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Shifting farmer views on climate change

A report to be released in about two weeks suggests that farmers are definitely not climate change deniers, although your views about the causes still reflect a lot of uncertainty and differing opinions.

Iowa State University's Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, the longest running annual survey of its kind in the nation, started asking farmers about climate change in 2011 and repeated the same questions this year.

The results show a shift in beliefs.

Out of the 852 Iowa farmers who answered those questions both years, 5% said "climate change is not occurring" in 2011. This year 3% held that view.

Those who remain uncertain about climate change are a sizable minority, but also smaller. In 2011, 27% agreed that "there is not sufficient evidence to know with certainty whether climate change is occurring or not." In 2013, 23% held that view.

The rest of the group believe climate change is taking place but not on the role of humans in all this. Only a minority agrees that "climate change is occurring, and it is caused mostly by human activities," but that's also the biggest shift in opinion--from 11% with that view in 2011 to 16% this year.

The biggest group splits the difference, agreeing that "Climate change is occurring, and it is caused more or less equally by natural changes in the environment and human activities." That group, too, increased slightly, from 35% in 2012 to 37% in the 2013 poll.

The other choice given in the survey was "Climate change is occurring, and it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment." That view changed little, dropping from 23% in 2011 to 22% this year.

Such changes aren't unusual in opinion polls, says J. Gordon Arbuckle, Jr., the ISU sociologist who prepared the survey along with ISU Extension sociologist Paul Lasley.

"The general public goes up and down on what they believe about climate change," Arbuckle said.

Nor was the changing views among farmers unexpected.

"I wasn't surprised because the wild weather we've been having the last couple of years has got people thinking, 'something must be going on,' " Arbuckle told Agriculture.com.

Perhaps no other occupation is more affected by and obsessed with weather than farming. So when the poll asked Iowa producers to rank the things that influence their beliefs, drought was at the top of the list. Iowa was still in drought when the survey was mailed last February by USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service to a sample of 2,145 farmers. Of those who responded to that question, 49% said drought had moderate or strong influence on their beliefs about climate change; 42% put "extreme rains and flooding" in one of those categories.

None of the organizations listed for possible influence made the same impression as recent weather. ISU Extension was most influential, with 28% indicating a moderate to strong influence. Environmental groups had that much influence on 21% and government agencies 20%. Farm groups came in last, at 14% moderate to strong influence.

In 2013, the survey also asked farmers to rank their concerns about possible effects of climate change. They were given a list of changes that agricultural climate scientists expect. "Longer dry periods and drought" topped the list, with 67% of farmers concerned or very concerned. The next biggest concern was "increased insect pressure (60%), followed by increased soil erosion, more heat stress on crops, increased weed pressure, higher incidence of crop disease, increased loss of nutrients into waterways, more frequent extreme rains, increases in saturated soils and pond water, and increased flooding.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll of 2011 and 2013 isn't the only survey of farmers on climate change. Sandwiched between it is a survey of farmers in 22 watersheds in 11 north-central states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin). That survey of almost 5,000 farmers showed that 66% believe that climate change is occurring, with 8% saying is mostly caused by humans, 33% splitting it between human and natural causes, and 25% saying its mostly natural. In that group, 31% were uncertain and 3.5% didn't believe climate change is occurring.

All of these surveys contrast with another study by a group of agricultural economists that's been in the news recently. An article in next month's issue of Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics shows strong disagreement with the statement, “I believe climate change has been scientifically proven.”

The study is summarized in the Journal article, “U.S Agricultural Producer Perceptions of Climate Change.” Roderick Rejesus, an economist at North Carolina State University, and fellow ag economists in Mississippi, Texas, and Wisconsin prepared a survey that went to a representative sample of farmers in those states.

When asked if they agree with the statement, “I believe climate change has been scientifically proven” between 15% and 20% of producers in the four states strongly disagreed.

“When the strongly disagree and disagree responses are summed, the total negative response is nearly 50% in Mississippi and Texas,” the economists report. “However, in all four states, between 20% and 30% of the respondents indicated that they have no opinion about the issue.”

About 70% of the farmers in those states also agreed that “Average yields will not increase or decrease more than 5% as a result of climate change.”

The study itself isn’t as current as the Midwestern surveys. The poll in the four states was mailed in early spring of 2009. Articles that appear in scholarly journals often take months or longer for the writers’ professional peers to review them and to be revised ahead of publication.

That 2009 survey was taken just a few months after the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in Seattle, when fighting climate change legislation in Congress was at the top of the group’s agenda. That was before several years of drought in the Great Plains and the national drought of 2012.

Whether or not the events of the past few years have brought such a dramatic shift from 2009, Arbuckle isn’t certain.

It's difficult to compare the studies because they ask different questions, he said. The 2009 survey doesn’t ask farmers exactly if they believe climate change is occurring. It asks whether it’s been scientifically proven, if farmers believe human activities are causing it, if they believe it’s caused by normal weather cycles, and if they believe El Nino-La Nina weather cycles affect production in their area.

“They’re coming at climate change beliefs in a roundabout way, whereas we just ask the question,” Arbuckle said.

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