Farmers Preach Climate Change Gospel in the Heartland
Increasing ocean temperatures. Melting glaciers. Disappearing wildlife. Fires and hurricanes that become bigger, more frequent, and increasingly destructive.
The effects of climate change have been well-documented over the years, especially on the coasts, as major cities such as New York and San Francisco pledge to all but eliminate greenhouse cases in the next three decades. But in the more conservative heartland, climate change is often looked upon more skeptically.
Farmers may lead an exception to that trend. They have an intimate connection to the land and have seen how the slightest changes in climate patterns can have profound impacts on production. That’s the case among a small but growing group of Iowans, residents of a state where wide swaths of land are taken up by farms harvesting corn and soybean — the nation’s two biggest crops — among other foods and energy sources.
"Climate change is very real, day-to-day, and we notice it. Farmers are in one of the best positions to do something about it."
A unique alliance of farmers, people of faith, and climate activists have joined hands in the organization Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, to be part of the change. The group is an affiliate of a national organization of the same name that works to empower and educate farmers, religious communities, and voters about how global trends in climate and how the damaging effects of the overuse of fossil fuels trickle down to their own communities.
“Climate change is very real, day-to-day, and we notice it,” said Laura Krouse, one of 2,000 people in the state who participate in Iowa Interfaith Power and Light. “Farmers are in one of the best positions to do something about it.”
A 64-year-old who runs Abbe Hills, a 72-acre farm in Mount Vernon, about 18 miles east of Cedar Rapids, Krouse grows soybeans, corn, kale, and other vegetables, much of it for community-supported agriculture boxes that are sold to around 200 local families.
Krouse has had a relationship to farming since childhood, having grown up with many relatives who were farmers. Now an experienced grower herself, she tries to use her experience to talk in church and with friends about how climate change is hitting people like herself — an independent, organic farmer.
“There’s so much happening, and so much that’s changed,” said Krouse, who has farmed since the late 1980s.
She listed the ways.
“Relative humidity is higher at night now, so there are more diseases,” she noted. “Rainfall is sporadic. Sometimes we get the same amount of rain that we used to each year, but it comes 1/10th at a time rather than a serious amount that can soak in and do good. There’s so much more erosion, a lot of flooding. It’s impossible these days to predict when the fall and frost will hit, so the window for crops is harder to manage.”
In sync with her faith is an existential concern for the land and her work. According to recent studies, for example, corn — arguably Iowa’s most important crop — could drop in yields by 25% by 2050.
Changing Resistance on the Prairie
Through Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, Krouse is recruited to speak at religious centers and to politicians about how state and federal policies to combat climate change are better for everyone in the long run.
The organization works with more than 200 congregations across the state
“In my church, there are about five farmers, and we talk about what’s happening with climate change all the time,” said Krouse, who is part of a Mennonite congregation in Iowa City, about 20 miles south of her farm in Mount Vernon. She’s also a commissioner of the Linn Soil and Water Conservation District
“Farmers are some of the most change-resistant people on earth,” she noted, “because it’s risky to change when you have spent so much time learning how to do your work. But it must be done. One thing I’ve been doing is encouraging people to plant prairie (growing indigenous vegetation near modern crops), which slows runoff from water and then actually ends up helping people from losing crops when there are floods.”
Krouse, a member of Interfaith Light and Power’s “speaker’s bureau,” often compares notes with Margaret Smith, who lives two hours away and co-manages Ash Grove Farm near the small town of Hampton, Iowa.
Former college roommates at Iowa State University, they both became farmers.
Smith, 65, runs the farm with her husband Doug Alert, growing organic crops such as soybeans, corn, oat, and field peas on 600 acres. Smith is also an agronomist for a Minnesota-based organic and non-genetically modified seed business.
“My husband and I have farmed organically together since we got married in 1994,” said Smith, who lived on a farm as a child. “We do organic because it seemed like a better way, most holistic, less damaging, and more economically viable.”
Smith said farming and climate change are intricately linked to other issues the nation faces, including poverty and racial and health inequities. Access to affordable, organic food is more limited in poorer areas and communities populated by Black and Latino Americans, according to numerous studies and the distribution of grocery chains and farmers markets
A Unitarian-Universalist who attends a Methodist church, Smith said that education about farming is an “uphill battle,” since fewer and fewer Americans now take part in the job.
“Few people think, unfortunately, of how their food gets to the table, and what effect that food has on the environment when grown or how it’s grown,” she said. “We can do farm visits, Facebook pages, and small events but really, it’s hard to educate most people about farms when it’s so much easier to go to a national chain grocery store.”
Like Krouse, she teaches friends and colleagues in the farming community about reverting land to a prairie-type ecosystem and other native growth, a reclaiming of lands to the way they once were, more in harmony with what surrounds them.
“Prairie doesn’t always look manicured,” said Smith. “But people need to realize helping the earth doesn’t always look manicured.
"Battling climate change would go a long way in addressing the wider issues of access to good food."
Smith also believes America faces a conundrum
Organic food from small farms is expensive, but often tastes better and results in more benefits for the environment and health benefits for consumers. But she recognizes that hunger is real and deadly, even in a prosperous country like the U.S. A large slice of food production still comes from conventional big farms that make heavy use of fossil fuels and pesticides.
“On a federal level, the idea in our country is to produce more inexpensive food to feed people,” said Smith. “But if it's of poor quality and results in environmental degradation, that is not good. We have to figure out how to make food both affordable and good for everyone, including the farm owners, farmworkers, and people who eat it.”
According to Krouse, battling climate change would go a long way in addressing the wider issues of access to good food. For one, there would be fewer crops wasted if more survived the current harsh conditions, such as the overabundance of rain that made it too hard for her to grow corn last year.
“We’re trying to engage as many farmers as we can, so talking about the climate goes from maybe something one farmer has noticed to something they discuss with their friends and churches regularly,” said Krouse. “It’s a big job, and we’re just starting to get a hold of it.”