81% of Iowa farmers say climate change is occurring, but only 18% see human activities driving it, ISU poll finds

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

In a growing shift, more than 80% of Iowa farmers now say climate change is occurring, with half of growers concerned about its impact on their operations, a new Iowa State University poll shows.

When the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll first asked farmers about global warming in 2011, 68% said it was occurring. That proportion climbed to 74% in 2013 and reached 81% last year, the poll found.

The changing sentiment reflects farmers’ experiences over the past decade, said J. Arbuckle, ISU sociology professor, who directs the poll.

“Farmers are closer to the weather than most folks,” Arbuckle said. “They’ve been hit with extreme weather event after extreme weather event — floods, drought, derecho — so I’m not surprised that farmers are more aware and more concerned about climate change.”

Despite their growing acknowledgment of climate change, only 18% of Iowa farmers say humans are mostly responsible for causing the planet to warm, the poll shows. Another 23% say natural causes are behind the warming and extreme weather.

Forty percent see a combination of natural weather cycles and human activity causing climate change. Another 16% said there’s not sufficient evidence to know with certainty that climate change is occurring.

Just 3% said climate change is not occurring.

The Iowa Farm poll also explored farmers’ feelings about their financial wellbeing and quality of life, among other topics.

The poll comes as Yale University research shows concern about climate change among the general Iowa and U.S. populations as well. Sixty-seven percent of Iowa residents — and 72% of U.S. residents — are concerned about global warming, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication estimates, based on a nationwide dataset.

“I think it’s good news that farmers are recognizing that weather is getting more dangerous, and that it’s imperative that they begin to take action to protect their farms,” said Craig Cox, the Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president on agriculture and natural resources policies.

“I can’t overstate the importance of immediate and urgent action in Iowa and across the country to improve the resiliency of their farms to stand up against what scientists say is coming,” Cox said, adding that “it’s critical for food production, but it’s also important” for addressing ongoing environmental challenges such as improving water quality.

Farmers are key to the U.S. approach to addressing climate change, experts say. About 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat and warm the planet come from farming, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Farmers can capture carbon through practices such as growing cereal rye and other crops to cover cropland in the winter, and they can cut greenhouse emissions with infrastructure such as anaerobic digesters that capture methane gas from pig-raising facilities.

Half of the 1,059 farmers who responded to the poll, conducted in February and March 2020, say they’re worried extreme weather will become more frequent.

About 80% of Iowa farmers worry about extreme rain events, increased weed and insect pressure, crop diseases and saturated soils. Nearly 80% fear longer droughts, 75% fret about heat stress on crops, and 70% worry about increased flooding, the poll shows.

Fifty-one percent of Iowa farmers said they plan to adopt more conservation practices to increase their farms’ resilience in extreme weather. Farmers say they’re interested in reduced or zero tillage, cover crops and in-season application of nitrogen, among other practices.

“Farmers are on the front lines: They’re who are most threatened by climate change and they’re helping to protect us ... from the ravages that unchecked climate change will cause,” Cox said, adding that farmers will need to accelerate their adoption of conservation to help offset the impact of climate change.

“There’s no doubt that climate change is happening,” said Rob Stout, a southeast Iowa farmer who sees both human activity and natural cycles contributing to climate change.

His family has been taking action over the past 40 years to stop the impact of extreme weather, starting with no longer tilling their farmland, which limits soil erosion after heavy rains. That effort grew in 2009 to include planting cover crops on all of their nearly 1,200 acres.

The practices prevent soil erosion and build soil health, which are important to Stout, but they also sequester carbon. “We saw that no-till just wasn’t enough,” he said.

Arbuckle said he was encouraged to see some farmers are open to the idea of new markets that would pay them for adopting practices that capture greenhouse gases. Thirty-seven percent of farmers agreed that such initiatives should be pursued compared to 17% who disagreed. Nearly half of farmers were uncertain.

“To me, these results signal an openness to strategies that help make individual farms more sustainable while also addressing the climate crisis,” Arbuckle said. “Iowa’s dominant cropping systems face a lot of sustainability challenges. Income from carbon capture could be a great step in several right directions.”

Mitchell Hora, with the family farm dog Case by his side, walks through his field of soybeans and cereal rye in rural Washington, Iowa. The rye will be harvested later this summer and the beans will follow in the fall.
Soybeans grow among cereal rye on Mitchell Hora's farm on Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in rural Washington, Iowa. While some of the rye was terminated, some was left to go and will be harvested.