While some of them still aren’t convinced that humans are to blame, farmers across the nation — including those in Kentucky and Indiana — increasingly acknowledge that they’re having to deal with the consequences of climate change.
“Every day we get up, put our shoes on and watch the weather,” Spencer County farmer Scott Travis said during a break while driving a soybean harvester this fall.
Don Halcomb at his farm near Russellville in south central Kentucky. 'There is no doubt we are having warmer winters and hotter summers around here. But, we are just trying to adapt to the changes.' said Halcomb where they do a no-till method to keep the soing cooler in the summers.
“I’ve accepted for me to stay in business, I have to adapt. I need to assume it’s going to be hot and dry, and if it’s not, I’ll be fine.”
Climate change can come in many forms. Just in the past year:
• An early warm spell coaxed fruit trees and bushes, including blueberries, to blossom early, only to be frozen by the return of a more seasonal killer frost.
• The warm winter meant the ground didn’t freeze and thaw, a process that normally opens the soil and lets moisture soak in.
• More frequent heavy storms threatened to wash away unprotected topsoil.
• A massive drought, the worst in 20 or 30 years, prompted disaster declarations in roughly 2,200 counties from New York to California and Texas to North Dakota, including all of Indiana and nearly all of Kentucky.
The impact goes beyond farming: The drought is still contributing to higher retail prices for food and more taxpayer subsidies for federal crop insurance, even as high crop prices allowed for a record $5.3 billion in farm receipts in Kentucky.
“The pain of the drought is spread across farmers, shippers, producers, laborers, retailers and, of course, consumers,” said Richard Volpe, economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
Craig Cox, an ecologist, economist and senior vice president for the Environmental Working Group, a group based in Washington, D.C., that closely tracks agricultural issues, said taxpayers pay two-thirds of the crop insurance premiums and pick up most of the losses.
“And the bigger the losses, the larger the share of the losses the taxpayers pick up,” Cox said.
Experts concede it’s difficult to prove whether any single weather event, including a drought, is linked to climate change. But many are looking at how global warming fuels weather systems, creating new weather patterns, and are examining other evidence to conclude that climate change is already happening.
Farmers have a front-row seat for the weather’s unpredictability.
“It’s one thing to say it’s hot, and you are out running, and you go back to your air conditioning,” said Meade County farmer Adam Barr, who raises cattle and chickens and grows vegetables for farmers’ markets and subscribing families in Louisville. “If you see your crops drying up, that’s another thing.
“I don’t know what’s coming. ... That is the biggest concern.”
But in rural areas, which tend to be politically conservative, just raising the subject with some farmers can be difficult because the terms “climate change” and “global warming” have become so politicized, said J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., an assistant professor and extension sociologist at Iowa State University.
A survey he worked on this year of some 5,000 farmers across the corn belt found that 66 percent agreed that climate was changing, but only 8 percent concluded people were the main cause.
Arbuckle said that skepticism makes it more difficult for university extension researchers to educate farmers on how they can both reduce their contribution to global warming — agriculture contributes 8 to 15 percent of greenhouse gases globally — and how to change farming practices to adapt.
Farmers, for example, can reduce erosion and runoff of fertilizers into streams and rivers by not planting close to waterways.
And new technologies that combine sensors on farm equipment and global-positioning systems make sure fertilizer isn’t over-applied.
There is plenty is at stake, Arbuckle said.
“Despite all of the soil and water conservation efforts over the last 80 years or so, we still have major soil erosion and water-quality problems that need to be addressed,” Arbuckle said.
That’s in part because many of the conservation efforts are voluntary and pit short-term economic needs of farmers against long-term societal needs to maintain soil and clean water, he said.
“If weather is going to get more variable and extreme due to climate change, dealing with these issues becomes even more urgent,” he said.
Climate change will increasingly affect this region’s agriculture in the next 20 to 30 years, bringing both problems and opportunities, according to experts at the University of Kentucky.
Last year, the university published a white paper that warned corn yields could drop with rising temperatures. Corn produced $786 million in farm receipts in 2011, making it the state’s third-most-valuable agricultural commodity behind horses and broiler chickens, according to USDA.
Hail, wind and flooding damage may become more common, the UK scientists warned.
Pests and diseases that would normally be killed or slowed down during cold winters could invade earlier in the year or move farther north, they said. For example, the southern bacteria wilt that affects tobacco and horticultural crops, including tomatoes, recently has been confirmed in Kentucky.
It is known to attack as many as 200 plant species, said Paul Vincelli, extension professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at UK. “The wost case is total crop losses,” he said.
Conversely, some crops might benefit, such as soybeans that are stimulated by warmer weather and more carbon dioxide. And warmer winters also mean winter production of cool-season vegetable crops, creating new market opportunities.
There is still a lot of uncertainty about how climate change will play out in the region, said Vincelli.
“We are going to get hurt by climate change, but maybe less than in other parts of the country,” he said. “We will certainly have our share (of droughts),” but drought projections are even more severe for the already dry American West and Southwest, he said.
“This could be a place where people want to move to (because) we have the Ohio River,” he said.
He said Kentucky has only begun to grapple with the potential threats of climate change to agriculture and lags behind some other states, including Indiana, which he said has been doing adaptation planning for several years.
“I don’t think we are far behind, but we are not a national leader,” he said.
Learning to adapt
There is much that farmers can do to improve their odds of adapting to whatever climate change brings, Vincelli said — though eventually they may need to consider growing different crops entirely.
“Dry periods are going to be drier, longer and hotter,” said Cox. “Wet periods are going to be longer, wetter, with more precipitation coming in larger storm events.
“The biggest issue is what kind of farming systems and practices can stand up to that kind of variability and still be productive.”
Russellville farmer Don Halcomb agreed, saying too much rain too quickly can be a problem for soil erosion.
“If you have 2 inches of rain (and) it’s over a day, that’s one thing,” he said . “If you have it over four hours, that’s just more erosion.”
Halcomb grows corn, soybeans and wheat, and employs no-till farming, which was developed commercially in Kentucky 50 years ago.
In Kentucky, about 50 percent of the corn acreage, 80 percent of soybean acreage and 70 percent of the state’s wheat acreage is no-till, said Lloyd Murdock, UK extension soils specialist. It’s especially important in Kentucky because of its sloping topography and erodible soils, he said.
Why more farmers don’t use no-till is largely because of “a mindset” that makes them resistant to change, Murdock said.
Farmers are also experimenting with new kinds of cover crops between plantings of corn and soybeans. On a tour of farms in his area, Halcomb showed a field of rye that included plantings of daikon radishes, which he said leave behind depressions in the soil after they rot, retaining more water.
Halcomb and others have also begun to irrigate. He has a new, large center-pivot irrigation system watering about 140 acres. That’s the type of irrigation system more typically seen in the much drier West.
He said his irrigated farmland this year produced more than 200 bushels of corn per acre, compared with his farmwide average of about 90 bushels per acre.
But if many farmers turn to irrigation, it could draw down water supplies, potentially putting farms and cities at odds.
“We probably need to put some resources into it to figure out how much (irrigation) these aquifers could sustain,” said Peter Goodman, assistant director of the Kentucky Division of Water, which this year began looking into how many new irrigation wells have been drilled.
For his part, Travis said he also practices no-till farming and grows corn, soybeans, wheat, tobacco and hay. He said he’s planting a wider selection of crop varieties that mature over different times and uses ponds to retain as much water as possible.
“What you do as a farmer is you spread your risks out to where all your eggs aren’t in one basket,” he said.
The race to keep pace
Though he agrees the agriculture industry can adapt, Purdue University agricultural economics professor Otto Doering says climate change may be happening too quickly for science, technology and farmers to keep pace.
There may not be enough time for companies to develop new pesticides or practices “because the damn thing is on you all of a sudden,” Doering said. “The same with plant breeding.”
Companies, for example, already have drought-resistant varieties of corn but are developing some with even more resistance, using both traditional methods and more controversial genetic engineering.
They are also breeding cattle with genes from more heat-tolerant regions, such as Africa and India, Doering said.
As for the general public, it can expect dirtier water as heavy rains wash away more farm soil, dirtier air from dust storms and a greater tax burden, Cox said.
Treatment plants can clean water for drinking, but polluted farm runoff can still harm aquatic life and make swimming and wading less safe.
Unlike some of his farming colleagues, Halcomb said he buys into the mainstream science of climate change and “doesn’t see how we are going to get out of this without any damage.”
Sometimes, Halcomb said, he feels as if he might become like the farmers who stayed behind in states like Kansas during the Dust Bowl years in the 1930s. “If we were really smart, we’d sell out and move north to Minnesota.”