‘I’m standing here in the middle of climate change’: How USDA fails farmers.

October 12, 2019 0 By HearthstoneYarns

ROCK PORT, Missouri — Rick Oswald is standing on the doorstep of the white farmhouse he grew up in, but almost nothing is as it should be.

To his right, five steel grain bins, usually shiny and straight, lie mangled and ripped open, spilling now-rotting corn into piles like sand dunes. The once manicured lawn has been overtaken by waist-tall cattails, their seeds carried in by flood waters that consumed this house, this farm and everything around it last spring.

“This house is 80 years old,” Oswald says, stepping inside the darkened living room, which now smells faintly of mold. “Never had water in it.”

American farmers are reeling after extreme rains followed by a “bomb cyclone”—an explosive storm that brought high winds and severe blizzard conditions—ravaged the heartland, turning once productive fields into lakes, killing livestock and destroying grain stores. The barrage of wet weather across the country this spring left a record-shattering 20 million acres unable to be planted—an area nearly the size of South Carolina. Other weather-related disasters, from fires in the West to hurricanes in the Southeast, have converged to make the past year one of the worst for agriculture in decades.

But the Agriculture Department is doing little to help farmers adapt to what experts predict is the new norm: increasingly extreme weather across much of the U.S. The department, which has a hand in just about every aspect of the industry, from doling out loans to subsidizing crop insurance, spends only 0.3 percent of its $144 billion budget helping farmers adapt to climate change, whether it’s identifying the unique risks each region faces or helping producers rethink their practices so they’re better able to withstand extreme rain and periods of drought.

Even these limited efforts, however, have been severely hampered by the Trump administration’s hostility to even talking about climate change, according to interviews with dozens of current and former officials, farmers and scientists.

Top officials rarely, if ever, address the issue directly. That message translates into a conspiracy of silence at lower levels of the department, and a lingering fear among many who work on climate-related issues that their jobs could be in jeopardy if they say the wrong thing. When new tools to help farmers adapt to climate change are created, they typically are not promoted and usually do not appear on the USDA’s main resource pages for farmers or social-media postings for the public.

The department’s primary vehicle for helping farmers adapt to climate change – a network of regional climate “hubs” launched during the Obama Administration – has continued to operate with extremely limited staff and no dedicated resources, while keeping a very low-profile to avoid sparking the ire of top USDA officials or the White House.

“I don’t know if its paranoia, but they’re being more watchful of what we’re doing at the local level,” one current hub employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid possible retaliation. “It’s very interesting that we were able to survive.”

The result is parallel universes of information. On the climate hubs’ under-the-radar Twitter account, farmers, ranchers and the public receive frank reports about monsoon rain storms becoming more intense across the Southwest, fire seasons getting longer across the West and how rising temperatures are already affecting pollinators.

“With #climatechange, wet is wetter, hot is hotter, dry is drier… and what do we do about all that?” reads one hubs account tweet from last April, quoting a New Jersey farmer talking about how to adapt to climate change.

The climate hubs’ account has only 3,200 followers. There are about 2 million farmers and ranchers in the country. By contrast, the official USDA Twitter account, with nearly 640,000 followers, completely avoids the topic. That account hasn’t used the word “climate” since December 2017.

Nearly every farmer and rancher POLITICO interviewed for this story – dozens in hard-hit states including Nebraska, Ohio and Californiasaid they had not heard of the climate hubs. Of the few producers who had heard of them, most were not aware of the many adaptation tools and resources that have been developed to help with decision-making.

Though Oswald has been unusually vocal about climate change negatively affecting farmers, he, too, hasn’t heard much from the climate hubs, nor does he ever hear USDA officials broach the subject. Asked if his local USDA office ever talks about climate change adaptation, Oswald laughed.

“No.”

The logic for such silence makes little sense to farmers like Oswald: Most believe that the climate is changing, though only a small share believe it’s primarily driven by human activities. But the department doesn’t have to dive into the debate about what’s causing climate change to help farmers prepare and adapt.

“I’m standing right here in the middle of climate change right now,” Oswald said.

***

The Agriculture Department is not one of those government agencies that believes it does best by doing least.

Founded in 1862, at Abraham Lincoln’s request, the department would grow to play a central role in the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt, embracing a more activist approach to respond to crises like the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Today, its mission is even more expansive. The department doles out billions of dollars in farm subsidies, underwrites insurance on millions of acres of crops, researches and helps control major diseases that threaten plants and animals and buys up massive quantities of food when farmers produce too much — a surplus that supplies food banks and schools nationwide.

But when it comes to climate change, there has been a curious silence hanging over the department, even as its own economists have warned that warming temperatures will make helping the agriculture sector more expensive in the future.

USDA spokespeople, who have long denied having any policy that dissuades discussion of climate change, declined all interview requests for this story and would not allow any officials who work on climate adaptation to discuss their work with POLITICO.

In an email, a USDA spokesperson rejected the idea that the department was failing to help farmers adapt to climate threats: “To say USDA does little to help farmers and ranchers is completely untrue.”

The spokesperson pointed to the department’s array of conservation programs. These longstanding initiatives, which all together make up four percent of USDA’s budget, provide financial incentives for farmers who want to adopt more environmentally friendly practices or take land out of production, but they were not designed to respond to or help mitigate climate change.

Ferd Hoefner, a senior adviser to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said his group has pressed USDA officials to use its existing conservation incentives to help adapt to and combat climate change, but the idea has not gotten traction within the department. I

In fact, a recent investigation by POLITICO found that USDA routinely buries its own scientists’ findings about the potential dangers posed by a warming world. The department also failed to publicly release a sweeping, interagency plan for studying and responding to climate change.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, for his part, has publicly suggested that he doesn’t believe the science coming out of his own department.

Asked specifically whether he believes climate change is caused by humans, as the vast majority of climate scientists do, Perdue demurred: “We don’t know. Obviously many scientists believe it’s human caused. Other scientists believe it’s not.”

“I think it’s weather patterns, frankly,” he said. “They change…It rained yesterday. It’s a nice, pretty day today. The climate does change in short increments and in long increments.”

Meanwhile, the National Climate Assessment has repeatedly warned that human-driven global warming will likely have dire consequences for American agriculture and make things particularly volatile in the Midwest, which has long been one of the most productive breadbaskets in the world.

But the federal government’s foot-dragging did not start during this administration.

For decades, USDA avoided tackling climate change head on, even as the department invested in research that raised warnings for farmers and ranchers and the food system as a whole. The topic has historically been too politically toxic in the traditionally conservative agriculture sector, which fears more regulation while also being extremely reliant on government programs.

The conversation began to shift noticeably during the Obama administration. Senior government officials became increasingly vocal about climate science and the urgent need for farmers and ranchers to not only better withstand periods of extreme rain or prolonged drought, but position their industry to be a major part of the solution.

Environmentalists and a growing portion of the industry think American agriculture could be shifted from a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions to instead be a massive carbon sink, or a giant sponge pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into millions of acres of soil — something that could actually help combat climate change.

There are several relatively simple changes farmers could make to become more resilient, which also have the benefit of drawing down carbon. Producers can reduce or eliminate tillage, which not only prevents soil carbon from being released into the atmosphere, but also improves how soil holds up to too much or too little moisture. They can add what’s known as cover crops to their crop rotation, a practice that helps build better soil structure — and has the added benefit of sequestering more carbon into the soil.

But changing how farmers farm is an enormous undertaking. It requires the right mix of economic incentives, education and resources for farmers and ranchers to experiment with new practices and still make a living.

In early 2014, USDA launched the 10 climate hubs, which were supposed to be the front lines of the department’s effort to get emerging climate science into the hands of farmers.

At the time, then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack touted the hubs as a way to ensure American farmers and ranchers “have the modern technologies and tools they need to adapt and succeed in the face of a changing climate.”

The hubs were set to be locally-tailored, serving seven specific regions that each contained several states, with the exception of the Caribbean Climate Hub, whose mission was primarily to help Puerto Rico. The hubs were to be housed in USDA labs or offices in the Forest Service or the Agricultural Research Service.

The attempt to use existing facilities and draw on existing resources was deliberate. The Obama Administration faced a Republican-controlled Congress, which could have easily targeted a line item focused on climate change. Thus, there was never any real funding set aside for the hubs. Their staffing level—between two and five staff per hub, including a fellow on temporary assignment — was miniscule for a department that boasted nearly 100,000 employees.

The initiative was set up as an interagency collaboration, which meant that several disparate arms of the department were expected to contribute staff and resources.

The set-up, while politically savvy, began to backfire almost immediately as officials viewed the hubs as essentially an unfunded mandate. The degree to which agencies within USDA were enthusiastic about supporting the effort varied greatly, but because it was a high priority for Vilsack the project rolled ahead.

The hubs had barely gotten up and running by the time the 2016 election hit.

When Donald Trump won — after having dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax during the campaign — several officials thought the hubs would almost certainly be on the chopping block. But notice never came.

Weeks into the transition, a new concern emerged for officials working on climate adaptation and mitigation within USDA: What are we allowed to say?

In February 2017, Bianca Moebius-Clune, a career official directing soil health at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the agency charged with overseeing conservation and other land management programs, sent an email to senior staff recommending that they consider clamping down on climate-related terms, according to a trove of internal emails revealed by The Guardian — an apparent attempt to preempt any political friction on the subject.

Instead of climate change, staff should consider using “weather extremes,” she wrote. Instead of climate change adaptation, staff should consider using “resilience to weather extremes/intense weather events: drought, heavy rain, spring ponding,” according to the emails.

Another exchange showed a different senior official appearing to suggest that a survey of USDA employee attitudes on climate change, a climate hubs project, should be reframed to downplay the issue. One of the researchers on the project pushed back and the official backed down.

At the time the emails were revealed, USDA strongly denied the suggestion that climate terms had been censored, arguing that there had been no directive from political appointees to do so. A spokesperson told POLITICO at the time that it was “unclear why career staff behind the memos had raised the issue to staff.”

When Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) raised concerns about the emails in a letter to Perdue, the secretary replied days later with a searing letter, suggesting he found it “disconcerting” that the Michigan Democrat had relied on the account of a British newspaper, according to a copy obtained by POLITICO.

“Nothing has changed in our commitment to working with the people that grow our food and fiber to address our resource challenges, including climate change,” the secretary wrote. “The department has not censored messaging on this or any issue, and I defer to the career professionals working in these agencies on how best to communicate with the farmers, ranchers and foresters that live in their communities.”

Since then, whenever Democrats on Capitol Hill have become frustrated about USDA not doing enough to address climate change, Perdue tends to deny there’s been any change in policy and point out that the department has kept the climate hubs up and running.

The secretary recently sat down with Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a longtime advocate for making agriculture a major part of not just adapting to but also mitigating climate change, and, by Pingree’s account, told her he supported the idea of paying farmers to sequester carbon in their soil, a topic his own department tends to shy away from talking about. In other settings, the secretary has openly mocked the topic of climate change.

“It’s selective depending on who they’re talking to,” Pingree said in an interview. She recalled a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing where Perdue made a joke about needing to give Pepto Bismol to cows to cut down on their flatulence — taking a shot at the Green New Deal debate — but other times when she’s pressed him on climate change and soil practices he has changed his tone.

“He gets all serious and says ‘oh yeah we have the climate hubs,’” she said. “We’re in the same room and he’s sort of presenting his two points of view.”

***

The 69-year-old Oswald, for his part, has believed the scientific consensus on climate science for a while. For nearly a decade, he led the Missouri chapter of the National Farmers Union, a liberal-leaning group that represents farmers and has long accepted the science on climate change. But this year has been particularly awful.

Oswald’s parents built the tidy farmhouse in “the river bottom,” as locals call it, in 1939, about four miles off the Missouri River. When the foundation went in, his dad asked the builder to add an extra layer of cement blocks to give the house a leg up against any flooding that might come their way.

For much of the past century, Oswald’s family and farmers in the area lived in relative peace with the Missouri River. That started to change dramatically in 1993, when both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers flooded and sunk more than 300,000 square miles of the heartland under water — a catastrophe that killed dozens of people and caused $15 billion in damages.

Even then, the flood water didn’t breach the ground floor of Oswald’s farm house. In the years since, there have been numerous scares, when intense rains or snow melts have filled the river to its capacity, causing Oswald and his neighbors to be “on edge” year after year, he said.

The last time Oswald’s land flooded, in 2011, was a turning point for him.

“Before that I was saying, yes the climate is changing, but I wasn’t ready to say that the change was caused by human activity,” he said. As he looked at the science on rising temperatures and increasing greenhouse gas emissions, he said he became convinced of the connection.

Back in 2011, a bout of extreme rains left upstream reservoirs so overloaded with water that the Army Corps of Engineers had no choice but to stage a controlled flood.

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Farmers in Oswald’s area were given three weeks’ notice before the flood water was let loose. Equipment could be taken to higher ground, corn and beans moved out. Oswald’s house was spared.

What happened this year was a “perfect storm” in many ways, he said. It had already been one of the wettest years on record in much of the Missouri River watershed when a huge storm — dubbed a “bomb cyclone” — pummeled the central U.S. in mid-March, dropping massive rain and snow from North Dakota to Colorado. In many places, the ground was too frozen to handle the influx of water, leading to widespread runoff.

Several communities saw the Missouri River and its tributaries rise to levels they had simply never seen before.

In northeastern Nebraska, one tributary became so overloaded with water and massive chunks of floating ice that it burst through the Spencer Dam “unleashing a wave of water” into the already fast-rising Missouri River, as the federal government would later describe it.

“Dams aren’t supposed to collapse,” Oswald said. “But they’re also supposed to be managed so that they don’t collapse. When you have as much rain and snow as we had, then man has to take that into account. If they don’t, why, this is the kind of thing we get. This ignorant denial of the fact that, yeah, the climate has changed and things are different now, is just going to lead to more of this.”

***

Against the backdrop of a devastating year, the climate hubs, USDA’s front line to help farmers, are not just flying under the radar — they are also struggling to hold on to what little funding and staff they have.

The inaugural class of fellows, many of them post-docs, who helped launch the climate hubs has begun to move on and those workers, who make up nearly a third of the total staff, are not expected to be replaced. USDA said no decisions have been made about whether the fellows program will continue.

“It’s duct-taped together,” said one current climate hub employee who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.

The haphazard budget set-up, where agencies are expected to chip in, has only gotten more precarious as the hubs go further into an administration that seems largely indifferent to them. As another official explained it: “It was set up to be preserved because it doesn’t have a line item, but it was also kind of set up to fail because it doesn’t have a line item.”

In recent years, two of the USDA agencies that had been supplying funds for the hub network have pulled their financial support: the Risk Management Agency and Farm Service Agency, according to documents obtained by POLITICO. Despite these challenges, USDA said the department has managed to keep the overall budget for the climate hubs largely flat — at just over $10 million total for all ten locations — since 2015.

Nonetheless, other agencies have started to ask that the staff they’re dedicating to the hubs do more work that’s specific to the mission of their agency, not necessarily the broader mission of the climate hubs.

The Forest Service, for example, is less interested in changing on-farm practices because it’s outside the scope of its work, and the Agricultural Research Service is generally more interested in publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals than it is in doing farmer outreach, something that’s usually left to other parts of USDA.

The rocky political situation has left the hubs to struggle with competing priorities and an uncertain future while international authorities warn that action on climate is increasingly urgent to stave off the most dire consequences.

Officials who work on climate issues within USDA are often conflicted about whether the hubs and their resources should get more promotion in the current administration, according to more than a dozen interviews with current and former staff. On one hand, they see their work as more urgent than ever, but on the other there’s a sense that ignoring the hubs may be key to their survival in a politically hostile environment.

“The one saving grace is that they’re so low-profile they haven’t been targeted,” one former hub employee said.

Against the odds, the boot-strapped climate hubs have come up with several programs and tools aimed specifically at helping farmers, ranchers and forest managers make climate-focused decisions, according to interviews and a review of their websites. And the hubs continue to use the term climate change liberally — a rarity in the department.

Last year, the Northwest Climate Hub, fresh off a particularly horrible wildfire season, contributed to a new tool called AgBizClimate built by Oregon State University. The program allows operators to plug in farm-specific information and model out economic costs and returns for their businesses under different climate scenarios.

“This tool is a powerful means to summarize and help farmers understand their area’s available climate information,” according to a page on the Northwest Climate Hub’s website. “More importantly, it shows how climate change could impact the costs and returns they are likely to face over the next twenty to thirty years.”

Earlier this year, the Northern Plains Climate Hub teamed up with the University of Nebraska Lincoln to launch a new simulation tool to help farmers make farm-practice decisions based on extreme weather scenarios — something that rolled out just months after record flooding of the Missouri River and its tributaries left countless fields either under water or too wet to plant.

The Southwest Climate Hub, which serves an area where rising temperatures are expected to hamper growing leafy greens and other sensitive specialty crops, in 2017 launched a data portal called AgRisk Viewer, which allows farmers and local officials to analyze trends in crop insurance payouts by state or county, providing an overview of what type of weather is driving losses in certain areas.

Such systems could be useful to farmers whose operations are increasingly high tech and data-driven. But most of the digital tools are so buried on USDA’s network of websites that producers would likely need to know what they were looking for to find them.

One exception has been an initiative developed by the Northern Great Plains Climate Hub called Grass-Cast, which forecasts how much grass will be available for livestock in the upcoming summer. Last summer, USDA’s blog touted the newly launched tool, which uses more than three decades of data to make predictions.

The decision to highlight the work of the Northern Great Plains Climate Hub shows that when USDA wants to embrace a tool, it has the capacity to do so. In most cases, it doesn’t. That consigns important information that could help millions of farmers to the back reaches of the extensive web of USDA websites or the largely unseen Twitter feed of the climate hubs.

In late August, for example, the hubs account posted a report confirming that 2018 was the fourth-warmest year since the mid-1800s, while greenhouse gases and sea levels were also at record levels. The tweet got a meager one like and one retweet.

The same day, the climate hubs account also posted an updated climate outlook for Midwest farmers and ranchers, with the latest weather and climate projections. The report illustrated how average temperatures are increasing in most parts of the country and warned that there is going to be more rain, more potential for soil and nutrient loss, and increased need for drainage across the region.

That tweet was retweeted only twice.

USDA defended its marketing of adaptation resources, noting that they can be found on the climate hubs’ central website. Each regional hub also holds local workshops and publishes peer-reviewed studies about the effects of climate change, the department said.

But during the current administration, USDA’s twitter account has not retweeted a single post from the hubs, like it routinely does for other parts of the department. Nor has it ever shared any of the climate hubsregional vulnerability assessments or tools aimed at helping farmers adapt to climate change.

The stealth-mode of the climate hubs is also apparent in the resources USDA provides for farmers and ranchers.

A new online platform called farmers.gov, lauded by Secretary Perdue as a one-stop shop for producers, for example, doesn’t direct producers to the climate hubs or share any of the tools that have been developed by the hubs.

As in previous administrations, USDA continues to urge farmers and ranchers to focus on soil health, but the department has since abandoned a broad “Climate Smart” effort it launched under the Obama administration in 2015. That plan was aimed at reducing agriculture’s net emissions and sequestering more than 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2025.

“This reduction is equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road or offsetting the emissions produced by powering nearly 11 million homes per year,” USDA said at the time.

That claim that has since been scrubbed from USDA’s website.

“In this administration, it’s really tough to talk about climate change, but you start talking about soil health — that seems to be palatable. It is a problem though,” said Fred Yoder, an Ohio farmer growing corn and soybeans, who used to lead the National Corn Growers Association and is a vocal advocate for no-till, cover crops and other adaptation practices.

“It’s absolutely a crying shame that we’ve politicized climate change,” Yoder said. “It’s science. Science isn’t perfect. But it’s the very best tool we have. And the science is clear.”

“Right now we’re dancing around the administration’s reluctance to call it what it is,” he said. “It’s an absolutely perfect time to talk about how to adapt.”

***

While USDA keeps its work on climate change under the radar, the scene in Rock Port looks almost apocalyptic.

Leaving Oswald’s farm, there are bare fields and washed out roads as far as one can see. In some places, fertile soil has washed away and headed down stream, leaving cracks in the fields. Multiple nearby exits off I-29 — the interstate that extends from the Canadian border down to Kansas City — remain closed.

Off in the distance, there’s a lava-like inferno. The glowing sliver of red and orange is a massive pile of soybeans that’s been burning, on and off, for weeks.

When the beans first began to burn, folks in town were confused, Oswald said. “The local reaction was: ‘What the hell? What’s burning?’”

It turns out when soybeans get wet, the oil starts to separate from the rest of the bean. As the damp beans heat up under the sun, the warm, decomposing mixture of organic matter and oil can spontaneously combust.

It smells like “a cross between hot brakes and burning rubber,” Oswald said.

Oswald doesn’t like seeing the house his father built look like this, scattered with debris, water-stained walls surrounded by weeds, and he grows more somber thinking about what his parents would think.

“I look at the heavens once in a while and think my folks can’t be too happy about it,” he says.

Now, he’s trying to pick up the pieces. He recently got word that a sweeping disaster aid bill Congress passed earlier this summer will help pay him back for some of the more than 20,000 bushels of corn now laid waste in his yard — a check that will cover roughly half of what he would have made if he’d been able to sell his corn, he said.

Subsidized crop insurance he took out on the acres he couldn’t plant this year will help give him enough cash to stay afloat until next year, he said.

His family home will likely need to be razed, but is it worth rebuilding? If FEMA helps cover some of the cost, it would likely be a tiny fraction of what he would have to pay out of pocket.

Another round of off-the-charts rains recently pummeled the watersheds upstream from him, taking the great Missouri River to dangerously high levels again. It’s unheard of for there to be this much rain as summer turns to fall.

He has no choice but to wait and watch the river.

But there’s one thing he’s not waiting on: Leadership from USDA on how to cope with climate change and the increasingly unusual and unpredictable weather that comes with it.

“I haven’t really heard anything,” he said.

—Maps and graphics by Patterson Clark and copy-edited by Graph Massara and Lauraine Genota