Farmland in Flux: Farming may be the most adaptable industry, but are farmers reacting to the right signals?

By Sara S. Moore

I have an idea that a lot of farmers have gone through a lot of trouble merely to be self-employed to live at least a part of their lives without a boss.
— Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food

I don’t know all the reasons why people go into or stay in farming. I grew up in a rural, isolated farming region of Northern New York where dairy farming was a family tradition, providing a stable (not booming) income for many. It isn’t my impression that farmers go into farming for the large profit margins. But neither do farmers farm in order to stay poor: they are market-savvy. They respond—perhaps first and foremost— to price signals. For example, right now almond prices are soaring because of increased demand (especially from China) and the collapse of bee colonies: even with the ongoing threat of bee colony collapse, the increasing price of almonds translates to fields of row crops being converted to almond orchards.

The other main signal that governs decisions is weather. Farmers watch weather, or the present condition of climate variables and their interactions over the short term, measured in minutes to months; but not necessarily climate, the pattern of weather over the long term, often measured in 30-year averages. Right now the main source of almonds for the world, California, is experiencing an epic drought. 2013 was the driest year in the state’s recorded history. As a result, almond trees are being turned into wood chips. And yet where irrigation is possible the transition from row crops to almond orchards continues, such as in the north of California’s Central Valley, according to Eric Parfrey, Yolo County’s principal planner. It’s a constantly shifting balance of variables, with long-term climate considerations given relatively little weight.

Constantly playing the short game, weighing a spiking price against a diving water table and disappearing pollinators, may leave farmers unprepared for long-term climatic shifts.

That is where government might step in. Governments could provide guidance and protection for farmers wanting to take risks in the interest of preparing for future climate, perhaps acting counter to their short-term interests.

However, one researcher, UC Davis’ Meredith Niles, finds that in California’s Central Valley some farmers consider “climate policy risk,” or possible losses from government policy intervention, a greater threat to their way of life than physical climate risk (Niles, Lubell, & Haden, 2013).

In fact, Niles’ study shows that past negative experiences with government environmental policies affecting their farms is highly correlated with farmers’ skepticism about climate change. Even if they have seen evidence of climate changing, negative past policy experience makes some farmers more concerned about climate change policies than climate change impacts.

Given the fact that farmers are primarily engaged in autonomous or spontaneous adaptation (because of the relative strength of short-term price and weather signals), how can farmers be encouraged to prepare for the long-term climate future? Given farmers’ resource constraints it may not be possible.

But things might not be as bad as they seem. The ongoing adaptation required of farmers may be enough to carry them successfully into the future, as long as they are willing to plan flexibly, transition crop type and variety, change irrigation practices, and otherwise change practices in response to conditions. An empirical study published in May 2014 shows that over the long-term farmers’ autonomous adaptation may be sufficient to maintain or even increase profits in some cases (Moore & Lobell, 2014). Stanford researcher Frances Moore looked at profit and yield reports in Western Europe (12 countries) between 1989 and 2009. She and her research team studied five crops (wheat, maize, sugarbeet, barley, and oilseed), comparing fluctuations over the short term versus the long term, presuming that the long-term period would capture the effect of more permanent adaptations (such as selling off increasingly unproductive land or investing in new irrigation technology), and considering projected climate change with and without those long-term adaptation effects. In all cases, yields show a decrease under climate change, even with all adaptation options in play. Adaptation moderates the negative impact of climate warming on yields, but doesn’t completely erase it. However, farmers respond more to price signals than yields, and in the projected future climate, average farm profits are shown to decrease 2.3% without adaptation – and increase 1.5% with adaptation. Farmers may not be farming for the large profit-margin, but they should be influenced by news of the possible increased profits from long-term adaptation.

Talking to Frances Moore about her results, I gathered some of her “take-aways” and thought about them in the context of California:

  • Farmers are interested in profit more than yield, so if the wheat yield goes down because of climate change, that doesn’t mean they will stop planting wheat (reminiscent of the phenomenon of the almond orchards in the Central Valley); costly adaptation actions or costly losses from heat will balance out if the price of the crop is high enough;
  • Farmers generally are more accustomed to adapting to rainfall fluctuation than long-term rising temperatures;
  • Whatever farmers say they believe about climate change may not line up with actions they take in response to climate change.

“Farmers are sensible people. They are going to respond to changes,” states Moore, “and to the extent they do, that’s adaptation.” But will they anticipate change enough? Will climate projections bear enough weight for them (relative to price and weather) for them to keep their farms going over the next fifty years of climate disruption?

The answer will not likely come in the form of a desktop study, but in farmers being engaged in the process of assessing climate risk and ways to act in anticipation of losses or opportunities for gain. If farmers are shown ways to increase long-term profits through long-term adaptation, it may avert costly investment in crops that cannot survive under the future climate. They just—somehow— have to be allowed to come to those conclusions on their own terms.

The California Climate and Agriculture Network, which works closely with Central Valley growers, has issued a set of comments in response to the state’s draft climate adaptation strategy Safeguarding California, imploring the state to shift its emphasis from research to outreach and technical assistance. You can read their recommendations here. Read more articles by Sara Moore at The Past is Not an Option.