Maine Farmers and Climate Change, Part I

How Do Farmers See It?

Stephanie Welcomer, Mark Haggerty, and John Jemison, Guest Bloggers

This is part I of a two-part series, excerpted from an article originally published in the March/April issue of Dollars & Sense. The full article is available here.

Maine’s farmers are facing unprecedented challenges stemming from climate change, centered on the two key ingredients in agriculture—water and soil. Too much water can wash soil away, while too little limits crop production and dries the soil out. According to the University of Maine report Maine’s Climate Future, the “high-intensity rainfall events” that are expected to accompany climate change are “less effective at replenishing soil water supplies and more likely to erode soil.” Meanwhile, higher average temperatures mean that, for a given level of precipitation, less water will actually be available to crops, due to higher rates of moisture loss from the ground and from the plants themselves.

As part of the 2011 “Assessing Maine’s Agriculture Future” study, we interviewed around 200 Maine farmers about changes in the climate and their expectations for the future of farming. We asked representatives and opinion leaders from a wide sampling of the state’s farming sectors about their reasons for farming, their concerns, and their hopes for the future, as well as changes in weather patterns and their related adaptations.

“Assessing Maine’s Agriculture Future”: About the Study
The people interviewed included:

  • A total of 199 Maine farmers and agricultural advisors
  • Commodities farmers (apple, beef, blueberry, dairy, potato, and large vegetable producers)
  • Small diversified farmers (farmers’ market producers, organic farmers and gardeners, small vegetable producers)
  • Tribal farmers (Micmac Nation)
  • Agricultural consultants (extension-agency and industry crop advisors)

During the interviews, most farmers did not acknowledge that climate change was happening, only that weather was unpredictable. In the words of one farmer:

Well, talk about climate change. You have an early spring; you usually have an early fall. You have a late spring; the fall carries on three weeks, maybe sometimes even a fourth week. And, I’ve seen that happen time and time again, and that’s, you know, that climate is changing all the time.

Another farmer said:

I think we’ve been fighting weather forever and we always will. And there’s never been two seasons alike and it’s how you manage that weather.

These farmers appear to argue that changing weather is nothing new, and that finding ways to manage the effects of the uncontrollable weather has always been inherent to agriculture. Still another farmer combines the recognition that adaptations are necessary with skepticism that there is actual human-caused climate change, or that it is a bad thing:

Yeah, I’ve read that and seen that. As far as what do we do? I order an extra pallet of plastic so I can put up more silage if it’s a real rainy year. If it’s a dry year, we make dry hay. It’s all we can do. You ain’t gonna change the weather.

Then he continues:

If they say that the climate is changing due to —what’s the big word?—“global warming.” If this is global warming, I love every minute of it.

This view suggests that at least some farmers see benefits to climate change. The additional carbon dioxide, indeed, positively impacts plant growth. The longer growing seasons and higher temperatures make additional crops and varieties viable. Yet most farmers express concern about how to manage changing and increasingly volatile weather patterns. In the “Assessing Maine’s Agricultural Future” study, we found that farmers are using an array of adaptation strategies. Farmers are planting crops earlier, to take advantage of the shorter frost season, planting new crops, and even using genetically modified organisms to adapt to the new growing season. They are building structures to buffer crops from head-on exposure to the outside environment. One farmer says:

We’re definitely going in the direction of doing more and more different things, building more hoop houses and greenhouses to have more control of the growing environment. As farmers discussed adaptation, they often acknowledged that weather was inextricably linked to soil structure, and to the lack of or over-abundance of water. They are turning to constructed ponds, irrigation, and new drainage systems to maintain crop and soil health.

As one apple grower puts it:

Anything we can do to move Mother Nature out of the picture benefits us in the end. Not surprisingly, controlling the environment is a key part of dealing with climate change’s related outcomes.

One agriculture consultant explains:

I think whether people are doing it on a conscious level or it’s just something that they have to deal with., The farmers I am working with are looking to have more control over different parts of their operations. They are definitely being impacted by it, whether or not they say, “Yes, this is climate change.”

Farmers interviewed in this study seem to be making adaptations to address day-to-day challenges they see in the field—drawing on techniques familiar to them, attempting to adapt their methods at the margins rather than at the deep structure. These adaptations prioritize maintaining short-term profitability and are not linked to a call for policies that could address the root causes of climate change. When asked about government policies or initiatives that they would like to see, none of the farmers argued for policies aimed at climate mitigation or supporting farmers’ climate adaptations.

STEPHANIE WELCOMER is an associate professor of management at the University of Maine.
MARK HAGGERTY is an associate professor in the Honors College at the University of Maine and a member of its Sustainable Food Systems Research Collaborative.
JOHN M. JEMISON, JR. is an extension professor of soil and water quality at the University of Maine.

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One Response to “Maine Farmers and Climate Change, Part I”

  1. Jim Harkness says:

    This survey certainly captures some broad truths: farmers are aware of climate variation and are adapting; they tend not to ascribe it to human actions; and their short-term adaptations are therefore not always climate-friendly. But there is another side to the story, a growing alliance of farmers, ranchers and foresters who are sharing their experiences, learning and teaching adaptation and mitigation practices, as well as adding rural voices to the climate movement. For more, see