A study shows that irrespective of farmers’ belief in anthropogenic climate change, they implement climate adaptations, many of which have mitigation co-benefits
Crop and livestock farmers, while being sceptical of anthropogenic climate change, are implementing varied adaptation strategies in response to climatic extremes, a study found. The study, which spanned four years from 2017 to 2020 in Siskiyou County, California, USA, looked at farmers’ perceptions of climate change as extreme weather events became more frequent.
The farmers mostly talked about the changes they saw in terms of weather, not climate. For instance, a farmer who raised cattle and hay said, “Weather pattern has changed. We have much milder winters. I don’t know, I don’t feel that the temperature fluctuation has been extreme. Some summers are warmer. Some are cooler. Just quite a bit less moisture.”Another crop and cattle farmer described milder winters, adding, “Individual weather events, they’re just pretty much random.
The study found that the majority of farmers were doubtful about human-caused climate change. Many stated that the weather is cyclical in their responses, saying things like, “Things are always changing in cycles” and “Droughts are always cyclical.” Some even narrated incidents in family histories to describe distinct cycles of dry or wet weather.
However, regardless of their opinions or beliefs regarding climate change, every farmer in the study has modified their methods of farming in response to the effects of climate change, particularly drought.
While many farmers had always added organic matter to their soil, some claimed that more recent water shortages had prompted them to make additional efforts to raise the amount of organic matter in their soil. Similar to this, most crop farmers cited drought experiences as a driving force for selecting certain crop rotations (such as incorporating grain crops into hay and alfalfa rotations) or particular forage species, even though most had already been engaging in some form of crop rotation with forage production and intercropping by planting alfalfa and orchard grass together to increase drought response diversity.
According to the study, almost all farmers had made investments in new infrastructure and technology. Farmers reduced water use, increased water storage capability, and favoured groundwater sources in response to the growing precarity of surface water.
Additionally, farmers were spending money on pivots nozzles and deeper wells for irrigation. They understood that input-focused infrastructure upgrades like digging wells or purchasing pivot irrigation and monitoring software fetched only short-term benefits and did not reverse the underlying trend of declining precipitation.
The researchers noted that the farmers were actually describing “maladaptive” practices that do not really address the drivers of vulnerability and can exacerbate the problem in the future.
About half of all respondents had chosen new crop or livestock species, anticipating that the present weather trends will only continue and even amplify. Women farmers and newer farmers put a specific emphasis on introducing new varieties to diversify their farms, resulting in two main advantages: access to new market opportunities and dispersal of the physical hazards of extreme weather.
Some farmers specifically sought out farm companies that utilised less water while taking calls about diversification. The study mentioned how during the worst of the drought in 2012–2014, a young cattle and forage farmer claimed that he expanded his herd to include pastured pigs because “Pigs don’t take a lot of water.”
Additionally, farmers also tested new strategies like flooding pastureland in the early spring to replenish the groundwater or regulating the tree cover on pastureland (adding or removing trees) to ensure shade or lower water intake.
Frequent droughts and smoke from wildfires have fuelled a shift in how people viewed off-farm work as a better long-term means of subsistence. For instance, the mother in a family that kept cattle was enrolled in night classes to become an accountant.
It was interesting to see how farmers described and distinguished between weather variability and climate signals, described climate change in terms of harsh local geographies and cycles, and used field-management practices and livelihood strategies in response to impacts like droughts and wildfires, all while majority of them denied anthropogenic climate change.
The study concluded that having different perspectives on climate change does not limit taking climate action.