.

"Instead, the focus should be on adaptation to increasingly variable weather. Farmers are professional adapters, and they respond to the challenge of adapting to difficulty," Arbuckle said.

For instance, though about 30 percent of farmers surveyed agreed that extreme weather events will become more frequent in the future, 52 percent agreed that farmers should take additional steps to protect their land from increased precipitation.

Another way to reach farmers is to target climate change awareness efforts toward agricultural industry representatives. In Iowa, extension program staff members work directly with agricultural retailers to teach them the latest in climate science, said Linda Prokopy, an associate professor of natural resource social science at Purdue University, who also studies farmers’ views on climate change.

Because seed varieties change on an annual basis, farmers have become more dependent on both certified crop advisers and extension program staff to help guide their choices and inform them about the latest research, she said. Teaching crop advisers may help pass on more accurate climate change information to farmers.

According to a 2013 study of California farmers, factors like exposure to extreme weather events and perceived changes in water availability made farmers more likely to believe in climate change, while negative experiences with environmental policies can make farmers less likely to believe that climate change is occurring, said Meredith Niles, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard’s Sustainability Science Program and lead author of the study.

"I can’t underestimate the importance of engaging with farmers to make sure they are included in the dialogue to find ways that can mitigate climate change, but also make sure that they won’t go out of business," Niles said.

In recent years, the Department of Agriculture has also stepped up efforts to both fund research and disseminate information about climate change and how it affects agriculture.

Since the passage of the 2008 farm bill, USDA has placed a stronger emphasis on climate change research funding, according to Michael Bowers, the acting division director for global climate change at USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Before 2009, the annual budget for climate change research was between $2 million and $3 million. Now NIFA’s investment in climate change research is roughly $40 million each year.

8 USDA ‘climate hubs’ spread the word

In addition to increasing funding for climate change research, USDA recently set up eight regional climate hubs.

"Our role is to move research to the stakeholders," said Randy Johnson, the national leader of USDA climate hubs. "We are taking research from other programs and then making sure the information gets to farmers."

Much of USDA’s climate change communication focuses on risk management practices that improve production and reduce costs, said William Hohenstein, director of the Climate Change Program Office at USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist.

"When we talk to farmers, we explain to them the facts, we explain why scientists are confident that the climate is changing and what humans have to do with it," he said.

Still, the influence of farm groups, agribusiness and farm press could have a negative impact on adaptation efforts if the study’s findings are correct.

In an emailed statement, Ty Vaughn, the U.S. technology development and agronomy lead for Monsanto Co., said the corporation often discussed climate change with its grower customers and partners.

Ray Gaesser
American Soybean Association Chairman Ray Gaesser. Extreme rains since 2010 have caught his attention. | Photo courtesy of the American Soybean Association.

"While climate challenges pose threats to agricultural productivity, continued innovation and use of advanced farming techniques enable farmers to adapt to the effects of climate change," he said.

Awareness of extreme weather rises

Ray Gaesser, chairman of the American Soybean Association, said farmers were sometimes reluctant to talk about climate change because they saw variations in weather on a regular basis and current weather patterns could be part of cycle that would eventually fix itself.

"I think in agriculture you’re going to find that farmers are more and more aware of extremes in their weather. Whatever they want to call it, to me it doesn’t matter," he said. "The real attitude of farmers is we have to adapt. For my part, I think the changes [in the environment] are happening really quickly."

Since 2010, Gaesser has seen at least one storm per year dump as much as 4 inches of rain in an hour on his farm in Corning, Iowa. In his five or so decades as a farmer, Gaesser cannot remember a period with so much extreme rainfall. He cannot say for sure whether climate change is to blame.

"I do think humans are using resources, and humans could be creating more changes, but we’ve always had changes in the Earth," Gaesser said.

Since the 2011 survey of Iowa farmers, Arbuckle has seen a slight shift in farmers’ perceptions of climate change.

In 2011, 10.5 percent of survey respondents agreed with the statement that climate change was occurring and primarily due to human activity; by 2013, that figure had gone up slightly to 16.4 percent, according to preliminary data.

At the same time, the number of respondents who said climate change wasn’t occurring dropped from 4.7 to 2.5 percent.