POLITICS
04/10/2017 05:46 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2017

Climate Change Is Ruining Farmers' Lives, But Only A Few Will Admit It

They're embracing new practices in hopes of influencing an industry stuck in the past.

Credit: Ten Mile Farm
At Ten Mile Farm, just outside Asheville, North Carolina, Christina Carter raises a diverse mix of vegetables. She's one of a growing number of farmers adopting climate-resilient practices.

When Christina Carter started growing vegetables 12 years ago, she looked forward to winters because they offered her the chance to recover from the strenuous growing and harvesting seasons.

That’s no longer the case. Summers are hotter and stormier than they used to be, and fall never seems to come. A true winter also seems to be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean spring won’t bring the occasional surprise hailstorm.

Today, Carter, who owns and operates the Ten Mile Farm in Old Fort, North Carolina, is managing crops and dealing with repairs and maintenance to her farm year-round.

“We used to have December, January and February off,” Carter said with a laugh.

Though the lack of an off-season presents the opportunity of feeding people year-round, it comes with many challenges, too. Intense, sudden rainfall can knock out a whole crop, causing carrots to rot in the ground or beans to die out from overly saturated soil. The work days are becoming longer and sweatier.

“We have neighbors who’ve lived out here their whole lives and they say they’ve never seen that kind of hail or that much rain,” Carter told The Huffington Post. “They know that it’s different and that it’s more intense.”

Carter said she believes climate change is to blame for such extremes, and making her farm more adaptable to such wild weather has been on her mind practically from the start. It’s the reason she grows a rotating variety of some 60 different vegetables, uses cover crops and avoids synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

But she also knows that most farmers aren’t like her.

“It’s easier [for them] to pretend that it’s just liberal jibber-jabber,” Carter said.

In many ways, farmers are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Federal research indicates that extreme weather events like droughts and floods can harm crops and reduce yields — in one example, $210 million worth of Michigan cherries were lost due to a premature budding. Warmer weather can also mean more weeds and pests for crops, and more heat stress and disease for livestock.

The limited research available on the topic indicates that most farmers agree that climate change is happening. Yet only a few — perhaps about 16 percent, according to one survey of Iowa farmers — seem to believe that human activities are a primary cause of it.

They maintain this position even as a growing body of research shows that farming is a leading contributor to climate change and is responsible for as much as one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock are a major source of these emissions, and the use of synthetic fertilizers is another factor.

And many of these farmers probably won’t change their viewpoints anytime soon, as the Trump administration expresses climate skepticism and works to dismantle climate change-fighting initiatives

Certain sustainable practices can lessen the negative effect that farming has on the environment. But not many farmers have adopted them, even as consumer demand for sustainably produced food is rising: For example, certified organic cropland, which by definition adheres to many sustainable farming practices, still represent just 0.8 percent of overall U.S. cropland.

Nevertheless, farmers like Carter are determined to make changes. HuffPost recently spoke to farmers across the country who are adjusting their farming practices to prepare for a warmer, stormier future.

Anne Schwagerl ― Browns Valley, Minnesota

Anne Schwagerl said she thinks there’s a growing curiosity about resilient farming practices in Browns Valley, a town of about 590 people near the border of South Dakota. 

Schwagerl, who is surrounded by conventional farmers, grows a variety of crops that includes corn and soybeans grown without genetically modified organisms and organic alfalfa, barley, oats and wheat. She also rotationally grazes pigs on her Prairie Point Farm, which she and her husband established five years ago. 

Credit: Prairie Point Farm
Pigs at Anne Schwagerl's Prairie Point Farm in Browns Valley, Minnesota. 

Their environmentally conscious approach touches everything they do. In order to reduce their energy use, they compost the pigs’ manure to fertilize their crops and use their own crops to feed the hogs. And they also use cover crops, which can reduce soil erosion and increase nutrient retention. 

Schwagerl said she was initially shocked when one of her neighbors, a conventional farmer, asked her about the cover crops.

“This man farms 10,000 acres, which is very big — by my own standards, it’s mind-boggling when I think about how busy I am with a 300-acre farm,” Schwagerl said. “So for him to say something like he’s thinking about doing cover crops is crazy.”

The more Schwagerl thought about her neighbor’s curiosity, though, the less it surprised her. She said all kinds of farmers share the goal of being responsible stewards of the land.

“I think farmers big and small alike see that the writing is on the wall,” Schwagerl said. “Farmers have to do something because they care about the land and leaving it to the next generation. They’re going to find a way to make things work one way or another.” 

Walker Miller ― Six Mile, South Carolina

When Walker Miller first established his pick-your-own fruit farm, climate change was “the farthest thought from my mind.” Miller and his wife Ann began growing a variety of fruits in the foothills of the South Carolina mountains, a 45-minute drive west of Greenville, some 37 years ago.

Their Happy Berry farm specializes in grapes, blueberries and blackberries. They’ve developed a large following for their fruit selection ― which has grown to include the likes of Goji berries and persimmons ― and free-range eggs.

Miller is worried, however. Warmer winters mean the temperature rarely drops low enough to kill off the bacterium that causes Pierce’s, a disease that threatens his grape crop. More trees are being downed on his 22-acre lot as a result of more frequent extreme storms. Warmer winters can also usher in premature blooms, which means he has to use a wind machine to protect against frost.

Miller has already run his wind machine three times this year in an effort to save his crops, which he said is unusual. 

“It wasn’t like that before, but it’s like that now and it’s getting worse,” he told HuffPost. “I consider it to be the major threat to the success of our farm.”

Credit: The Happy Berry
Blueberries growing at Walker Miller's Happy Berry in Six Mile, South Carolina.

But Miller has a plan. In fact, it’s a 35-page climate mitigation and adaptation plan that outlines how Happy Berry has approached climate resilience.

One of the more unusual elements of Miller’s plan is the planting of pine trees amongst the farm’s orchards — an effort to protect against frost, overheating and storms. So far it seems to be going better than a “failed” experiment with shade cloth, he said.

“I’m probably considered a radical,” he said of his approach to the farm, adding that he believes the stakes are too high to go about it any other way.

“It is the most serious problem that we as a civilization face,” Miller said in reference to climate change. “I’m trying to encourage the farmers in South Carolina and the nation to have a plan like I’ve got. I go around and talk to anybody who will give me an audience. But people have got to have the will to do this.”

Credit: Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project
An international group of researchers is forecasting that climate change will mean lower farm productivity, increased consumer prices and reduced consumption by the year 2050.

Tyler Hoyt ― Mancos, Colorado

Tyler Hoyt is at the beginning of his farming life and still getting the lay of the land. He started growing vegetables and raising pigs, hens and dairy goats in southwestern Colorado in 2014.

The region can be very arid, but it’s been very wet since he started Green Table Farm. Often too wet.

“It makes you feel like a pro, like you can grow whatever you want, but other times we’re seeing deluges of water,” Hoyt said.

He knows he’s overdue for another dry, lean year — like the drought that hit in 2013 ― so he’s preparing by using a water-conserving drip irrigation system on his fields.

“Farmers basically had not even planted [in 2013] because it wasn’t even worth it,” Hoyt said. “There was no water for it.”

He also plants many crops that are indigenous to the region and require little, if any, water, like certain types of corn, beans, pumpkins and squash.

Credit: Green Table Farm
Tyler Hoyt raises dairy goats, as well as pigs and hens on his Green Table Farm in Mancos, Colorado. The animals provide the manure he composts and uses on his vegetable crops.

Like Schwagerl, Hoyt sees some of his conventional farmer neighbors — who mostly raise cattle, horses or pigs, not vegetables — coming around on more climate-resilient practices.

But he said most longtime farmers probably won’t come around until there are better economic incentives for such practices. Carbon sequestration credits could encourage people to adopt cover cropping and green manuring, for example.

“When you’re talking about climate, it’s best to just talk about economics and how it can relate to their pocketbook,” Hoyt said. “I don’t ever want to say the words ‘climate change’ with the conventional crowd.”

Tony Schultz ― Athens, Wisconsin

Tony Schultz bought the land where he’s been farming for the past decade from his father, who had operated it as conventional dairy farm.

Since then, Schultz has transitioned Stoney Acres Farm into a diversified organic operation. He sells a range of food including vegetables, wheat, beef, pork and maple syrup at farmers markets and through a community-supported agriculture program.

But perhaps the most unusual thing Stoney Acres does is host a weekly “pizza on the farm” night where everything that goes into the pizza, except for the cheese, comes directly from the farm. 

“We wanted to limit our footprint and be as sustainable as we possibly could, knowing that agriculture is an inherent imposition on nature,” Schultz said.

Credit: Stoney Acres Farm
Tony Schultz of Stoney Acres Farm at a farmers market near Athens, Wisconsin. 

He’s been upfront about his interest in sustainability from the start — even though it cost him at least one CSA customer a few years back. (“The message was something along the lines of ‘I loved your tomatoes, but Al Gore doesn’t get it,’” he said.)

And despite living in a county that turned out overwhelmingly in support of Donald Trump in last fall’s election, he has stuck to his convictions (although he admits climate change isn’t the conversation he typically starts with).

Like Hoyt, Schultz said environmental stewardship and economic success are connected. And business resiliency is a good place for the conversation to start.

“I’m listening first,” Schultz said. “You have to go where they are, not where you are. You start where they are.”

Clare Hinz ― Herbster, Wisconsin

As a farmer, you also have to start where you are, adapting your practices to fit the conditions you’re handed.

A three-hour drive north of Schultz, on the shores of Lake Superior, is Clare Hinz’s Elsewhere Farm

One of the first things Hinz did about a decade ago, when she moved from Chicago to start a farm in far-northern Wisconsin, was buy a tractor.

That same year, Hinz dealt with a massive flood that wiped out her crops. Not long afterward, she realized her farming plan wasn’t going to get the job done. And that the tractor wouldn’t be of much use to her.

Instead, Hinz opted to follow a style of farming originated by the Aztecs in the pre-colonial days: She grows vegetables in chinampas. The practice involves growing crops in raised beds surrounded by ditches that can hold water without drowning the plants. It is resistant to both extremely dry and extremely wet conditions.

“I farm in mud boots many months of the summer, but I rarely have to irrigate,” Hinz said.

Credit: Beth Probst/Elsewhere Farm
Clare Hinz inside the greenhouse of her farm in Herbster, Wisconsin. 

It’s extra work, too — without the use of a tractor, she has to cultivate the crops by hand. But she felt it was the best approach to growing vegetables in a region not well-suited to more traditional methods.

Hinz also raises rare animals on her farm, including Icelandic chickens and her particularly unusual guinea hogs, which were once very popular due to their high fat content but are now considered a threatened species.

She’s been watching her animals a lot lately, looking for signs of hope at a time when she feels the Trump administration and its backers are trumpeting a “paradigm of scarcity” she refuses to accept.

“I look at them every day and they remind me that nature is tough,” Hinz said. “Like we’re going to do this and we’re going to pull through.”

Unlike Schultz and Hoyt, Hinz said that talking about climate change without saying “climate change” skirts the issue.

“It’s climate change and we need to call it like it is, because we need solidarity with all the growers all over the world who are facing the same thing,” she said.

She said she hopes to see more of her peers approach the issue head-on and resist the tide of denial. And for that, she feels optimistic.

“The farming community has always been farming in resistance to dominant forces,” she said. “The attitude is just rolling up our sleeves some more, here we go. We have to keep working.”

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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