Beneath a white tent on a wind-driven day in early September, Jerry Engelson wears a worried expression, visible even though most of his face is covered by a mask.
The 72-year-old farmer has worked his 1,200 acres of land near the small unincorporated town of Garden City for 35 years, carrying on a tradition established by his great-grandfather in 1898. He also has an 18-year-old grandson who he’d like to pass the tradition on to someday. Like the large majority of Iowa farmers, he grows mostly corn and soybeans. He used to grow more hay, but grows a lot less now.
Today, Engelson has come to see Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has flown in from Washington, D.C. to speak at an event sponsored by the Iowa Corn Promotion Board alongside Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, and Senator Joni Ernst.
Three weeks after the derecho storm that brought forth scythe-like winds and caused the estimated loss of 10 million acres of corn and soybeans, Purdue is here to announce a plan to designate 18 Iowa counties as primary natural disaster areas—a designation that will allow producers who suffered losses due to the derecho to be eligible for emergency loans along with a suite of other disaster assistance programs—and to highlight conservation efforts in the state.
Engelson may benefit from the the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) response, but he’s still anxious. He’s never experienced anything quite like the derecho and he’s still fighting with the insurance adjusters over just how much of his crop will be covered.
What’s worse, this historic storm came and went in the midst of an ever-worsening drought. And while this year’s conditions aren’t as severe as last year’s historic flooding, they’ve come on top of the coronavirus pandemic—Iowa ranks among the worst in the world for virus spread—and an ongoing trade war. In other words, Iowa farmers have a lot to be anxious about.
Like many of Iowa’s aging farmers, Engelson is worried about the future of farming. He recognizes that the climate is shifting, and he’s planted cover crops and uses a minimum amount of tillage to prevent soil erosion. He’s open to changes, but can’t just start diversifying his crops or altering the terrain of his farm when margins are already so tight.
“We’re raising corn now that’s below the cost of production,” said Engelson. “I really don’t know why we’re doing it.”
Farmers like Engelson are locked in a system that makes it easier to rely on crop insurance payouts after disasters than it does to change their practices.
Like many other states, Iowa is in the midst of a climate breakdown. And farmers like Engelson are at the bleeding edge of the crisis. But they’re also locked in a system that makes it easier to rely on crop insurance payouts after disasters than it does to change their practices. Meanwhile, some agribusiness interests are lobbying for the status quo while denying the existence of man-made climate change.
While many commodity crop farmers wait for change to come to them, others—many of them running smaller organic and regenerative operations—are leading the way when it comes to adapting to the changing climate.
‘You Keep Getting Knocked Down, You Keep Getting Back Up’
Perdue joined Reynolds and Ernst at Stolee Farms near the small town of Radcliffe in central Iowa, ostensibly to celebrate the success of the USDA’s conservation programs.
The Secretary had come to honor Heath Stolee, a man who hangs his Trump flag proud and high over his 56-acre farmstead, as a poster child for this USDA’s conservation efforts. Amidst his soy and corn operation, he’s begun to diversify his offerings with a young grove of chestnut trees. And he’s building a 16-acre wetland that will mitigate nitrate pollution in the watershed, sequester carbon, and serve as a habitat for waterfowl.
Reynolds and Ernst had also brought Perdue in to present a unified front. Nearly a month after the derecho storm, farmers across Iowa were still reeling and grappling with the destruction, not just to their crops but of their buildings as well. Though he declared a disaster and dispatched FEMA, President Trump still has not approved most of the $4 billion in aid Reynolds requested, nearly all of which is to be directed to farmers.
In a clear effort to assuage their concerns, Perdue spoke to the crowd about the primary natural disaster areas. And although he spoke at length about how heartbreaking the sight of the storm-bent corn was to him personally, he made it clear that he believes the extreme weather, despite its growing frequency, is still just the weather.
“That’s what farmers do; they deal with things as they come,” Perdue told Civil Eats when asked about adapting to the increasingly extreme weather. “We have these safety-net programs that work very well. We never want to have these utter disasters like hurricanes or floods. Weather risk has always been a part of farming. It will always be a part of farming. We can’t remove that weather risk. You keep getting knocked down, you keep getting back up.”
Climate Change Has Arrived in Iowa
Though this response is consistent with the USDA’s messaging (it stopped using the words “climate change” in official material in 2017 following Trump’s election and Perdue himself responded to a devastating drought in Georgia by “praying for rain”), Perdue’s “it’s just the weather” response to an increasingly erratic pattern of weather and the increased frequency of extreme storms flies in the face of warnings issued by Congress.
The specific warnings for the Midwest and the impacts of climate change on the agriculture industry contained within the Fourth Annual Climate Assessment, published by Congress in 2018, have already begun to play out. The report predicted an increase in heavy spring rains leading to shortened planting windows that would likely be accompanied by extreme summer droughts.
It also foresaw the further erosion of Iowa’s already greatly eroded topsoil, which would lead to the further pollution of Iowa’s drinking water. All of this would ultimately result in a drastic reduction in agricultural production, according to the report.
The report was published following a summer marked by erratic flash flooding in Iowa. What followed, in the period between June 2018 and June 2019, was the wettest 12 months ever recorded in Iowa history. Snowmelt and rain conspired to create historic flooding in the spring of 2019 that caused $2 billion in estimated total damage.
The federal government spent $1.66 billion in Iowa in 2019 to offset losses in the commodity crop market incurred by the trade war between the U.S. and China, bolstering the endless growth of corn and soybeans instead promoting crop diversification or resilience. The severe flooding that spring kept farmers out of their fields that summer and resulted in a crop insurance payout of $4.24 billion.
The Problem with Crop Insurance
“I just hope insurance will let me keep going another year,” said Engelson in describing his reliance on the program to help mitigate the losses he’s suffered from the derecho.
Engelson isn’t alone in this feeling. A 2019 study searching for what motivated Iowa farmers’ actions in response to climate change found that conservation practices were not in response to the ways in which a changing climate system was affecting their crops, but instead found that “financial constraints and the stabilizing effect of crop insurance, in particular, reduce the self-reported likelihood that farmers will adapt to changes.” In the study, 58 percent of respondents indicated that crop insurance was their main approach to mitigating yield losses.
“Most farmers replied that their coping mechanism was crop insurance,” said Silvia Secchi, an author of the study and a professor researching environmental impact on agriculture at the University of Iowa. “So there’s really not a broader discussion about it. Just look at the last couple of years. There’s no pressure towards making changes to how we manage the landscape. We’re going to spend more and more money to prop up specific crops. Whether it’s crop insurance or disaster payments, we’re spending money on making it worse in the long-term instead of better.”
The state of Iowa also offers a $5-per-acre incentive for farmers who plant cover crops, while both Unilever and PepsiCo are also offering cash incentives for cover crops. And while federal conservation programs pay farmers to use some practices that scientists say improve soil and sequester carbon—such as planting cover crops and reducing tillage—it receives less federal funding than crop insurance. While some lawmakers tried to link the two in the last farm bill process—suggesting farmers should only be eligible for crop insurance if they take up conservation measures—they didn’t succeed.
“There’s no pressure towards making changes to how we manage the landscape. Whether it’s crop insurance or disaster payments, we’re spending money on making it worse in the long-term instead of better.”
As these disasters become more frequent, Secchi believes crop insurance will grow to resemble flood insurance, another increasingly expensive form of federally subsidized program.
“Farmers are really devastated that they’ve lost their crops, but they’re not going to change while the money keeps coming for them to rebuild without any conditions or incentive to change,” Secchi said. “Crop insurance promotes behavior that causes more carbonation from farming. This is really a vicious circle. I think that’s where the need to rethink this will come from, but it’s going to be a hard lesson to learn.”
Other research indicates that, even though Iowa farmers are hemmed in by the current financial structures bolstering the U.S. agricultural system, many of them would welcome a shift in that system. A survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) around the 2018 Farm Bill found that 84 percent of Iowa farmers thought “offering incentives for farmers to take steps to reduce runoff and soil loss, improve water quality, and increase resilience to floods and droughts” will be important to the future of farming.
“There’s a role for crop insurance, there’s a need for safety nets, but we know what could be happening on farmland that would reduce the vulnerability—and by extension reduce the dependence on crop insurance—and we should be doing those things,” Karen Perry Stillerman, a senior strategist with the UCS, said. “Building up funding for farmers planting what benefits the soil, especially those who diversify farm output and are putting more perennial plants into the landscape is a really good thing we can do.”
Barriers to Progress
Nearly a decade of Republican control has protected the power of corporate agriculture in Iowa, and powerful lobbyists like the Iowa Farm Bureau (IFB) spend a lot of money to make sure it stays that way.
The IFB draws most of its wealth from suburban life insurance programs, but still remains a powerful political force in rural Iowa. According to a 2016 financial statement, it has held large investments in agribusinesses like Tyson and Bayer. The company also brings in (and spends) a great deal more money than its national counterpart, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). In 2016, IFB’s budget was twice the size of AFBF and in 2018, it brought in three times the revenue of AFBF.
The IFB is unwilling to address the matter of climate change, save for explicitly opposing a carbon tax.
The IFB has shown itself to be unwilling to address the matter of climate change, save for addressing it in a set of resolutions put forth in 2015 where it also explicitly opposed a carbon tax. “Man’s affect [sic] on climate change is uncertain, and science does not give clear direction for any federal or state policy option,” the document read. The IFB has subsequently spent a total of $1.4 million on lobbying efforts between 2015 and 2020.
Reporting by Inside Climate News has found that IFB and the AFBF have worked in tandem with fossil fuel companies to sow confusion about the effects and urgency of climate change. In fact, the site reported that the IFB held investments of about $462 million in fossil fuel corporations in 2017.
“Iowa Farm Bureau runs Iowa like a coal baron in West Virginia a century ago,” says Austin Frerick, a former Iowa Congressional candidate and longtime critic of agribusiness (including IFB in particular). “We know what we need to do in order to adjust to climate change. They are so powerful, they’re stopping us from doing what we need to do. People are talking about [climate change] at this point, there’s no denying it. But they’re against taking even very simple measures.”
During his run for Congress, Frerick pointed to IFB’s history of opposition to federal and state policies aimed at responding to climate change, such as the group’s work to kill cap and trade in 2009 and its opposition state-level efforts to reduce agricultural emissions.
“I’m at the point now of advocating for the removal of [IFB]’s nonprofit status. I don’t think it makes sense with the kind of power they have,” says Frerick. “How can you deny climate change, at this point? They should be divesting from fossil fuel investments, that’s the least they can do.” (The IFB declined to comment for this article.)
Small Farmers Leading the Way
While Iowa’s majority corn and soybean farmers, who work at volume across large-acreage farms, wait for the right incentives to become more resilient, Iowa’s quietly expanding population of organic farmers are leading the way in terms of conservation and sustainability efforts, mostly because they have no other choice.
When she spoke with Civil Eats recently, Hannah Breckbill, a young farmer who helps run Humble Hands Harvest in Decorah, said it had been five weeks since her farm had seen rain—a long time in Iowa, where irrigation is nearly unheard of.
At the same time, Breckbill has also dealt with the problem of too much rain. In 2016, when her farm was still on rented property, 22 inches of rain fell overnight and a nearby river rose 14 feet, ruining a large portion of the crop. Having seen the issues presented by spring flooding, Breckbill is slowly converting her farm to a no-till system, which she hopes will mitigate the problem by building up organic matter in the soil so it acts more like a sponge. At the rate her farm is going, it will be a decade before each bed is converted and the soil has reached the level of enrichment for this system to function exactly the way she wants it to.
“It does feel like rain is more intense and then non-existent and that’s kind of the pattern that we’ve had,” Brackbill said. Now, she adds, “there’s just so much in terms of timing that we have to think about.”
“I became a farmer because I was willing to handle the risks that Mother Nature throws at me. But this has gotten far more serious than just a few weeks that are super wet or a few weeks that are super dry.”
Further to the southwest, Rob Faux has run the 15-acre Genuine Faux Farms since 2005, after a former life spent in computer science and adult education. He spent over a decade supplying CSA customers with a diverse array of organic vegetables and poultry, but now Faux has shifted to directly supplying restaurants and other volume customers. The question of climate change is increasingly on his mind.
“I became a farmer because I was willing to take and handle the risks that Mother Nature throws at me,” Faux said. “But this has gotten far more serious than just a few weeks that are super wet or a few weeks that are super dry. The swings have become much more broad and they’ve been much more emphatic.”
Faux is currently digging ditches while simultaneously raising the height of his crop beds to protect them from heavy spring rains. He’s also had to invest in new equipment in order to maintain his ability to plant in the small windows between those rains.
Unlike large commodity crop growers, Brackbill and Faux don’t have the luxury of the crop insurance safety net. Crop insurance provides commodity growers insurance at a bulk, subsidized rate while small food producers pay a premium—if they opt for insurance at all.
For this reason, the future of their livelihood as farmers relies on their ability to produce a resilient crop in an increasingly volatile climate.
“We’re spending too much time saying, ‘Grow the soybeans, grow the corn,’ and it’s clear we’re growing too much of it because the prices can’t be sustained,” Faux said. “So, is it maybe even more expedient to say, ‘Let’s reduce some of the structures that promote growth of those particular products and the way we’re growing them?’ If we stopped promoting the monocrops, we’ll start seeing farmers are pretty innovative. And they might actually be happier because they’d see a little bit more life and a little bit more diversity on their farms.”