By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Director
Climate change is not a future or hypothetical problem – year after year, farmers and ranchers across the country are enduring more frequent and extreme weather events and natural disasters.
This year has been no different. In California, dozens of fires have burned through hundreds of thousands of acres, destroying farm structures and razing crops. Though wildfires have always been common in the state, its annual wildfire season has become progressively more destructive as higher temperatures and drought make it easier for fires to start and spread. Over the last three years, fires have caused collectively $565 billion worth of damage; the current blaze, which is one of the largest on record, will likely be quite costly as well.
Unfortunately, California isn’t the only state experiencing severe wildfires. In Colorado and Arizona, both of which are experiencing similarly dry and hot conditions, fires have claimed 200,000 and 60,000 acres, respectively. The region is not nearly as agriculturally-dominated as California, but even so, farmers still could lose crops, rangeland, and livestock. Even for those who don’t suffer direct damage, the fires are problematic. For one, the underlying drought could cut into crop yields and forage for grazing animals. On top of that, smoke can seep into some crops and make them inedible, which means that some California vineyards may need to compost an entire year’s worth of grapes.
Smoke and heat aren’t just detrimental to crop quality; they also make for extremely dangerous working conditions for farmers and farm workers. Smoke inhalation can cause short-term discomfort, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and even death. The risk isn’t helped by the fact that N95 masks – which are among the only effective protection from smoke – are still scarce because of the pandemic. Heat stress can be similarly dangerous, fatally affecting farm workers at a rate 20 times that of the general population and surpassing pesticides as their greatest health risk. As climate change continues to cause average temperatures to rise, the threat of heat exhaustion will just get worse; unsafe work days for farm workers are expected to double in the next 30 years.
Though the hasn’t been nearly as dry, farmers in the region haven’t been spared: hurricane-force winds flattened more than a third of Iowa’s farmland and decimated grain bins, houses, and buildings. “Things are bad,” Iowa Farmers Union President Aaron Lehman told The New York Times. “None of us have experienced wind like this, and you’re talking about a situation where there are farmers who have been farming for five or six decades.”
With the worst of hurricane season yet to come, farmers will likely see more losses. Just this week, a category four hurricane is expected to make landfall in the Gulf Coast.
It’s important to note that no single weather event can be attributed to climate change; however, the trend towards more frequent and more severe disasters definitely can be.
We are in a climate emergency. It’s threatening farmers’ livelihoods – and if we don’t act soon, it will threaten our food security too. The good news is that on-farm conservation practices, renewable energy production, the expanded use of biofuels, and market-based initiatives can help to curb carbon emissions, temper climate change, and provide the tools farmers need to adapt to its effects.
This week, the Senate Democrats Special Committee on the Climate Crisis released a new report, which recognizes the very real threat that climate change poses to agriculture and the role that farmers can play in mitigation. More specifically it recommends expanding USDA conservation programs, investing in technical assistance for regenerative practices, facilitating carbon markets, supporting the expansion of biofuels, investing in rural broadband, and supporting on-farm renewable energy production.
Learn more about what farmers are doing to act on climate and how you can fight for better climate policy at NFU’s Climate Change Resource Center.
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