Maine Farmers and Climate Change, Part II

System Change

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

This is part II 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.

Systems theorists, who study how organizations and systems change, offer some insight into farmers’ minimal recognition of climate change, and their lack of advocacy for climate-mitigation policy. Management scholar Connie Gersick describes systems—such as the farming sector—as being in equilibrium until fundamental factors change.

One key factor can be “environmental changes that threaten the system’s ability to obtain resources.” As the system’s actors are faced with persistent, systemic problems, they experience mounting discomfort. Once key actors recognize that the system has become dysfunctional, they begin to search for new information about the sources of the problems and possible new steps. Newcomers enter the system and are enlisted or inspired to search for solutions. The entrenched understandings, relationships, and power dynamics of the system, finally, can be dismantled. Revolutionary change can happen and a new system can be created.

Climate scientists from all over the world are doing their best to raise the alarm that climate change is happening, that it will change our natural systems irrevocably, and that these changes are accelerating. Author Rebecca Solnit calls this a “slow-motion calamity.” “Climate change is everything, a story and a calamity bigger than any other,” she writes. “It’s the whole planet for the whole foreseeable future, the entire atmosphere, all the oceans, the poles; it’s weather and crop failure and famine and tropical diseases heading north and desertification and the uncertain fate of a great majority of species on earth.”

A few of the farmers we interviewed do recognize the threat that climate change already poses. A blueberry grower commented:

I think that the weather patterns are changing … and I do believe global warming is going to have a very severe impact on the blueberry industry; even with irrigation because the heat in August has become so intense that they [blueberries] literally will cook in hours in the field. So I do think that that environmental aspect of global warming is something we’re going to be dealing with in 20 or 30 years.

Another farmer stated:

Back to back, with these weather changes you saw probably our toughest year [in history] two years ago, the best growing year last year, and when you start getting a hundred year storms every four years, you begin to wonder, you know, that perhaps there is something to this sort of thing.

An apple grower said:

The problem with weather and growing food is that … there’s a very narrow window of stability there. I mean, we get outside that window very far and everything falls apart. And so yeah, I mean it’s a real serious concern.

Farmers, on the front lines of climate change, respond within their financial and knowledge constraints. Financial constraints dictate the ability to install greenhouses, wind power, irrigation, drains, etc. Knowledge constraints include limited access to the latest research on farming practices and climate adaptation, or on the relationship between micro-level season-to-season weather and macro-level climate change. That prevents the development of a long-term policy to address ever-increasing climate changes.

It is not that farmers are generally short-sighted, categorically resisting policies that deliver long-term benefits at the expense of short-term profits. Farmers support long-sighted policies like public spending for farmland availability and regulations that ensure food quality for consumers. But few have arrived at a consciousness of climate change like the farmers quoted above. Without a major shift in thought to acknowledge climate change, the farming community continues to suffer from an advocacy gap, putting mid- and long-term farm viability at risk.

The lack of a systematic approach to agriculture and climate change also risks exacerbating the problem. Agriculture is not just a passive victim of others’ actions; it is a significant contributor of greenhouse gases. Globally, deforestation for farmland, conventional tillage, and the use of petroleum-based fertilizers, for example, are major sources of carbon dioxide emissions, while other agricultural practices are to blame for large methane and nitrous oxide emissions. All told, “agriculture is itself responsible for an estimated one third of climate change,” according to the Climate Institute.

Farmers acting on individual interests, without policies incorporating common climate-related goals, may adapt to climate changes in ways that worsen the problem. They may till more, reducing carbon sequestration, and may turn to crops that increase greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, the northern U.S. grasslands are being converted to corn for ethanol production, even though this puts the soil at risk and releases more carbon into the atmosphere. An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that “grassland conversion to corn/soy … across a significant portion of the U.S. Western Corn Belt are comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia.” Not only can farmers benefit from acknowledging, studying, and responding to climate change, they can also reduce the negative impacts of agriculture on broader social and natural systems. For instance, converting a percentage of Midwestern corn production for ethanol into grass-based pasture systems could be a first step in carbon-emissions reduction.

As Rebecca Solnit points out, addressing climate change involves not only reworking the way we do things but also changing our understandings—our stories—about the weather, the soil and water, and our food, as well as our responsibilities to each other, future generations, and the earth’s ecology. Responding to a failing system involves remaking existing relationships and formulating new narratives. By ignoring the reality of climate change and simply reacting, farmers are denying their own contribution to the problem. They are also ignoring the key role they have to play in solving it.

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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