Maine Farmers and Climate Change, Part II

For Lambert’s benefit.

By Stephanie Welcomer, an associate professor of management at the University of Maine; Mark Haggerty, an associate professor in the Honors College at the University of Maine and a member of its Sustainable Food Systems Research Collaborative; and John M. Jemison, Jr, an extension professor of soil and water quality at the University of Maine. 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. Cross posted from Triple Crisis.

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.

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About David Dayen

David is a contributing writer to He has been writing about politics since 2004. He spent three years writing for the FireDogLake News Desk; he’s also written for The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post, The Washington Monthly, Alternet, Democracy Journal and Pacific Standard, as well as multiple well-trafficked progressive blogs and websites. His has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Russia Today, NPR, Pacifica Radio and Air America Radio. He has contributed to two anthology books, one about the Wisconsin labor uprising and another on the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress. Prior to writing about politics he worked for two decades as a television producer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddayen.


  1. Gerard Pierce

    “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.”

    There was a time that this might have been true. Unfortunately, in a financialized and crapified system, the power players look at each new disaster as an opportunity to loan money to those afflicted, collect as much vigorish as possible and acquire the land or other assets at dirt cheap prices when it all falls apart.

    Newcomers to the system are squashed unless they have figured out a way to play “let’s make a deal”.

    Making things better is not acceptable if it causes a loss of possible income.

  2. sd

    The thought of the loss of Maine blueberries makes me sad. If you’ve ever eaten them, your life is that much richer for it.

    Climate – I had the opportunity to talk with some Icelandic fishermen a few years ago. At one point the subject turned to global warming. Collectively, there was no doubt in their mind about climate change. They were multi generation fishermen, with the skills passed down son to son.

    They noticed centuries old migration patterns that followed the fish changed in the 1970s. What they couldn’t understand was why the rest of the world was just figuring it out. It just seemed so obvious to them.

    The article alludes to farmers who are in denial. So I just wonder, how is it that farmers who have to follow the realities of the the cycles of seasons can not be fully aware of changing patterns? The success of a crop depends on observation.

    1. Noonan

      I know a lot of farmers. They are very aware of changing weather patterns. They are also aware that weather patterns have always changed, and that there is nothing they can do to control the climate.

      1. different clue

        Since I remain impressed with the general broad-outline predictive robustness of ManMade Global Warming theory and therefor am satisfied with its reality-value for now, I will go ahead and call myself a warmist since that is what skeptics are calling non-skeptics.

        So as a warmist I would say, it is true that there is nothing any one farmer can do about changing climate. But if farm and non-farm society intelligently co-operated to arrange the plant-driven suckdown of skycarbon and its long-term bio-sequestration into and under the soil, then the overall carbon skyload could be re-reduced enough to set the heat-retention thermostat back a little lower than where it is headed now. But it would take a couple billion people co-operating to facilitate the suckdown of skycarbon over millions of square miles of farm/pasture/rangeland. (And facilitating greater carbon suckdown by forest land could have its own “skycarbon-drainage” effect. As could restoring water to a couple hundred million acres of drained wetlands to facilitate their carbon suckdown and peat buildup).

  3. TheCatSaid

    It’s compelling hearing from these farmers. There is no longer any room for error, using conventional human-perspective “best guesses”.
    I’m convinced the only way we’ll thrive in the times ahead are to develop a more direct working relationship with nature.
    I use the tools developed at the Perelandra Nature Research Center (VA). They just released instructions for applying their PIC development to Environments. This could transform the experience of hard-hit farmers,or anyone else who wants to “hear” more clearly from nature how to deepen balance and stabilize their unique environment.

  4. mark

    It’s not that they’re stupid.

    Farmers don’t accept the science, because of the way they farm, and the size of their farms. All based on running huge implements, burning petroleum and spreading fertilizer made with natural gas. To admit that this causes climate change, means doing farming differently, which is very difficult, especially without help to change. And there is no help for them in that way, that I know of.

    So they choose to disregard the science, and are given no end of false information to make them feel ok with it.

    As predicted by climate science, we already have unusually frequent record flooding years, followed by deep drought.

    This is all extremely disturbing; It is one part of a chaotic, horrible future.

    1. Aaron

      Farmers don’t need false information to help them feel ok about their climate change contributions. They can accept the science and still ignore it without the need for comforting narratives. They don’t really have much choice because their businesses would be unprofitable (or much less profitable) without the use of fossil fuels.

      1. Lambert Strether

        “Unprofitable” isn’t true for all farmers; you’ve heard of Polyphase farm. It’s also not clear to me why profit should be the essential metric, here. Because markets?

        1. different clue

          No, not because markets in this case. Because the farmer has to make enough money to pay for all his/her expenses plus living expenses and money for personal/family use and savings. In this case “profit” would be the word for the money-denominated share of the actual biowealth captured by the farmer which is credited to the farmer for his/her work.

          Food for pay, not for free. The farmer is not our slave. So how do we structure reward/payback to the farmer for farming in a net-carbon-suckdown way?

    1. jonboinAR

      —There is no evidence that patterns of drought and heavy rainfall are changing because of the consumption of fossil fuels and increase in CO2.—


      1. Tpinlb

        Can you provide evidence that increased CO2 has affected patterns of drought and rainfall?
        And please don’t say that this is demonstrated by the global circulation computer models – some models predict more drought, some less. When one compares actual temperatures to those projected by the models, the models lack skill and overestimate the rate of warming by two or three times.the models have lacked skill. Even the IPCC says there is a lack of strong evidence linking higher CO2 levels to changes in the incidence of drought and rainfall.

    2. Code Name D

      Do you have any REAL data to support this? You know, one that sites pear reviewed papers at prestigious generals with rigorous submission standards? Rather than a a list of qout mines.

  5. docg

    There’s been no significant warming on a global scale since the turn of the century. There is also no evidence supporting the widespread claim that extreme weather is becoming more frequent. Many such claims regarding specific types of extreme weather are misleading. For example, “With increased National Doppler radar coverage, increasing population, and greater attention to tornado reporting, there has been an increase in the number of tornado reports over the past several decades. This can create a misleading appearance of an increasing trend in tornado frequency. . . . The bar charts below indicate there has been little trend in the frequency of the [more commonly reported] stronger tornadoes over the past 55 years.” (

    Reports of Arctic sea ice loss are balanced by sea ice gain in the Antarctic. Moreover, instances of extreme Arctic sea ice loss were reported in the past — this is nothing new. See Washington Post article of 1922 as quoted here:

    According to my analysis of the psychology behind the g. w. myth, it began during a period of strong correlation between CO2 emissions and atmospheric warming. During that period a mindset was formed which led to a so-called “scientific consensus” that has persisted to this day — because “Once a mindset develops, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to alter.” (
    As the correlation ceased roughly 15 – 18 years ago, there is no longer a sound argument supporting a causal relationship. But the mindset has persisted — hence the “consensus.” Actually many scientists are no longer part of that consensus.

  6. Code Name D

    Why are farmers not getting behind climate change? One local researcher I know explained it this way. When they go to school, what they are exposed too has more to do with market theory than the sciences such as biology or climate systems. They are equipped with make tools that appear to offer insights into the world around them, but in actuality keeps them firmly planted in the market’s narrative.

    They do notice falling precipitation levels. But for some reason they never connect falling rain levels with water shortages. Water shortages are the result of government regulations which distort the market and that is what causes the shortages. It doesn’t help when they do see the government play favorites by making sure the golf courses get plenty of water to keep ESPN and golf-loving campaign donors happy. Farmers are taught that the market needs to make these decisions – so they end up trying to grow water melon or cabbage in the desert, then wonder why they can’t seem to get enough water.

    As the collage education system is increasingly being captured, market fundamentalism and so called “fiscal literacy” is spreading like a malignant cancer, displacing every thing else. Consider Crisis’ quote that he took from Connie Gersick describing the farming sector as “being in being in equilibrium until fundamental factors change.” That right there is neo-classical economic language. Markets are said to be moving from one equilibrium to another. It’s bad enough that economists continue to use 19th century thinking, apparently never noticing that the rest of the scientific world has long sense moved on into a dynamic world. But Gersick is using this in the context of environmental changes and water availability – a decidedly non-economic subject that is defiantly not linear.

    Between NPR and PBS simply not covering this, the constant propaganda they get on TV and radio the gomit conspiracy, and even the academics getting it wrong, honestly what are they supposed to think?

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