June 19, 2017
Note: This is a guest blog by Matt Russell, Resilient Agriculture Coordinator at Drake University Agricultural Law Center. Matt has worked on retail agriculture, land tenure, conservation, climate change, farmer veteran issues, development, state food policy, and federal farm policy. Matt is a fifth generation Iowa farmer. He and his husband Patrick Standley operate Coyote Run Farm and market produce, eggs, and beef. He serves on the Iowa Farm Service Agency State Committee.
I first spoke out about farming and climate change in the summer of 2013 when I was asked to speak at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa. That spring, I had taken some square bales on the 4-wheeler out to our cows in the blinding snow. It was the worst blizzard of the year. We lost power on our farm for 36 hours. Experiencing such extreme weather in the middle of May was a surreal experience, and one that motivated me to take action.
And since that summer I’ve done just that. I’ve provided public comments in Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, done video interviews, presented on panels, written opinion editorials, authored blog postings, and co-authored a law journal article on climate change and American agriculture. Often I do this in my capacity as Resilient Agriculture Coordinator at the Drake University Agricultural Law Center. Always, I do this as a 5th generation Iowa farmer.
What does climate change mean for American farmers?
As I see it, the situation for American farmers continues to evolve. The Paris Agreement represented the first moment that world leaders collectively decided to act on climate change. Coming on the heels of this effort is a global realization that agriculture will play a major role in helping the citizens of the world solve this problem. To be fair, agriculture has come late to the discussion, but I predict in the next 10 years it will catch up and become a driver for action on climate change.
Climate change is a problem that affects farmers in differing degrees depending on who we are and where we farm – but make no mistake, it does indeed dramatically affect all of us. Therefore, how will American farmers engage in the efforts to implement the Paris Agreement, which is the first global platform for solving climate change? If American farmers take our lead from President Trump, the answer is: we won’t lead at all.
Climate Change: Threat and Opportunity
As a farmer, I see climate change as both a threat and an opportunity. The threat is straightforward: a changing climate makes my job on the farm much harder. However, compared to farmers around the world, I have the most tools to deal with the negative effects – mostly thanks to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the American taxpayer. These tools include risk management (crop insurance and disaster programs), conservation programs, and loans. All of these can help me navigate variability in production and even outright crop failures. True, things are getting worse and the negative impacts of climate change will continue to accelerate, but thanks to these resources I can probably navigate the challenges through roughly the rest of my farming career.
The opportunity side of the equation is also in my favor, but it has a shorter window. As an American farmer, I have tools to use to innovate; arguably more tools than any other group of farmers on earth. This toolkit comes in the form of a partnership that includes farmers, businesses, land grant universities, USDA, state departments of agriculture, local governments, and a rich diversity of farming organizations such as the soybean associations and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). Underpinning all of this is the support from American taxpayers; support that is given because they still believe in me, the American farmer. The opportunity for my generation of farmers is to leverage this partnership and all its resources to develop the agricultural solutions to climate change.
In terms of threats and opportunities, I think the more important of the two for American farmers and rural communities is the opportunity to lead the world and to reap the benefits of developing the new practices and products that will result from the efforts to sequester carbon on our farms. While I might be able to navigate the challenges of increasingly extreme weather in the next few decades, the opportunity for American farmers to lead and to bring the benefits of that leadership home to our rural communities is right now. If we fail to act now, the advantages we have in that great partnership I mentioned above will have been lost to farmers whose countries are investing heavily in climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Where do we go from here?
Here are seven questions farmers and those who serve farmers need to ask ourselves. Answering these questions is all the more urgent as President Trump tries to close our window of opportunity by withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement.
We American farmers should be prepared to leverage our skills in agriculture to help mitigate and adapt to climate change. If we don’t, others will. In the face of the Administration’s rejection of the international forces embracing action on climate change, states, cities, businesses, political leaders, and ordinary citizens are forging ahead with the best of what America has to offer the world. As farmers we need to join these leaders and show them the innovative and creative problem solving abilities of the American farmer.