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UC-Davis climate change discussion focuses on farmers' attitudes

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal
Leaving more residue on fragile soils is one of the voluntary practices farmers have widely adopted to improve soil health and benefit subsequent crops. Government agencies seem increasingly receptive to voluntary farmer-driven initiatives such as the Conservation Innovation Grants program, which funds on-farm demonstration trials.

The topic of climate-friendly agriculture can be a sensitive one, and for that reason many agree voluntary measures and incentives are the best way to go.

The Climate Adaptation Research Center at the University of California-Davis recently hosted a discussion on climate change attitudes and potential policy approaches during a series of webinars that attracted viewers from around the country and the world.

Meredith Niles, a food systems scientist and researcher at the University of Vermont, provided extensive if somewhat predictable insights on farmer attitudes toward climate change.

Understanding what farmers think and what shapes their views is critical to approaching the issue in ways that lead to positive improvements, she noted.

“The majority of farmers do believe climate change is happening, on average around 65 percent, but only 40 percent believe in the anthropogenic nature of climate change,” she said. “Those are the ones who show less willingness to engage in mitigation practices.”

Anthropogenic refers to the idea that human activity is the primary cause of climate change.

Perhaps not surprisingly, farmers’ sensitivity to the issue is based on the degree to which it impacts them personally. For example, grape growers consistently show the highest levels of concern, since wine grapes are one of the crops most sensitive to temperature changes, she said.

Her research also shows farmers in general are more interested in pursuing adaptation strategies than mitigation practices, she said.

“The majority of farmers don’t necessarily want to participate in government programs,” she added. “We need to ask ourselves: what is the opportunity to bring in nongovernmental partners and to look at incentives rather than regulation.”

It’s important not to overlook the role private industry can play in pushing climate friendly practices, she said. Most farmers already have strong, trusting relationships with their crop input suppliers and service providers, she said.

Also, if agribusiness as a whole moves to incentivize climate-friendly practices, that expands the options for all consumers, not just those who are financially privileged enough to buy specialty items. That’s important to Niles, who also works on food insecurity issues.

“I would love to see this food be available to everyone and see the whole supply chain improved,” she said.

How the issue is approached in terms of language and policy could make all the difference in how receptive farmers are, noted Aria McLauchlan, co-founder and executive director of Land Core, a California-based nonprofit that seeks to advance soil health.

“We prefer to use the term ‘soil health’ rather than ‘regenerative agriculture.’ It’s a big tent that works both in very liberal and very conservative communities,” she said.

While Land Core advocates for economic incentives rather than government subsidies or regulations, she noted that public policy remains important either way. Many small provisions can have big impacts on farmer adoption, in areas such as tax policy, infrastructural improvements and on-the-ground implementation of farm bill directives.

Government agencies also seem increasingly receptive to a voluntary farmer-driven approach, she said, as indicated by the new Conservation Innovation Grants program that includes the FARMS project already underway in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska.

“I think this program is a great indication of how far this movement has come,” she said.

Resource conservation technicians can have a huge role in advancing soil health adoption, which is the case in South Dakota, where more than 50 percent of all farm acreage reflects some degree of soil health enhancement. But in other cases, the expertise of pioneering farmers outstrips the knowledge of local conservation agents, she added, which makes the “train the trainer” aspect of the new on-farm demonstration trials program so valuable.

Successfully measuring and modeling risk mitigation achieved through healthier soil is also crucial to making other necessary changes that will help push the soil health movement forward, she said. That includes allowing for more flexible crop insurance requirements and management options.

If lenders and insurance companies have an effective way to measure risk mitigation benefits, they are more apt to incentivize or invest upfront in helping farmers make the transition, she said.

Having accurate data and measuring tools could eventually bolster active carbon credit markets, supply chain improvements, tax credits and value-added marketing, she said.

“These can only function if we can measure and verify the result,” she said. “First we need to create a common baseline policy at USDA with work outcomes for a verified soil health program at the federal level. The farmer shouldn’t have to take one test after another for each program. That’s just too much bureaucracy and paperwork.”

“We need a collaborative effort to build a predictive actuarially-sound modeling tool to show carbon storage potential and predict outcomes,” she said. “We need to invite more buy-in among lenders, insurers and investors, embrace risk mitigation to improve prosperity and resilience, and use this data to make changes to federal policy in the areas of insurance and public lending programs.”

Another shift is to focus on overall profitability rather than simply yield, she added.

In organic systems, for example, yields might take an initial dip, but the production system overall could still become more profitable in the long run, she noted.

Finally, consumers are also likely to play an increasingly important role in incentivizing health soil practices.

“We see that as the next frontier in increasing demand for these farming practices,” she said.