Averse to Regulation: While a recent study showed 54 percent of farmers interviewed believe in climate change, fewer than half of all farmers believed that government regulations were improving the environment. Image: Gerry Dincher/Flickr
Farmers and farm groups have usually been opposed to government climate policies. A new study finds they are not so much skeptics of climate change as they are about the rules that may come with them and how they might harm their business.
A group of researchers at the University of California, Davis, surveyed 162 farmers in Yolo County, Calif., comparing what growers thought about climate change, their willingness to participate in government-led climate programs and their takes on four different environmental regulations passed in the last 25 years.
This is one of the first, if not the first, academic papers to confirm the low concern farmers place on climate risks over regulatory ones, said lead author Meredith Niles, a doctoral student in UC Davis' ecology graduate group.
"What we're seeing here is that, frankly, the past matters," she said. Farmers remember the burden of past regulations and worry more about those than the damage of droughts, floods or erratic weather.
The researchers used four California regulations to assess a farmer's favor: a 1990 law mandating the reporting of pesticide use, a 1991 rule to control rice straw burning, a 2003 water quality conditional waiver program and 2007 regulations for stationary diesel engine air pollution.
Programs are fine; rules aren't
In Niles' study, 54 percent of the farmers interviewed believe that the climate is changing, and 35 percent agree that human activity is an important cause of climate change. But fewer than half of all farmers believed that any one of the four regulations was improving the environment. The water quality and diesel engine rules were the least popular with a 24 percent and 36 percent approval ratings, respectively.
Negative past experiences with regulations didn't prevent farmers from wanting to change the status quo. Of all of the participants, 48 percent said they would agree to enter a government program for climate change adaptation or mitigation, Niles said.
"There is an opportunity for policy to promote incentive programs, whether technical or cost-sharing programs," she said. "Because farmers do seem to be very interested in those."
Overall, farmers were much less concerned about climate change risks -- like fewer winter chill hours for trees, more heat waves and increased flooding. Niles and her co-authors, Mark Lubell and Van Haden, peppered the study with quotes from farmer surveys.
"We can adapt to the environmental aspects of climate change. I'm not sure we can adapt to the legislature," one farmer said.
Niles performed a similar survey in New Zealand and is writing a draft of the results. She presented her findings at a conference in May. New Zealanders, it turns out, have similar concerns to California growers.
"Farmers care more about the regulations than the biophysical impacts of climate change," she said.
A tradition of opposition
The survey was completed in 2011, five years after the California Legislature passed A.B. 32, the bill to create a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases. Farmers were still trying to understand how agriculture would play into the emissions trading system, Niles said.
In the past two years, the implementation of A.B. 32 has slowly begun to address agriculture, a $43.5 billion industry for the state. The California Air Resources Board could soon propose guidelines to generate offsets from reducing methane emissions in rice fields (ClimateWire, Aug. 20).
Meanwhile, President Obama has brought greenhouse gas regulation back to the national stage. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced a number of new initiatives to help farmers cope with a changing climate, including the establishment of regional hubs that would provide information to growers (ClimateWire, June 6).