Arkansas Farmers Face New Challenges with Climate Change

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released last month a report outlining the challenges climate change poses to agriculture in the U.S. That report used the word “adaptation” 714 times, “adapt” 56 times and “adapting” 27 times.

Climate change will hurt crops and livestock, the 193-page report, “Climate Change & Agriculture in the United States: Effects & Adaptation,” said in its executive summary.

Specifically: “The continued degree of change in the climate by midcentury and beyond is expected to have overall detrimental effects on most crops and livestock.”

Marty Matlock, for one, thinks the “tipping point,” “paradigm shift” or some such other change in the consensus about the climate and agriculture has tipped or shifted or otherwise changed. Matlock thinks that farmers accept the notion that climate change is real, that the world has warmed, precipitating “wetter wets, dryer dries, warmer warms, colder colds.”

What he thinks is important because Matlock, a biological and agricultural engineer by training, heads the office for sustainability at the University of Arkansas. In addition, he’s area director for the UA’s Center for Agricultural & Rural Sustainability.

His expertise doesn’t end with agriculture. Matlock and the Sustainability Consortium in the Sam M. Walton College of Business are working to develop scientific measurements to determine what sustainable production of consumer goods would look like. In that capacity, he works closely with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other private enterprises.

Matlock, a scientist, might be convinced, but the Arkansas Farm Bureau isn’t ready to declare the issue settled, nor does the state Agriculture Department appear to be entirely on board. And a couple of farmers interviewed by Arkansas Business rejected the term “climate change,” saying that when it comes to the weather, all bets are off.

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Dow Brantley farms about 9,000 acres near England, growing Arkansas’ big four field crops: soybeans, rice, corn and cotton. He’s also chairman of the Arkansas Rice Federation.

“We observe all the extremes” of weather, Brantley says. “I haven’t seen a consistent pattern. We’re still growing the same crops that my family has been growing for a hundred years.”

However, he says, “Crops are maturing earlier. That’s due to research. I don’t think climate had anything to do with that.”

And Jeff Rutledge, who grows mostly rice and soybeans on 3,500 acres near Newport, says: “It’s hard to define normal. The weather changes so much. It’s different every year.”

As for what state Agriculture Secretary Butch Calhoun will allow, he says that the weather, always changeable, seems to be more changeable lately.

And the Farm Bureau echoes its parent organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation, which “recognizes there may have been an increase in occurrences of extreme weather.” It doesn’t think the U.S., by itself, can do anything to affect global temperatures or stop “devastating weather events.”

Ultimately, that position is not so different from Matlock’s thinking:

“A farmer can’t control climate change. Global governments might be able to impact that, but farmers can’t. Farmers have to respond to it. They have to understand it. They have to understand its implications.”

Matlock says the farmers he deals with do recognize a changing climate. “Arkansas farmers are acutely attuned to the issue of sustainability, particularly as it pertains to climate change and other changes in their production environment,” he says. “They’re reading everything they can get. They’re attending meetings. They’re participating in the regional and national conferences and workshops in these issues. They are engaged at the individual and leadership level in trying to understand what these implications are.”

Agricultural interests, Matlock says, are “seeing these record rains, record droughts. They’re seeing this and they’re saying, ‘This is not normal.’ They might, over a coffee or a beer, say, ‘Well, it’s not human causes. It’s sunspots.’ But the notion that it’s changing? That’s not even a discussion point anymore.”

Even Steve Eddington, a spokesman for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, acknowledges that farmers are voicing concerns. “It’s certainly a topic that people are talking about. And I’m using ‘climate change’ as broadly as can be, relative to the drought. Or the heavy, heavy rains we had a year and a half ago, too.”

So though some farmers might reject the term “climate change,” most seem able to handle “weather patterns that seem more extreme.” While not succinct, the phrase also conveys the sense that agriculture is facing something new.

What’s new, according to the USDA’s recent report, isn’t just warmer temperatures; it’s also “extreme precipitation events” — heavier and longer rains, downpours that push rivers over their banks and into adjacent fields. In addition, some agricultural pests and diseases flourish in warmer temperatures, posing more threats to farming.

Winners and Losers

While the something new facing Arkansas agriculture presents challenges, it also presents potential benefits. There will be winners and losers in climate change, but it’s much too soon to predict who those will be.

Last year, for example, weather winners in Arkansas were growers of soybeans, corn and rice, which had record yields, and cotton, whose yield was the third-highest on record.

Those crops benefited from a warm spring, a longer growing season and plentiful irrigation that counteracted the intense drought. The total value of production of the main field crops in Arkansas in 2012 totaled $5.22 billion, a 23 percent increase over the $4.25 billion in 2011. Rice, soybeans and corn accounted for 80 percent of that total value, according to the Arkansas Crop Values Report, released on Feb. 15.

The state’s main row crops were able to overcome the worst effects of summer’s nationwide drought. As of Sept. 12, more than 2,000 counties in the United States had been declared disaster areas by the federal Agriculture Department. Arkansas’ hay and cattle growers were among those agriculture interests devastated by drought, making them losers in the climate calculus.

The biggest challenge to Arkansas agriculture, most agree, will be its continued access to sufficient water.

“As long as you’ve got plenty of water, well you just keep giving [the crop] more water and you may actually see a benefit from warmer warms because you get to plant earlier,” Matlock said. “But the problem with that is if you’re running out of water, scarcity induces a crisis, and we may see that in Arkansas.”

Matlock hopes Arkansas farmers keep an open mind and pay attention to the data, which he trusts them to do.

“Every farm is an experimental unit. Every farmer becomes a scientist,” he says. “And if that sounds big and grandiose, it’s not. It’s pretty much land-grant vision 101. That’s what we’ve been trying to do for 160 years.”

Farmers “shouldn’t be afraid of data, theirs or anybody else’s,” Matlock says.

Eddington, of the Farm Bureau, in acknowledging the unfortunate politicization of climate change, assures that farmers understand that science is a friend to farming, not an enemy.

“The Earth’s pretty resilient and climate’s pretty resilient and humans are too,” Matlock says. “But we better understand it if we’re going to be sustainable, if we’re going to stay prosperous.”

He adds: “We don’t always have to agree on everything in order to make good decisions. What we have to find is where our agreement points are to make good decisions and work from those. It’s a foundation for our democracy and for scientists. Scientists often disagree, but we find the things we agree on and we move from there.”

Seeking the Half-Full Glass

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s report on climate change lays out the agency’s evidence for the phenomenon as well as some strategies for dealing with it. It also recognizes the uncertainty and controversy surrounding the issue and the potential for economic winners and losers.

From “Climate Change & Agriculture in the United States: Effects & Adaptation”:

“Climate change poses unprecedented challenges to U.S. agriculture because of the sensitivity of agricultural productivity and costs to changing climate conditions. Adaptive action offers the potential to manage the effects of climate change by altering patterns of agricultural activity to capitalize on emerging opportunities while minimizing the costs associated with negative effects.”

Translated from bureaucratese, that says: “We think climate change is real. How can we minimize costs and maximize profits?”

Marty Matlock of the University of Arkansas doesn’t think the question is frivolous.

“It’s a good question and that’s what farmers ought to be looking at. I think it’s a very valuable story to tell. In order to be a competitive farmer today, you’d better understand your environment and how it’s changing. And that’s the economic environment and that’s the production environment. You better understand both and how they’re changing or you’ll be outcompeted and out of business.”

Top U.S. Agricultural Exports in 2011
Soybeans far outpaced the value of other top farming exports from the United States, standing at $20.3 billion, with corn coming in at $12.9 billion and wheat at $11.5 billion.

Soybeans $20,347,317,208
Corn $12,903,604,236
Wheat Unmilled $11,477,204,419
Cotton Ex Linters $8,861,356,654
Other Feeds & Fodder $5,486,053,783
Beef & Veal Fr/Froz $4,387,315,343
Pork Fr/Froz $4,266,308,341
Misc Hort Products $4,079,909,279
Chickens Fr/Froz $3,348,722,320
Soybean Meal $3,341,173,322
Other Grain Prods $3,135,381,498
Almonds $2,670,069,077
Rice-Paddy Milled $2,096,410,318
Soybean Oil $1,732,970,324
Other Veg Oils/Waxes $1,732,735,395
Related Sugar Prod $1,599,701,798
Essential Oils $1,479,155,219
Nonfat Dry Milk $1,451,990,267
Seeds Field/Garden $1,354,074,918
Other Dairy Prods $1,335,177,127
Other Veg Prep/Pres $1,288,893,350
Wine $1,229,833,343
Beverages Ex Juice $1,228,614,393
Chocolate & Prep $1,152,045,508
Bovine Hides Whole $1,089,536,141