Maine Farmers and Climate Change

Reactive or Proactive?

By Stephanie Welcomer, Mark Haggerty, and John Jemison | March/April 2015

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org


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This article is from the March/April 2015 issue.

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Since the dawn of agriculture, the things farmers need from nature, like water and sunlight, have varied only within a relatively narrow, predictable range. This has changed in the last few decades. Now, climate change is affecting all farmers, increasing the risks they face and forcing them to adapt. The latest Assessment Report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underlines the scope and breadth of the problem: “Human influence on the climate system is clear .... The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.” Climate change affects all farmers regardless of their location; their farming approach, conventional or alternative; their farm size, crop, or income. No farmer is exempt.

Climate change reshuffles the landscape that we count on to grow food. The shifts are accelerating and unpredictable, and farmers are on the front lines. How are they responding? Do they recognize changes in weather patterns? Do they attribute these shifts to climate change? Are they adapting their own agricultural practices in response? And are they advocating for policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—adopting a proactive stance, as opposed to a purely reactive one?

Our work suggests that farmers have a complicated relationship to climate change, recognizing its symptoms but not necessarily its causes. Yet, if farmers were to recognize the causes, they would be much more effective in adapting to climate change. Without this recognition, they will miss the chance to adjust their practices to protect land and water resources, and to reduce their own contributions to climate change. Agriculture’s challenge is that it—like other sectors—has to change fundamentally to head off far more severe climate changes, which would require much more costly adaptations, or for which no adaptation is possible.

Maine’s New Climate Reality

Climate Change:

What Is It? What Causes It?
What Can We Do About It?

A Primer on Climate Change.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2012 census, Maine has about 1.45 million acres of farmland, and agriculture is estimated to generate over $750 million in annual sales. Maine farmers grow a wide variety of crops, including potatoes, beans, tomatoes, grains, livestock, apples, and blueberries, as well as aquaculture products (farmed fish and shellfish). Producers include conventional and alternative growers, and farm sizes range from less than one acre to over 3,000.

Although there are many commonalities between agriculture in Maine and the remainder of the nation there are some important differences. Maine appears to be countering a national trend of declining numbers of farmers. Between 2007 and 2012, the state’s number of farmers aged less than 35 increased by over 60%, from 336 to 551. Additionally, according to the New England Farmers Union, Maine has a higher percentage of farmers making direct sales. The state ranks fifth in percentage of farmers selling directly to the public, and third in percentage participating in community supported agriculture (CSA). (See Mark Paul and Emily Stephens, “Community Supported Agriculture: A Chance to Revitalize Farming?” Dollars & Sense, March/April 2015.) And Maine has a high and growing percentage of female farmers, with women accounting for 29% of “principal farm operators” (compared to 14% nationwide). Maine farms are also smaller, on average, 178 acres compared to the national average of 434.

The wide diversity in Maine’s agriculture sector make the state an ideal “laboratory” for observing farmers’ responses to climate change. According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Maine will experience rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and increasing extreme weather events. Indeed, temperatures in the northeast United States are already increasing, by an average of half a degree per decade for the last 40 years, with bigger increases, over one degree per decade, for average winter temperatures. Scientists project increases in average temperatures between of 3F and 10F over the next century, along with increases in the total amount of precipitation, more rain (though less snow), and greater variability in precipitation. Already, the Northeast “has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation,” according to the National Climate Assessment, “than any other region in the United States.”

For farmers, rising temperatures do mean that the number of frost-free days increase and growing seasons expand. That might sound advantageous. But there are also big downsides: Pest varieties change, with the incursion of warm-weather tolerant insects. Soil run-off is more likely with more intense storms. Also, weather becomes harder to predict. For example, for the small northern Maine town of Caribou, the first half of July 2013 was one of the driest on record—with just 3/100 inch of rain. In the second half of the month, Caribou got enough rain—over 7 inches—to make the month the second wettest July in the town’s history.

How Do Farmers See It?

“Assessing Maine’s Agriculture Future”: About the Study

The people interviewed included:

  • A total of 199 Maine farmers and agricultural advisors
  • Commodities farmers (apple, beef, blueberry, dairy, potato, and large vegetable producers)
  • Small diversified farmers (farmers’ market producers, organic farmers and gardeners, small vegetable producers)
  • Tribal farmers (Micmac Nation)
  • Agricultural consultants (extension-agency and industry crop advisors)

Maine’s farmers are facing unprecedented challenges stemming from climate change, centered on the two key ingredients in agriculture—water and soil. Too much water can wash soil away, while too little limits crop production and dries the soil out. According to the University of Maine report Maine’s Climate Future, the “high-intensity rainfall events” that are expected to accompany climate change are “less effective at replenishing soil water supplies and more likely to erode soil.” Meanwhile, higher average temperatures mean that, for a given level of precipitation, less water will actually be available to crops, due to higher rates of moisture loss from the ground and from the plants themselves.

As part of the 2011 “Assessing Maine’s Agriculture Future” study, we interviewed around 200 Maine farmers about changes in the climate and their expectations for the future of farming. We asked representatives and opinion leaders from a wide sampling of the state’s farming sectors about their reasons for farming, their concerns, and their hopes for the future, as well as changes in weather patterns and their related adaptations. During the interviews, most farmers did not acknowledge that climate change was happening, only that weather was unpredictable. In the words of one farmer:

Well, talk about climate change. You have an early spring; you usually have an early fall. You have a late spring; the fall carries on three weeks, maybe sometimes even a fourth week. And, I’ve seen that happen time and time again, and that’s, you know, that climate is changing all the time.

Another farmer said:

I think we’ve been fighting weather forever and we always will. And there’s never been two seasons alike and it’s how you manage that weather.

These farmers appear to argue that changing weather is nothing new, and that finding ways to manage the effects of the uncontrollable weather has always been inherent to agriculture. Still another farmer combines the recognition that adaptations are necessary with skepticism that there is actual human-caused climate change, or that it is a bad thing:

Yeah, I’ve read that and seen that. As far as what do we do? I order an extra pallet of plastic so I can put up more silage if it’s a real rainy year. If it’s a dry year, we make dry hay. It’s all we can do. You ain’t gonna change the weather.

Then he continues:

If they say that the climate is changing due to —what’s the big word?—“global warming.” If this is global warming, I love every minute of it.

This view suggests that at least some farmers see benefits to climate change. The additional carbon dioxide, indeed, positively impacts plant growth. The longer growing seasons and higher temperatures make additional crops and varieties viable. Yet most farmers express concern about how to manage changing and increasingly volatile weather patterns. In the “Assessing Maine’s Agricultural Future” study, we found that farmers are using an array of adaptation strategies. Farmers are planting crops earlier, to take advantage of the shorter frost season, planting new crops, and even using genetically modified organisms to adapt to the new growing season. They are building structures to buffer crops from head-on exposure to the outside environment. One farmer says:

We’re definitely going in the direction of doing more and more different things, building more hoop houses and greenhouses to have more control of the growing environment. As farmers discussed adaptation, they often acknowledged that weather was inextricably linked to soil structure, and to the lack of or over-abundance of water. They are turning to constructed ponds, irrigation, and new drainage systems to maintain crop and soil health. As one apple grower puts it:

Anything we can do to move Mother Nature out of the picture benefits us in the end. Not surprisingly, controlling the environment is a key part of dealing with climate change’s related outcomes. One agriculture consultant explains:

I think whether people are doing it on a conscious level or it’s just something that they have to deal with., The farmers I am working with are looking to have more control over different parts of their operations. They are definitely being impacted by it, whether or not they say, “Yes, this is climate change.”

A Sustainable Future?

Farmers interviewed in this study seem to be making adaptations to address day-to-day challenges they see in the field—drawing on techniques familiar to them, attempting to adapt their methods at the margins rather than at the deep structure. These adaptations prioritize maintaining short-term profitability and are not linked to a call for policies that could address the root causes of climate change. When asked about government policies or initiatives that they would like to see, none of the farmers argued for policies aimed at climate mitigation or supporting farmers’ climate adaptations.

Yet farmers were not reluctant to advocate policy changes generally. They expressed a strong desire for policy to recalibrate agricultural regulations, and to influence other peoples’ behavior. They argued for regulatory changes—reducing the regulatory burden and tailoring regulations according to farm size. They advocated for policy to create a cultural shift regarding food and the food system. They argued that the public is largely unaware of where its food comes from, and focuses on food prices rather than looking at the real costs to communities and farmers. They expressed a desire for policy that helps Maine farmers market and brand their products, and that opens new markets for their goods. They urged a significant overhaul of the food processing and transportation infrastructure, advocating for more local and regional processing centers for meat and other foods; “food hubs” for distribution and direct marketing; and more efficient transportation, including large trucks (for long and mid-distance routes) and light rail. (Currently, farmers use their own vehicles to haul their crops, often crossing scores and even hundreds of miles, within the state.) Additionally, farmers stressed the importance of research efforts from the USDA and Maine Extension to explore new effective farming methods. Overall, farmers emphasized public support to boost demand for their crops and lower processing and distribution costs—each of which aims to support the farming industry economically, but without addressing climate change. Environmental sustainability, including on climate, is scarcely on farmers’ policy radar.

Though few farmers are thinking about policies to address climate change, clues to farmers’ future practical approaches surfaced as they discussed their hopes for farming in 2025. Commodity-based farmers—large-scale, single-crop producers—tended to see farming in 2025 as based on ties to large corporate systems. The two largest groups of commodity producers in Maine, potato and blueberry growers, imagined a future characterized by fewer and larger farms, more food exported to non-Maine markets, and more genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In contrast, farmers in most of the other sectors imagined a more local and diversified food system, characterized by diversified farms, a mix of small and large farms, more farmers, increased interest in local foods, and more direct markets.

Because the farmers differ on the role of industrial technology, especially reliance on capital- intensive methods and synthetic (fossil-fuel based) fertilizers, their adaptation strategies diverge. More industrial approaches, such as petroleum-based fertilizers and GMO crops, will make farmers more vulnerable to the suppliers of these products, generally a few giant companies dominating entire industries. The smaller diversified farmers, in contrast, tend to advocate a farmer-controlled model that can adapt to the changes in soil and water associated with climate change. With their focus on building up the soil by non-synthetic means and on using human, animal, and alternative energy in place of petroleum-based inputs, these farmers will have more local control over their strategies.

Says one small diversified farmer:

You know, all the long-term ecological studies that are comparing conventional soil management with organic [or] for lack of a better word, ecological, really show that ecological soil management is really much less vulnerable to climate variability and unpredictability .... So I think that’s really the best hedge that all of us can have.

For the most part, farmers support practices and policies re-embedding the farm into the surrounding social communities. They are enthusiastic about farm-to-institution policies (linking farms directly to food programs in schools, colleges, prisons, and hospitals), about policies that allow the use of the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at farmers’ markets, about teaching community members how farming works and where food comes from. On the social and economic relationships in the food system, they are developing a clear policy agenda. On climate change, however, the understanding and policy advocacy are barely visible.

System Change

Systems theorists, who study how organizations and systems change, offer some insight into farmers’ minimal recognition of climate change, and their lack of advocacy for climate-mitigation policy. Management scholar Connie Gersick describes systems—such as the farming sector—as being in equilibrium until fundamental factors change. One key factor can be “environmental changes that threaten the system’s ability to obtain resources.” As the system’s actors are faced with persistent, systemic problems, they experience mounting discomfort. Once key actors recognize that the system has become dysfunctional, they begin to search for new information about the sources of the problems and possible new steps. Newcomers enter the system and are enlisted or inspired to search for solutions. The entrenched understandings, relationships, and power dynamics of the system, finally, can be dismantled. Revolutionary change can happen and a new system can be created. Climate scientists from all over the world are doing their best to raise the alarm that climate change is happening, that it will change our natural systems irrevocably, and that these changes are accelerating. Author Rebecca Solnit calls this a “slow-motion calamity.” “Climate change is everything, a story and a calamity bigger than any other,” she writes. “It’s the whole planet for the whole foreseeable future, the entire atmosphere, all the oceans, the poles; it’s weather and crop failure and famine and tropical diseases heading north and desertification and the uncertain fate of a great majority of species on earth.”

A few of the farmers we interviewed do recognize the threat that climate change already poses. A blueberry grower commented:

I think that the weather patterns are changing ... and I do believe global warming is going to have a very severe impact on the blueberry industry; even with irrigation because the heat in August has become so intense that they [blueberries] literally will cook in hours in the field. So I do think that that environmental aspect of global warming is something we’re going to be dealing with in 20 or 30 years.

Another farmer stated:

Back to back, with these weather changes you saw probably our toughest year [in history] two years ago, the best growing year last year, and when you start getting a hundred year storms every four years, you begin to wonder, you know, that perhaps there is something to this sort of thing.

An apple grower said:

The problem with weather and growing food is that ... there’s a very narrow window of stability there. I mean, we get outside that window very far and everything falls apart. And so yeah, I mean it’s a real serious concern.

Farmers, on the front lines of climate change, respond within their financial and knowledge constraints. Financial constraints dictate the ability to install greenhouses, wind power, irrigation, drains, etc. Knowledge constraints include limited access to the latest research on farming practices and climate adaptation, or on the relationship between micro-level season-to-season weather and macro-level climate change. That prevents the development of a long-term policy to address ever-increasing climate changes.

It is not that farmers are generally short-sighted, categorically resisting policies that deliver long-term benefits at the expense of short-term profits. Farmers support long-sighted policies like public spending for farmland availability and regulations that ensure food quality for consumers. But few have arrived at a consciousness of climate change like the farmers quoted above. Without a major shift in thought to acknowledge climate change, the farming community continues to suffer from an advocacy gap, putting mid- and long-term farm viability at risk. The lack of a systematic approach to agriculture and climate change also risks exacerbating the problem. Agriculture is not just a passive victim of others’ actions; it is a significant contributor of greenhouse gases. Globally, deforestation for farmland, conventional tillage, and the use of petroleum-based fertilizers, for example, are major sources of carbon dioxide emissions, while other agricultural practices are to blame for large methane and nitrous oxide emissions. All told, “agriculture is itself responsible for an estimated one third of climate change,” according to the Climate Institute.

Farmers acting on individual interests, without policies incorporating common climate-related goals, may adapt to climate changes in ways that worsen the problem. They may till more, reducing carbon sequestration, and may turn to crops that increase greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, the northern U.S. grasslands are being converted to corn for ethanol production, even though this puts the soil at risk and releases more carbon into the atmosphere. An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that “grassland conversion to corn/soy ... across a significant portion of the U.S. Western Corn Belt are comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia.” Not only can farmers benefit from acknowledging, studying, and responding to climate change, they can also reduce the negative impacts of agriculture on broader social and natural systems. For instance, converting a percentage of Midwestern corn production for ethanol into grass-based pasture systems could be a first step in carbon-emissions reduction. As Rebecca Solnit points out, addressing climate change involves not only reworking the way we do things but also changing our understandings—our stories—about the weather, the soil and water, and our food, as well as our responsibilities to each other, future generations, and the earth’s ecology. Responding to a failing system involves remaking existing relationships and formulating new narratives. By ignoring the reality of climate change and simply reacting, farmers are denying their own contribution to the problem. They are also ignoring the key role they have to play in solving it.

is an associate professor of management at the University of Maine. is an associate professor in the Honors College at the University of Maine and a member of its Sustainable Food Systems Research Collaborative. is an extension professor of soil and water quality at the University of Maine.

David Abel, “In Maine, Scientists See Signs of Climate Change,” Boston Globe, Sept. 21, 2014 (bostonglobe.com); Michael Jahi Chappell and Liliana A. LaValle, “Food Security and Biodiversity: Can We Have Both?” Agriculture and Human Values, 2011; Climate Institute (climate.org); Abigail Curtis, “USDA farming census: Maine has more young farmers, more land in farms 2014,” Bangor Daily News, Feb. 23, 2014 (bangordailynews.com); P.C. Frumhoff, et al., Confronting Climate Change in the U.S. Northeast: Science, Impacts, and Solutions, Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment (NECIA), Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), 2007; Connie J. G. Gersick, “Revolutionary change theories: A multilevel exploration of the punctuated equilibrium paradigm,” Academy of Management Review, 1991; T. Griffin, et al., eds., Maine’s Climate Future: An Initial Assessment, University of Maine, 2009 (climatechange.umaine.edu); Rajendra K. Pachauri, et al., eds., Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report: Summary for Policy Makers; Jerry M. Melillo, et al., eds., Highlights of Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2014; National Weather Service, July 2013 Climate Summary Caribou, Maine: Northern and Eastern Maine Monthly Climate Narrative (weather.gov); New England Farmers’ Union, 2015 (newenglandfarmersunion.org); Rebecca Solnit, “Are We Missing the Big Picture on Climate Change?” New York Times Magazine, Dec. 2, 2014 (nytimes.com); USDA—NASS (2012), 2012 Census of Agriculture (agcensus.usda.gov); Christopher K. Wright and Michael C. Wimberley, “Recent Land Use Change in the Western Corn Belt Threatens Grasslands and Wetlands,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013.

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