America’s farmers are caught between the changing climate and Trump’s denial

The Obama administration tried to make climate change a priority at USDA. What happens now that Trump is in charge?

CREDIT: AP Images/David Goldman, Edit by Diana Ofosu
CREDIT: AP Images/David Goldman, Edit by Diana Ofosu

Don Teske, like many of his neighbors in Wheaton, Kansas, is a farmer. On his fifth-generation farm along the eastern edge of Kansas’ foothills, Teske farms a mix of grass and crops like soybeans, corn, wheat, and alfalfa. Cattle and calves roam throughout his pastures, helping to manage the grass.

Teske’s is one of 890 farms that collectively cover almost three-quarters of Pottawatomie County. Many of the area’s farmers grow forage for animals, or soybean crops, and like Teske, they have felt the multi-year drop in crop prices — combined with the rising cost of farm operation — like a vice grip tightening around their net profits.

But Teske breaks from his neighbors in one profound way: he is a vocal proponent of taking action to address the threat of climate change. In his county, which voted 72 percent for Donald Trump in the November presidential election, and in the broader landscape of rural voters, Teske is a rare green dot in a sea of deep red. Now, three months into the Trump presidency, his outlook is bleak.

“I’d pretty well lost faith in our society addressing climate change before the election,” he said. “Now it’s like, what hole can I crawl under?”


Trump began his presidency by launching an all-out assault on climate action, rolling back key policies both at home and abroad. And if Trump’s refusal to acknowledge or address climate change leads to an increase in carbon emissions — leading, in turn, to accelerated global warming and more devastating climate consequences — the rural farmers who voted him into office are likely to be some of the first to suffer the consequences.

CREDIT:AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Edit by Diana Ofosu
CREDIT:AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Edit by Diana Ofosu

I n the aftermath of Trump’s surprise victory last November, countless postmortems attempted to parse what had just happened. Various demographics were offered up on the altar of political analysis — angry, white Rust Belt workers, down-and-out coal miners, silent voters stewing in racial resentment.

But glance at any electoral map and one commonality is blatantly obvious: whatever demographic Trump voters fall into, many live in the same kinds of places, in counties and cities far from coasts or urban centers. One Democratic insider told Politico that rural America — which contains about 20 percent of the country’s population — voted for Trump by a 3 to 1 margin.

These are the places, like Pottawatomie, that contain America’s farms — the dairy operations of Wisconsin, the cornfields of Iowa, the grasslands of Kansas and the Dakotas. According to a pre-election survey conducted by the industry publication Agri-Pulse, farmers overwhelmingly preferred Trump to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. McMullen County, Texas, the county with America’s largest percentage of farmers in 2012, voted 91 percent for Trump.

Farmers are not a monolith, and like any demographic, attempts to paint their political preferences with a broad brush will undoubtedly fall short. But generally speaking, farmers are largely older, male, and white — all demographics that tend to identify as Republican. The American Farm Bureau, the most powerful lobbying entity and agricultural interest group, is extremely conservative, and has endorsed policies ranging from a national voter I.D. law to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The Farm Bureau also strongly opposed the Obama administration’s Clean Water Rule and the Clean Power Plan, both of which Trump vowed to repeal if elected, and heartily endorsed Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Trump does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change; he has repeatedly called it a “hoax.”

But there’s one other factor that might make Trump a natural fit for many farmers: his unabashed climate denial. Trump does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change; he has repeatedly called it a “hoax,” created by the Chinese to make the United States less competitive in a global economy. Farmers also tend to be skeptical about climate change, man-made climate change in particular. According to a 2014 survey conducted by Perdue University, only 8 percent of farmers said human activity was the cause of climate change.


Climate change will have widespread impacts on nearly every sector of society, from flooding coastal towns to more intense allergy seasons. Scientists predict certain areas will be more susceptible to punishing drought, and other areas will be deluged by intense downpours. It will change the way seasons come and go, which will in turn change things like migration patterns and bloom seasons. Extreme weather events, like floods or heatwaves, will be increasingly common.

That’s bad news for everyone, but it’s especially bad news for farmers, whose livelihood depends on the regularity of seasons and weather. Farmers often operate on thin margins even when crop prices are relatively stable. A small shift in temperature means crops could bloom before the final freeze, which could decimate crops that need time to flower and spread their pollen, like cherries or peaches. Small shifts in precipitation patterns could mean wetter springs, making it more difficult for farmers to plant even the most prolific commodity crops, like corn, in time for harvest. And more intense downpours can hurt crops and leave fields water-laden, forcing farmers to surrender both crops and profits to rot on the land.

It’s the very abundance of farms in the United States that make them so susceptible to the fallout from climate change.

It’s the very abundance of farms in the United States that make them so susceptible to the fallout from climate change. Farms account for just over 40 percent of all U.S. land, which means when climate consequences hit, there’s a good chance they will hit a farm.

In an effort to help soften the blow, the United States Department of Agriculture started doing something a few years ago that it had never done before: prioritize programs aimed at helping farmers both mitigate their contribution to climate change and adapt to its impacts. But Trump’s aggressive rollback of climate action, led by an administration with deep industry ties — including an agriculture secretary who has a history of climate denial — makes the future of those initiatives seem more tenuous than ever.

CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress

There aren’t many professions in the world that are more dependent on the weather and climate than agriculture, which creates something of a paradox for social scientists trying to understand why farmers tend to reject the scientific consensus on climate change. Farmers’ livelihoods are so closely tied to the weather; shouldn’t they should be some of the first people to notice the trends — the droughts, the shift in seasons, the extreme precipitation — that come with climate change?


But farmers also tend to have a long institutional memory about the climate, recalling periods of drought and above-average precipitation more readily than a non-farmer would. America’s longest running periodical, the Old Farmer’s Almanac, has been tracking and predicting weather patterns since 1792. When the majority of your profits for a year depend on the precise confluence of a particular temperature with a particular type of weather, little changes seem so big that big changes can seem normal.

“It may be because farmers are so in tune with the weather and they are constantly adapting to the weather, perhaps they’re more likely to see it as natural variation as opposed to human-caused,” J. Arbuckle, a sociologist at Iowa State University, said. “Some farmers in interviews have said, ‘It’s the weather, right, it’s always changing.’”

“Some farmers in interviews have said, ‘It’s the weather, right, it’s always changing.’”

But social scientists also point to another reason farmers might be hesitant to accept climate change as a real, human-driven problem: accepting that carbon emissions are driving climate change, and in turn, driving the extreme weather farmers are beginning to see, means coming to terms with their own contribution to the problem.

In the U.S., agriculture falls well below the electricity, transportation, industry, and commercial and residential sectors in terms of annual greenhouse gas emissions. But the industry is still a notable contributor; the EPA estimates that around nine percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector. Most of that comes in two forms — nitrous oxide, from excess fertilizer, or methane, from animal agriculture.

Corn emitting heat via photosynthesis. CREDIT: NASA
Corn emitting heat via photosynthesis. CREDIT: NASA

In his exploration of the politics of climate change and agriculture, The Elephant in the Cornfield, Chris Clayton traces farmers’ initial uneasiness with the issue back to July of 2008, when the EPA first issued an advance notice of proposed rule-making regarding how it could potentially regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. While the agency was not actually proposing taxing livestock emissions, lobbying groups like the American Farm Bureau sprung to action, branding the move as a “livestock tax.”

It worked. To this day, the EPA isn’t even allowed to collect information on carbon emissions from livestock operations — the only major polluting industry to be afforded such an exemption.

According to social scientists like Arbuckle, because farmers gravitate to the conservative end of the political spectrum, they tend to be hesitant to accept anything that might be seen as excessive government involvement in their operations. Dan Glickman, who served as agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration, agreed that ideology and a distrust of over-regulation makes it challenging to broach the subject of climate change with farmers.

“Overall, in agriculture, there are more people that are Republicans than Democrats,” he said. “The government has to approach this carefully in order to get farmers to modify or change their behavior to deal with the impact of climate change.”

And because man-made climate change is such a sensitive issue among farmers, for much of the USDA’s history, it stayed in the margins, doing “conservation” work without explicitly trying it to the climate. The National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helped farmers adopt programs aimed at better conserving soil and water, practices that helped manage their land and prevent farm runoff or soil degradation. The agency’s main research arm studied the breeding of drought-resistant crops. But the agency lacked a clear strategic plan for combating climate change on U.S. farms — until a freshman senator from Illinois moved into the White House in 2009.

CREDIT: AP Photo/ Jacquelyn Martin, Edit by Diana Ofosu
CREDIT: AP Photo/ Jacquelyn Martin, Edit by Diana Ofosu

The 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference, held in Copenhagen, is remembered mainly for what it failed to produce — namely, any kind of binding deal between participating nations. While the meeting was largely viewed as an embarrassment for first-year president Barack Obama, there was one tangible result: a partnership with New Zealand to establish a global research alliance aimed at coordinating research on climate change and several staple crops, like rice and wheat.

That partnership signaled the beginning of the Obama USDA’s work on climate change, and, for a time, was the only climate-specific program the administration initiated within the Department of Agriculture. Part of that was undoubtedly timing — in his first term, Obama was largely concerned with passing health care reform, dealing with the recession, and, on the agriculture side, passing a new Farm Bill. But fear of broaching the topic of climate change may have also been a factor— a tendency Secretary Tom Vilsack conceded while talking to reporters at the 2015 American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual conference.

“‘Weather variation’ is USDA code for ‘climate change,’” Vilsack said.

Following Obama’s re-election in 2012, however, USDA slowly started to address climate change more explicitly. In 2014, the agency expanded its commitment to helping farmers manage climate impacts by launching a series of Climate Hubs, aimed at providing on-the-ground coordination between USDA, land grant universities and extension schools, and farmers. The program created seven hubs, along with three sub-hubs, dotted across the country, each focused on providing tailored information to farmers about how climate change would impact their crops.

“Our mission is to deliver technologies and tools that are designed to help farmers and foresters adapt to a changing climate,” Erin Lane, coordinator for the USDA Northeast Climate Hub, told ThinkProgress in 2015. “We want to hear what the farmers are doing, especially those innovative ones that are working in the field and already know what is happening in the field with weather variability and climate change.”

The Climate Hubs also functioned as a kind of catch-all for climate work within USDA and other federal agencies — communicating NOAA data to extension schools, for instance, or working with the NRCS to help farmers understand how extreme precipitation events can impact their soil.

“We have to try to be roughly on the same page in what is happening in climate and how we can deal with it.”

“We’re all going to have to be partners, in a holistic sense, in delivering this information,” Dennis Todey, director of the Midwest Climate Hub, said. “We have to try to be roughly on the same page in what is happening in climate and how we can deal with it.”

While the Climate Hubs focused on adaptation, other USDA programs began to pivot towards mitigation. In April of 2015, the agency announced that it was launching a series of programs — dubbed the Climate Smart Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry — with the goal of reducing net emissions related to agriculture by 120 million metric tons per year by 2025. If accomplished, that would be roughly the same as taking more than 25 million passenger vehicles off the road.

The programs were completely voluntary, relying on government incentives rather than strict regulations. The building blocks stretched across USDA, from programs aimed at improving soil health to programs encouraging the installation of biodigesters — machines that turn manure into energy — on dairy farms.

Part of Vilsack’s plan was to try and create market-based systems that rewarded farmers for using conservation techniques like no-till, where farmers don’t disturb soil through tillage, allowing for more soil compaction and less erosion, and cover crops, where farmers plant secondary crops, like legumes, to help improve soil health.

Another part of the plan was to make the case to farmers that being as precise as possible — with fertilizer, or irrigation — wouldn’t just help conserve resources and prevent nitrous oxide emissions or water loss; it would also help farmers only use what they need, enabling them to purchase less fertilizer, or less water. It was, the secretary argued, a win for producers and a win for the planet.

“All of this basically improves the bottom line for producers.”

“All of these programs, all of this effort — whether its renewable energy projects which are very popular with producers, or it’s increasing conservation investments in highly-erodible lands, or it’s helping farmers be more precise with the application of their fertilizer — all of this basically improves the bottom line for producers,” Vilsack told ThinkProgress in 2016.

And because he saw such economic potential for producers, Vilsack was optimistic that the climate-specific USDA programs initiated under the Obama administration would continue, regardless of what administration came next.

“I think the demand for this is not necessarily dependent on who the secretary of agriculture is, or what Congress looks like, or who’s in the White House,” he said. “It really is going to be driven by the desire of producers to be good stewards and to contribute to a goal that the country has set to reduce emissions and to allow us to be more resilient over time.”

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives for a meeting with local farmers at Bedners Farm Fresh Market in 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, Edit by Diana Ofosu
Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives for a meeting with local farmers at Bedners Farm Fresh Market in 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, Edit by Diana Ofosu

Despite commanding the majority of the rural vote, rural voters have not been Trump’s priority during his first 100 days. His pick to lead USDA, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), was Trump’s last cabinet appointment, announced the day before his inauguration. The late nomination became a drawn-out confirmation process, leaving the agency without a secretary for months. Relatively new projects, like the Climate Hubs, were thrust into limbo, with employees waiting to hear how their work will continue, or change, under the new administration.

“A lot of things are waiting to see what will happen when we get the new secretary of agriculture,” Todey, who heads up the Midwest Climate Hub, said.

The USDA refused to comment on whether or not climate change would remain a priority for the agency, instead saying that the secretary is focused on “prioritizing and working through the on-boarding process,” so the fate of climate-specific programs remains largely unknown. But the Trump administration’s record of climate-denial and environmental rollback does not bode well for the Department of Agriculture’s climate legacy.

During his welcome speech to USDA employees last month, Perdue touted a vision of the agency that is “customer-based and customer-driven,” but also rooted in science.

“I’ve got a vision for USDA… we want to be facts and evidence-based,” he said. “We want to make decisions based on facts and evidence. That means good, sound science when it’s present there to make policies based on that.”

Perdue’s own personal history with facts and evidence, however, is more complicated. As governor of Georgia, he responded to a historic drought by holding a vigil outside the state capitol, imploring residents to pray for rain. And in a 2014 op-ed published in the National Review, Perdue mocked climate science, calling it “a running joke among the public.”

Trump’s proposed “skinny budget” delivers significant cuts to programs rural communities depend on.

Meanwhile, Trump’s proposed “skinny budget” delivers significant cuts to programs rural communities depend on, including cuts to rural infrastructure, rural public radio, and rural water treatment programs. USDA faces the second-largest overall budget reduction under Trump’s proposal — a 21 percent cut, second only to the deep cuts proposed for the EPA. The temporary budget deal — which lasts through September — did not grant many Trump’s proposed cuts, but there may still be battles over USDA spending when the 2018 farm bill is drafted.

Many of Trump’s proposed cuts fall under “discretionary spending,” which is used to fund many conservation programs through USDA agencies like the NRCS. Farmers are able to apply for funding to help offset the costs of certain conservation projects, for instance, like taking certain land out of production to serve as stream buffers, or planting trees to increase carbon sequestration. And the ARS — which conducts research into climate-related solutions like carbon sequestration, or hardier crop varietals — could see its budget slashed and its priorities refocused on only “the highest priority agriculture and food issues.”

Trump’s proposed cuts to rural programs are already facing resistance in Congress, from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), a member of the Agriculture Committee and chairman of the Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, released a statement saying the president’s budget “does not work.” And Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), the ranking Democratic member on the Agriculture Committee, released a full-length report titled “President Trump is turning his back on rural America.”

The report does not mention climate change, though it does note that the USDA has been supporting conservation practices since the 1930s, and that many of these programs are crucial in helping farmers meet environmental goals, like limits on nutrient runoff allowed in waterways.

But Stabenow also readily acknowledges that farmers are facing increasingly extreme weather, and urges the USDA to continue programs aimed at helping producers stay ahead of the changing climate.

“It is critical that this administration recognizes the gravity of this issue and continues to prioritize the climate smart agriculture and forestry programs at USDA.”

“While farmers and ranchers have weathered storms and droughts for decades, climate change poses a much larger threat to agriculture, rural economies, and our nation’s food supply,” Stabenow said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “I’ve been encouraged by the impressive work USDA has done to help agricultural producers and rural communities adapt to our changing climate — from helping small businesses utilize renewable energy, to expanding voluntary conservation practices that cut down on carbon pollution, and producing climate research and data. It is critical that this administration recognizes the gravity of this issue and continues to prioritize the climate smart agriculture and forestry programs at USDA.”

Midwest Climate Hub director Dennis Todey also hopes that the administration chooses to continue this work, because regardless of whether or not farmers — or the Trump administration — choose to accept climate science, the problems associated with it are already here, and will only get worse in the future.

“The issues that we are dealing with aren’t going away,” Todey said. “We still need to help producers work through this and help adapt to the changing that are occurring. So that’s the approach we are taking.”

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman, Edit by Diana Ofosu
CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman, Edit by Diana Ofosu

A little more than a month into Trump’s presidency, wildfires tore through the prairies of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. Fueled by unseasonably warm temperatures, whipping wind, and widespread drought conditions, massive fires ripped through more than a million acres of rural America. The devastating fires hit the region’s ranchers especially hard — some ranches lost up to 80 percent of their cattle in the blazes. Some told the New York Times they could be facing losses up to $10 million; one rancher compared it to their version of Hurricane Katrina.

Trump, despite running as the friend of forgotten rural America, did not visit the areas hit by wildfire. He did spend the majority of his weekends in office at his Mar-a-Lago property in Palm Beach, Florida, however.

The conditions ushered in by climate change — shifting precipitation patterns, higher temperatures — will only make fires like the ones that swept across the Great Plains this spring more common. Ranchers and farmers will continue to face the consequences of climate change, whether or not they believe in it. And Trump — by refusing to address the problem — is only making it worse for a group of people that trusted him enough to vote him into office in November.

“I don’t know where we go from here. I worry for my grandchildren.”

In Pottawatomie County, Don Teske watches in dismay as his neighbors continue to cheer the ascendance of Donald Trump, relishing in their view that sanity has been restored to the White House. Times are hard in Wheaton; the bank recently declined to renew Teske’s loan, meaning the near-term might be just as uncertain as the long-term. But he also worries about his children, and their children, and the world they will inherit. He hopes that the next generation will recommit to making progress on climate change, but he acknowledges that could take years — years that, unfortunately, he doesn’t have.

“I don’t know where we go from here. I worry for my grandchildren,” he said. “I think this was such a blow to the progress that was made during the Obama administration. I don’t know how long it will take to get back on the bandwagon now.”