How a closed-door meeting shows farmers are waking up on climate change

Down in Florida, ag leaders have been shocked at how quickly the conversation on climate change and agriculture has turned around in the state just in the past year.

Jack Payne, a senior vice president who leads the agriculture and natural resources division at the University of Florida, has for years wanted to focus more attention on climate change and how it is already — and will continue to — affect agriculture in Florida, an extremely diverse sector that spans from timber to cattle and tomatoes as well as the citrus that famously grace the state’s license plates.

“It was always something I wanted to talk about, but I got a lot of pushback from the producers,” Payne said in an interview. “Even after Irma caused $2 billion in damages, people were saying ‘well, it’s just weather.’”

Payne had become particularly frustrated that the ag sector in his state was perfectly willing to rally around the science backing the use of GMOs in agriculture, but then turn around and dismiss climate science as a bunch of malarkey. “You can’t pick and choose the science,” he said. “The belief system is so strong.”

But agriculture has recently been under fire in Florida in a way that it hasn’t been in years. Red tide and other toxic algae blooms have plagued the states waters, with devastating consequences for marine life, recreational fishermen and coastal residents. With many pointing the finger at farmers across the state for contributing to an overload of nutrients in the state’s waters, it’s created a bit of an opening to get farmers and ranchers to be more proactive on environmental issues.

Earlier this year, Ernie Shea, executive director of Solutions for the Land, a non-profit that’s been facilitating farmer-led conversations around climate across several states, asked if the university would help set up a farmer dialogue on climate.

Payne was initially skeptical that there would be enough interest to put something together. “I said ‘Good luck!’ ” he recalled. But they decided to roll ahead, and got a $50,000 grant from the Ted Turner Foundation to pay for some meetings.

They put together a group of about a dozen farmers and ranchers for a day and a half-long meeting in February. The event began with producers sitting around a horseshoe-shaped table sharing their experiences with extreme weather events and also featured some presentations from University of Florida scientists about weather patterns and the consequences of sea-level rise and rapid change in Florida. For many in the room, it was the first time they’d ever discussed climate change in a professional setting. It simply wasn’t something you’d find at a farm bureau or run of the mill commodity group meeting.

“As the day wore on, you started getting more questions from the group, once we all warmed up,” recalled Jim Strickland, a longtime cattle rancher in Southwest Florida. “Keep in mind we’re lay people, we’re agriculturalists and cowboys… we weren’t picked because we were climatologists on the side. And that was a good thing.”

After a day of presentations, the facilitators asked the room of farmers if they’d be interested in continuing to meet about climate with the goal of forming a working group. Everyone in the room said they would. And then, as Payne recalls, a large blueberry grower raised his hand: “I just want you to know I’m not a flag-waving human caused climate change guy, but something is changing and it’s affecting my business and I need to learn about it.”

Still, Payne has heard from others in the state that disapprove of the effort. A large peanut grower in the state recently wrote him an email to express that he thought the university was wasting its time. So far, the Florida group has met three times this year, including once with Florida Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor, chairwoman of the House Climate Crisis Committee.

Strickland, who’s now co-chairing what’s morphed into the Florida Climate-Smart Agriculture Work Group, said he’s also taken a little heat for being associated with the effort. He might get teased by another farmer when it’s chilly out, for example: “It sure is cold, I could use a little global warming this morning!”

He laughs this off. But Strickland believes farmers and ranchers need to engage instead of dismissing climate change. “I’m not the guy building an arc and loading up animals two by two. I’m not the guy putting tin foil over my head, but I believe something is happening.”


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