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Senate Subcommittee Hearing Examines the Impacts of Climate Change on Agriculture

June 5, 2014

On Tuesday, June 3, the Subcommittee on Green Jobs and the New Economy of the Senate Committee Environment and Public Works held a hearing entitled, “Farming, Fishing, Forestry, and Hunting in an Era of Changing Climate.”

Subcommittee chair Senator Jeff Merkley (D- OR) opened the hearing by warning that climate change is no longer a hypothetical concern, as we’re already seeing the impacts of a changing climate in the sectors that are critical to our rural economies.  Over the course of the two-hour hearing, the subcommittee heard from witnesses representing farmers, fishers, and hunters, who further illustrated these effects.

Prior to two witness panels, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) addressed the subcommittee and spoke of the direct impacts on agriculture that he has seen throughout Montana and on his own farm, where he experiences first-hand the consequences of a changing climate.  A third-generation farmer, Senator Tester spoke of the effects of shorter and warmer winters, unprecedented hailstorms, and historic drought conditions upon his own farm as well as rural communities throughout the country.

The subcommittee then heard testimony from six witnesses, including Clay Pope, the executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, who is also a wheat farmer and rancher in Loyal, Oklahoma.  Pope first offered the subcommittee the bad news — Oklahoma is expected to have its lowest wheat crop since at least 1957, which, he explained, is a result of the extreme droughts, late freezes, and damaging floods.

In the face of these challenges, Pope reminded the committee of some good news when it comes to addressing the effects of climate change on agriculture.  He explained that improving the health of our soils is the key to helping agriculture mitigate and adapt to climate change.  Soil organic matter plays a critical role in increasing soil water-holding capacity, carbon sequestration, and nutrient availability.

“As you restore soil health you help agriculture adapt to climate change.  As you help agriculture adapt to climate change you help improve water quality, improve wildlife and you help increase the fertility of the soil to potentially increase yields while at the same time helping to reduce the level of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  This is clearly something we need to do.”

Pope’s testimony highlighted the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) as critical tools to help agriculture adapt to climate change in this way.  CSP is particularly oriented to building health soils to mitigate and adapt to climate change.  Through programs like CSP, Pope explained, the “USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has the ability to help farmers and ranchers convert to no-till agriculture and to incorporate cover crops into their farming.”

Noting the low rate of adoption of basic soil health  practices in his own state of Oklahoma, Pope maintained that “the only way to overcome these challenges…is through financial and technical assistance targeted to the improvement of soil health in the same manner resources were targeted toward the reduction of soil erosion during the days of the Dust Bowl.”

As illustrated throughout the subcommittee hearing, the impacts of climate change on agriculture are a reality for farmers and ranchers across the country.  Pope left the subcommittee with a reminder that these farm bill conservation programs can only serve as effective tools for climate change mitigation and adaption if they have the resources and the funding they need to accomplish their goals.  “There is a path forward,” Pope concluded.  “The question is will we take it.”

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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