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“It hit me back in my college days,” said Gil Gullickson, editor of Successful Farming Magazine (SF). “It was a tough course. This geology professor, Everett White, he was a really tough professor. Like most students, I was sitting there rolling my eyes, wondering about how any of this was ever going to matter to me. Professor White asked a few questions, probing questions. ‘Are you ever going to buy a house? Are you going to buy a farm?’ That course taught me a big lesson. This stuff matters!”
As an agricultural journalist, Gullickson has taken this lesson along with him throughout his career. The rigorous scientific method: researching how the world works, collecting evidence, writing articles, participating in peer-reviewed journals, academic debates. It all matters.
Gullickson and his team at SF decided to wade into the sometimes-controversial topic of “climate change” very directly in November of 2014. They crafted their story in very specific way, by asking questions with scientifically available data:
- Is the spring season getting wetter? Yes, for many of the nation’s most productive crop regions.
- Are droughts increasing in severity? Yes, again in much of the grain-producing areas.
- Are rainstorms increasing in intensity? Again, yes.
“We knew from experience that feature stories on climate change would mean an inbox full of comments,” said Gullickson. He wrote at the time that he would hear from readers that climate change is “just some figment of Al Gore’s imagination. A communist-socialist-liberal plot hatched by a gaggle of Third Reich eco-Nazis aiming to run the U.S. economy into the ground.”
But the magazine’s writers knew a lot of the public discourse was off base and political in nature, with little grounding in fact or science. Just like the vast majority of scientists who say the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming, agricultural journalists see a critical role for themselves. “We have to help our readers understand how climate change will impact them.”
“There’s a positive side to the story,” Gullickson said. “Farmers can help solve the problem by emphasizing soil health. With no-till production methods, better crop rotation and utilizing cover crops, farmers can sequester carbon in the soil. This is a benefit not just to climate change. It also helps farmers manage more intensive rains and longer, deeper droughts.”
Gullickson is concerned about the current political mood he sees in Washington, D.C. He hopes that USDA’s Climate Hubs, for instance, are fully funded and continue to operate. He hopes that USDA continues to invest in scientific research and data reporting.
However, the direction of USDA in the Trump administration remains an open question. Agriculture Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue, at his Senate hearing in March didn’t face a single question about how USDA will address climate change under his watch. And the President’s Budget Blueprint proposed deep cuts to the department, with research and data divisions seeing much of the decrease in funding.
Another journalist, Georgina Gustin, has covered the farmers and climate beat. She writes that, “climate change-related work and research is so embedded in the sprawling agency’s programs and so baked into its mission that it could be difficult, ultimately, to disentangle it.”
Gustin’s reporting points to:
- USDA’s Agricultural Food and Research Initiative, spending $150 million toward research aimed at minimizing the impacts of climate change on agriculture.
- USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, conducting “around 750 research projects at a given time, looking at ways to capture soil carbon, climate-related plant disease and breeding more sustainable crops.”
- USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, funding greenhouse gas mitigation projects running programs that “pay farmers to set aside farmland for conservation.”
But it’s clear that extreme weather is on the rise.
The Southern Plains has faced a crippling outbreak of record wildfires during March, seeing more than a million acres and hundreds of ranches and livestock facing millions of dollars in losses. California has recently exited six years of extreme drought with record rainfall and flooding. 2016 saw extreme drought take hold in rural New England, and current “extreme drought” conditions extend from the Southern Plains East to Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia.
All of these developments, says Gullickson, confirm the obvious. “The extremes, on average, are getting more extreme.”
He describes how these scientific questions can be off base in the national policy discussions. He remembers how Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, brought out snowballs on the Senate Floor in 2015 in a public display of climate change denial.
“Arguing about policy is just fine, but to deny science is a mistake,” says Gullickson. “Scientific, peer-reviewed data is how we solve problems. Not someone throwing snowballs across the Senate floor.”