Two farmers standing in front of grazing cattle

What do farmers think about climate change? A decade of survey research shows changing beliefs

By J. Arbuckle, Extension Sociologist, Iowa State University

As climate change-driven weather extremes take an increasing toll on agriculture across the U.S., questions about what farmers are doing now and might do in the future to cope are increasingly common. The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll has been tracking farmer perspectives on climate change and potential adaptation and mitigation actions since 2011, and the most recent results suggest a majority of farmers are ready to talk about climate change.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, aka “the Farm Poll,” is an annual survey of Iowa farmers that started in 1982 as a cooperative project between the Iowa State University Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, ISU Extension Service, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Its overall objective is to understand how the ongoing changes in Iowa’s agriculture and rural areas affect farmers and rural society and environments. One of the most important attributes of the Farm Poll is that it surveys the same farmers every year, so we can track changes in attitudes, behaviors, and other variables over time.

I have been leading the annual survey since 2008 from my post in ISU Extension Sociology, and every year I work with Extension staff and agricultural stakeholders across the state to develop questions that will ultimately help them work with farmers to address challenges in Iowa’s agriculture. Since weather extremes have become an increasingly difficult challenge, we have asked farmers questions regarding their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors related to climate change in three survey years: 2011, 2013, and 2020.

One of the most important findings in the 2020 survey was that farmer perspectives on climate change are changing in positive ways. In 2011, 68% of farmers indicated that climate change is happening. In 2020 that number was 81% – that’s a pretty major shift.

Further, in 2011, less than half of farmers (45%) indicated that climate change was caused at least in part by humans. In 2020 that statistic was almost 60%. So, although Iowa farmers’ climate change beliefs are, on average, still pretty far from the scientific consensus, they are heading in the right direction.

The main implication of these shifts, I think, is that a majority of farmers are likely ready to talk about climate change. A decade ago I didn’t think that was the case. Another important implication is that farmers’ climate change beliefs are related to their support for different kinds of adaptation and, especially, mitigation actions.

For example, the 2020 survey found that almost 40% of farmers support government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As one would expect, pretty much all of those farmers indicated that they believe humans are causing climate change. But farmers who attributed climate change at least in part to human activity were also much more likely to support additional steps to protect farmland from extreme weather.

The survey also asked farmers whether they were doing more or less of a number of management practices specifically in response to weather variability and extremes. Pretty much all surveyed farmers reported that they have been making at least some changes to adapt.

For example, more than a quarter reported increasing their use of cover crops, over 40% indicated they had increased use of no-till, and 36% had increased use of other conservation tillage. Over half reported increased scouting for pests and disease.

On a cautionary note, however, a lot of farmers also reported increasing practices that can be considered maladaptive, because they may have some negative on-farm or off-farm impacts. For example, over 30% of farmers reported an increase in pesticide use. Wet springs, hail, and other extreme weather can cause problems with weeds, insects, and disease. Pesticide use can be a short-term fix, but overuse can lead to evolution of resistance, which is coming to be something of a crisis globally, not to mention toxic residues in the environment.

Another example is drainage, as 47% of farmers reported increased installation or renovation of tile or ditch drainage. While tile can help move excess water off farmland more quickly, it can also lead to more nutrient loss.

These results mean it will be critical to encourage farmers to adopt adaptation strategies that minimize negative impacts. For example, extended crop rotations that add a third or fourth crop, in addition to the predominant corn and soybeans, can break pest and weed cycles naturally. And changes in drainage can be combined with edge-of-field nutrient management practices – such as nutrient removal wetlands, controlled drainage, and saturated buffers – to help remove nitrogen before it hits the streams.

Given the amount of discussion of carbon markets and related programs and their potential to help incentivize carbon sequestration through agricultural practices, the survey also included a question to gauge farmer interest. More than one-third of farmers agreed with the statement, “Programs and/or markets for carbon capture should be developed to help farmers earn money from adopting practices that capture greenhouse gases,” and 47% indicated uncertainty.

Together, these results signal openness to the kinds of programs that the Biden-Harris Administration is proposing. I think a lot of farmers are willing to talk about being part of the solution. There are numerous practices and strategies that farmers can employ to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and capture carbon, and many of those also address soil degradation and water quality issues.

Finally, the survey also showed that university Extension is the most trusted source for information related to climate change and its impacts, followed by soil and water conservation groups and scientists. Knowing who farmers trust indicates who they will look to for guidance on what kinds of actions to take, if any.

This is an important finding, because these are precisely the right entities to trust. Scientists are doing the research that points to best practices for adaptation and mitigation, and Extension’s role is to translate that science into actionable knowledge to help farmers implement practices that can hopefully help make their operations both more resilient and part of the solution to the climate change crisis.

J. ArbuckleAbout J. Arbuckle

J. Arbuckle is professor and Extension rural sociologist at Iowa State University. His research and extension efforts focus on improving the environmental and social performance of agricultural systems. His primary areas of interest are drivers of farmer and agricultural stakeholder action related to soil and water quality. He is director of the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, an annual survey of Iowa farmers, and Chair of the ISU Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture.


Header photo: Iowa farmers Dennis and Wes Degner in a cover crop field they use for cattle grazing. Credit: NRCS/SWCS photo by Lynn Betts

This post was written for The Confluence, a quarterly newsletter for watershed leaders in the Mississippi Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB). Do you lead watershed work somewhere in the MARB? Subscribe here>>

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