The latter is my brother, Tim Biello, and part of why he got into farming in the first place was to do something hands-on about climate change. He wanted to farm with less fossil fuel and fertilizers by working with horses and to use locally available resources to provide food for his neighbors. But he also sympathizes with his big farming peers: "People who have to work for a living and make hard choices about using this or that feel like they are up against the wall when other people, who maybe are removed from work like farming, say this is good or bad."
Tim is not a random sample, of course. But big farmers certainly aren't skeptical about all science, particularly the kind of science that makes them money by improving yields. "Last year's drought was in many places as deep as it was in 1933, and yet we didn't see too many stories of blowing dirt storms," like in the ‘dirty '30s,’" notes former North Dakota farmer Roger Johnson, now head of the National Farmers Union. Breeding and genetic modification have brought crops resistant to drought and flood as well as insect pests. Also important are better tilling practices, such as leaving a cover crop or stubble to hold down the soil, which helped the dirt stay in place. Even in the depths of the 2012 droughts the U.S. delivered an abundant harvest.
But the biggest change delivered by science to farming in the last century is the one my brother is working to reverse: the advent of fossil fuel–powered machinery and fertilizer wrested from the air by chemistry. That, along with cutting down forests to make room for farms around the world, makes agriculture the second-largest cause of the greenhouse gas emissions changing the climate. There's methane from massive meat farms and manure lagoons. There's nitrous oxide—yes, the stuff used at the dentist’s office—seeping out of the soil, thanks to all that nitrogen fertilizer. And it's no laughing matter, because N2O is nearly 300 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a century.
Few would have to change their livelihoods as radically as American farmers if efforts to combat climate change became more serious. Maybe skepticism also flourishes because farmers tend to be more conservative, and denying climate change falls under the same political umbrella as, say, gun ownership. (According to Robert Carlson, who leads the World Farmers’ Organization, farmers in other countries are more likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change, and many feel they are already facing new weather extremes.)
But even if American farmers don’t believe in human-caused climate change, there are reasons for them to behave as if they do. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has begun incorporating climate change into its projections and outreach, such as encouraging no-till practices where applicable. Oregon wheat farmer McCullough is following their advice to reduce tillage, which helps keep the soil from blowing away, like it used to do in his forefathers’ time, burying the farmhouse in silt that had to be shoveled out. He can now skip the three or four tilling passes in his tractor in favor of clearing a field with herbicides and then using an air drill that injects the wheat seed and fertilizer together. "It's more fuel efficient," he says. Plus, the USDA also provides financial and technical assistance to those who adopt the new practices. "It's cheaper to farm that way and you still get the same type of crop, if not a bit better."