Interviews with (My) Family Farmers

Lessons Learned From a Very, Very Small Dataset

Author: Emily Otte, KU School of Law

Agriculture is a singular industry. In the modern era, to be a farmer is to be botanist, chemist, commodities trader, and mechanic. All of the technological progress collides in agriculture and produces phenomena like new seed hybrids every year, new herbicide, new soil analysis tools, new “bells and whistles” on the machinery, the list goes on and on. I come from a long line of farmers and remain connected to agriculture; my father is a farmer and members of my extended family still farm. My family are the descendants of Russian Mennonites and I often heard my grandmother boast that the Mennonites are to be credited for turning Kansas into the Breadbasket of the World.

Agriculture is in the unique position of being both one of the first victims of climate change and a cause of climate change. Farmers are on the front lines of climate change, subject to the whims of the weather. But agriculture contributes to the climate crisis and degradation of the environment, putting farmers in the rare and unenviable position of dealing directly with the consequences of their emissions. A United Nations panel on climate change examined climate change effects of agriculture, deforestation, and other land use and found these activities contribute around a third of human greenhouse gas emissions. 1 Meanwhile, farmers are already experiencing changing precipitation patterns and some have seen increased flooding while others have dealt with severe droughts. Climate models, which have proven accurate thus far, 2 paint a bleak picture for the future of agriculture: grueling working conditions, crop failure, livestock deaths, and depleted water supplies.3

Agriculture must change. If we, as a species, are to prevent the climate scenarios that would decimate our food production, every piece of our agricultural model must be re-examined. Many ideas have been proposed; the Global Restoration Project proposes a perennial polyculture system. To gauge farmer attitudes toward climate change, the agriculture crisis, and proposed agricultural reforms, I embarked on a small project to interview farmers in my family. Though such an infinitesimal, informal process is nowhere near a “sample size” that can be extrapolated, below are the lessons I learned from the conversations, lessons I hope might be a tiny bit useful to anyone proposing agricultural reforms.

Lesson 1: We are not speaking the same language.

In a story on Fox News, entitled Do You Speak Fox, journalist Megan Garber of The Atlantic writes, “You might have observed, lately, how Americans seem always to be talking past one another–how we’re failing one another even at the level of our vernacular.” Garber describes how media can create an identity around terms. To name a few: deep state, mainstream media, socialism, and liberty. Based on my conversations and experiences with farmers, I would extend Garber’s observation to a few more terms: climate change, global warming, EPA, and government. When I used these terms, the atmosphere became more charged and a sardonic skepticism fell over the conversation. This has important implications for people who seek to use climate change as a catalyst for agricultural reform.

To tread lightly, I asked, “What does climate change mean to you?” One response I got was, simply and alarmingly: “Hokum.” As the conversation went on, it became clear that certain terms did not have a single, agreed-upon meaning. “Climate change” is a political talking point rather than a threat, “science” inspires skepticism rather than trust, and “government” is an obstacle rather than an aid. The emotional reaction to “government” is particularly noteworthy, given how involved the government is in agriculture. Farmers mentioned government involvement in terracing and nitrate reduction but they felt these programs didn’t work for them.

Anyone seeking to reform agriculture should consider ways to avoid an emotionally charged conversation. Attempting to persuade farmers–for example, that climate change is a real threat–is unlikely to be effective; iit doesn’t take an interview to know that farmers do not like to be told what to do. My personal sense is the solution, discussed below, might be to speak chiefly in economic terms.

Lesson 2: Farmer attitudes toward climate change are hard to gauge.

Sociologist Dr. J. Arbuckle of Iowa State University conducts the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, an annual survey of farmers covering a wide variety of issues affecting agriculture. Dr. Arbuckle has noted a “paucity of literature on farmers’ understandings of and response to climate change.”4 This lack of knowledge is concerning, given that farmers are on the front lines of climate change.

Dr. Arbuckle’s work indicates that most farmers (68%) believe that climate change is happening but few farmers believe climate change is mostly attributable to human activities:

Attribution of cause varies substantially, with just 10% believing climate change is mostly attributable to human activities. Slightly more than one third believed that it is caused by natural changes and human activities equally, and 23% believed it is mostly due to natural variation.

Furthermore, a sizable proportion of farmers believed there is not enough evidence to determine if it is occurring (27%) or it is not happening at all (5%).

Aside from denial, I was told by a farmer I talked to that climate change presented a threat, if true. I asked the farmers questions about precipitation and, despite denial of climate change, there was some discussion of altered seasonal precipitation. Of particular note was an observation by one farmer that, on the whole, his crops got more rain annually but that rain came mostly in the spring with less rain on the fall crops. This observation matched my own impression of precipitation trends in central Kansas, and I looked for statistical evidence of precipitation trends in Kansas.

I found a study that examined precipitation trends in Kansas from 1890-2011.5 The study underscored the high variability of rainfall in Kansas, with a notable drought in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and a decrease in precipitation from 1951 to 1979. The study showed an overall state-wide trend of an increase in total rainfall over the time period: 1890-2011. The year-to-year volatility of Kansas precipitation could make it difficult for farmers to convince farmers that things are worsening because of climate change; after all, Kansas precipitation has been changing for as long as anyone can remember. And the effects of climate change are incredibly complex and subtle.

Beyond increasing precipitation, the study considered the incredible intricacies of our climate, the complex factors that affect the weather, and the effect on Kansas.
The study identified sudden “change points” in precipitation across the state. These change points “might be attributed to the global changes in climate systems components such as anomalous sea surface temperature, Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, clathrate methane release, tropical and boreal forest dieback, disappearance of summer arctic sea ice, long‐term droughts, or monsoonal circulation.” Looking at this list and thinking of the changes we already see in each of these systems is sobering. Kansas precipitation is volatile, with farmers at its mercy, and the potential effects of changes in any of these climate system components makes Kansas agriculture feel precarious and fragile.

Lesson 3: Money over everything.

I left the interviews with the conclusion that the cornerstone for any agricultural reform must be profitability. A farm is, after all, a business (as I was reminded many times). Farms are facing skyrocketing operating costs and struggling grain prices (as I was reminded many times). New combines cost more than a house and patented seeds with the latest technology are expensive. Though techniques like strip-till and no-till lower fuel costs but the money saved on fuel pales into comparison to the cost of chemicals. One farmer said they spend triple the amount of money on chemicals that they used to spend on fuel and another farmer said, “Everyone just sprays sprays sprays sprays now and you don’t spray for free.”

Reforms to this process will inevitably be controversial. I was told that, because agriculture had been around for centuries, it was unreasonable to think that a single farmer over a lifetime could seriously degrade the soil. This, of course, misunderstands the evolution of agriculture, but, more importantly, shows a reluctance to adapt.
One farmer mentioned a reluctance to adapt amongst farmers and suggested that perhaps farming isn’t for everyone and government subsidies allow farmers to break even, despite poor farming practices.

If farmers don’t see any reason for change, it will be difficult to convince them to change their practices. As already described, I noticed such complicated political and emotional responses to climate change, that I think profitability may be the best way for a solution to appeal broadly to farmers. As one farmer put it, “I’m not a crusader, I have to earn a living.” Given the large role the government places in agriculture, the need for profitability suggests a huge role for government subsidy.

This lesson is embraced by the Global Restoration Project. As described in detail in Deep Agroecology and a New Homeric Epic, perennial polycultures can:

  • Dramatically reduce the required amount of agricultural fertilizer and chemical pesticides
  • Dramatically reduce the fossil-carbon fuels needed to power farm equipment, partly because fewer passes over a field are necessary and less equipment is needed
  • Because of their diversity, better resist attacks by pests and pathogens
  • Accordingly, perennial polycultures could easily have the upper hand on the current annual monoculture system. This bodes well for widespread adoption of perennial polyculture agriculture.

Lesson 4: Innovation is nearby.

A common rural parlance is, “I know a guy.” The farmers I chatted with did not personally engage in any kind of organic practices, plant perennial grains, or plant polycultures. However, they knew of a local farmer who was engaging in “non-traditional” agriculture practices. In fact, near my family’s farm is a field of perennial wheat. Before I visited the field, I heard insinuations that the wheat field was a weedy mess; I found the field in fine shape, with more than one year of growth that had knocked back some of the weeds.

One farmer mentioned that he had worked for a nearby farmer that was planting polycultures. The nearby farmer had planted a grain for feed and when the grain was one or two inches high, he planted clover. In theory, when the grain was harvested, the clover would get sunlight and grow, but the clover died. To the farmer I interviewed, polyculture was a good idea in theory, but everything has to line up right, and farmers are often faced with unideal conditions. Another farmer mentioned that, at the moment, innovations such as perennial crops or polycultures seem to be a lot of theory and little practice. He’s correct; perennial polyculture development is still in the early stages.

Farmers in central Kansas are often familiar with and curious about wheat developed by Kansas State University. There are many signs on the side of the road designating the fields as research fields. One farmer mentioned that, though the seed is proprietary and farmers cannot keep it for seed, the experimental wheat has a yield high enough to offset the cost and even make more money. This again underscores farmer interest in innovation that increases profit.

The Global Restoration Project proposes not only a practical shift in agricultural processes but a conceptual shift toward “agroecological husbandry”, an agriculture based on natural systems inspired by native grasslands and thriving on non-disturbance. This conceptual shift, away from extraction and toward a harmonious relationship with nature, may seem lofty. It will require brisk scientific advances and inevitably meet obstacles, but I think farmers are ready; they are a resilient breed, familiar with setbacks and rapid change. May we learn from each other to create a better, more sustainable future.

  1. Rebecca Hersher & Allison Aubrey, To Slow Global Warming, U.N. Warns Agriculture Must Change, NPR (Aug. 8, 2019, 4:00 AM), 

  2. Alan Buis, Study Confirms Climate Models are Getting Future Warming Projections Right, NASA (Jan. 9, 2020), 

  3. Climate Change and Agriculture, A Perfect Storm in Farm Country, Union of Concerned Scientists (Mar. 20, 2019), 

  4. J. Gordon Arbuckle, Jr., et a.l, Understanding Farmer Perspectives on Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation, The Role of Trust in Sources of Climate Information, Climate Change Beliefs, and Perceived Risk, SAGE Environment & Behavior (Feb. 2015),,for%20both%20adaptation%2Drelated%20items. 

  5. Vahid Rahmani, et al., Analysis of Temporal and Spatial Distribution and Change-Points for Annual Precipitation in Kansas, USA, 35 International Journal of Climatology 13 (2015).