Montana farmers start talking climate change

The Montana Farmers Union is fighting political polarization with pragmatic discussions about how to adapt and what to expect.

  • Fabian Menalled speaks at the Montana Farmers Union talk at Great Falls College. He is one of the scientists helping local farmers understand how climate change is likely to impact agriculture.

    Evan Frost/Great Falls Tribune

This June, at the western edge of the Montana prairie, several dozen farmers and ranchers in baseball caps and jeans gathered at Great Falls College to learn how to deal with climate change impacts: hotter growing seasons, reduced wheat yields, more severe storms, less rain in eastern Montana, and earlier snowmelt statewide, meaning less water for later in the growing season. Fabian Menalled, an affable noxious-weed scientist from Montana State University, spoke about the already aggressive heat-and-carbon-dioxide-loving cheatgrass, which could consume even more rangeland in the future. Yet, as Menalled acknowledged, only 40 percent of Montanans think that humans are causing global warming, compared to 97 percent of scientists.

The farmers in the audience either sided with the scientists or were too polite to disagree; there were no walkouts, or even skeptical questions. That’s likely because climate change is getting harder for farmers and ranchers to ignore. The weather in recent years looks a lot like the extreme conditions scientists projected: floods in 2011, severe fires in 2012 and record-breaking hail damage in 2013. All that leads to lost income and the fear that crop insurance will be tougher to buy.

In a 2014 study, University of Montana ecologist Brady Allred found that the U.S. states richest in natural resource and agricultural lands are also the most likely to get hotter and drier. Those states — including Montana, where agriculture is the largest industry — also elect -congressional representatives that resist climate change mitigation or adaptation policies. Agricultural lands are among the most vulnerable, says Allred. “And if (we) have this leadership that is not as likely to think about adaptation or mitigation policies going forward, that presents a concern.”

The Montana Farmers Union is attempting to temper the partisan polarization around climate issues by inviting scientists like Menallad to forums and publishing scientific reports about what farmers can expect in the warming region. The Farmers Union has always focused on protecting family farmers, and its leaders worry that smaller operations will feel the impacts more acutely than large agribusiness. The risks to its members’ livelihoods now outweigh any political fallout that could come from discussing the issue, says the union’s president, Alan Merrill: “We just want to make people aware of what is happening. Learn what you can do on your operation, learn how to cope with what is happening right now.”

Montana’s other traditional ag groups have yet to take formal positions on climate change. Chelcie Cremer, the director of state affairs for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, says that’s because their members haven’t sought more information. In the past, however, her group campaigned against cap-and-trade legislation that could impose costs on producers. But now, farmers’ unions in the upper Midwest, Kansas and New England as well as Montana are confronting the issue. Merrill credits the National Farmers Union’s willingness to tackle controversial topics, such as lobbying for country-of-origin labeling.-

“It does sort of feel like we’re reaching a tipping point where it’s OK to talk about it now,” says Montana Department of Agriculture Director Ron de Yong. “Farmers and ranchers, even if they aren’t reading about it, they are experiencing it on their own farms.”

Farmers are adapting, de Yong says. Merrill, who grows wheat in central Montana, has found that the planting schedules his father taught him no longer work on his farm, and Montana State researchers are developing spring wheat that matures faster to beat hotter, drier June weather. De Yong’s office is encouraging producers to plant a more diverse array of crops as insurance against the erratic climate and volatile commodities markets. Montana farmers have taken advantage of high pea and lentil demand, rotating those drought-tolerant crops with wheat. No-till agriculture, which helps keep water in the soil and sequester carbon, is also becoming popular, as are cover crops like millet and soybeans, which help fight weeds and hold soil in place during intense rainfalls.

At a question-and-answer session in Great Falls, a farmer mentioned that irrigation season in western Montana started two weeks earlier than normal this year and was followed by an unusual frost. “Are these surprises, or are these things that we should be expecting?” he asked a panel that included de Yong, Menalled and Justin Derner, a rangeland scientist who runs the Northern Plains “climate hub” for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The climate hub is part of a new network of regional climate centers that provide producers with data and help them solve problems like new pests or the need to switch seeds. Derner didn’t miss a beat: “I think those sort of things are the new normal.”

Rancher Rich Liebert stood up to say he wished Menalled would take his talk to Montana’s elected officials. Two of the state’s three congressmen have expressed skepticism about humans’ role in causing climate change. But the panel’s moderator quickly moved the discussion along, trying to avoid politics. “In their hearts, they know it’s happening,” Liebert said later, of his fellow food producers. “I think secretly there are farmers that vote red, but they are thinking green.” 

High Country News Classifieds