US Family Farms: Helping or Hurting?

Climate change will have huge impacts on family farms – for both better and worse – in coming years

Small family farms today stand to be most hurt, or have the opportunity for significant gain, from the effect of climate change, as exemplified by a small family farm in western Wisconsin, Quality Grain Services (pictured above). Small to Mid-size family farms, making up 95% all farms in the US and operating 69% of the farmland[1], continue to play a large role in the US agriculture industry, an industry that has been proven to significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, 8% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 were from agriculture[2].

Farms today have experienced the effects of climate change – for QGS 2011-2014 farm income was extremely low due to poor yields with significant variations in weather each year[3]. More broadly, in 2008 flooding from the Mississippi River caused $8 billion dollars in farm losses[4]. In the West we have seen droughts continue for many years, and the list could continue to areas in the South and Northeast. The amount of cropland insurance has tripled since 1989, and 2011-2013 was the first time the government crop insurance program was tapped for the full government payment allocations[5].  From changing weather patterns to more extreme weather the impact is disastrous for small farms, such as QGS, whose livelihood is dependent on sustainable crop production. These effects will have a compounding effect, as previously efficient methods to adopt such as irrigation will become ineffective as water sources dry up and water shortages become common. In addition to problems with water supplies and increasingly erratic weather, pests and weeds effecting crops will become a problem as new pests move north or south with changing temperatures. QGS has seen this in the increased need for pesticides over the past three years, without which the corn and soybean crops would surely have lower yields.

The combination of these effects almost surely will result in decreasing productivity in the future, something that QGS has begun to adapt to. One category of adaptation has been around changing how crops are grown to decrease costs while maintaining high yields. These actions have included a higher usage of no-till farming, which takes less energy and labor while also disturbing the ground less, and the use of crop rotation to infuse nutrients in the soil. Improvement in soil nutrients is critical in the face of climate change as “healthier” soil is used to increase yields and reduce how susceptible crops are to pests/weeds[6]. Finally, precision agriculture has been employed to more efficiently apply fertilizer and pesticides in individual fields through GPS systems. This is a change from the previous broad stroke, excess application which is more costly and results in more greenhouse gas emissions being released into the atmosphere[7].

However QGS, and most family farms, are not doing enough to minimize the impacts of climate change and what it means for their livelihood. Irrigated land has been proven to provide higher yields than many other farming methods – 40% of crops produced globally come from 16% of irrigated agriculture land[8], but innovations in how irrigation is done will be necessary as water becomes more scarce. The use of fertilizer and pesticides continues to increase but new methods are being tested by small farms around the world, such as in Guatemala where farmers grew vegetables in corn and soybean fields to fight diseases and increase soil nutrients instead of using chemicals[9]. Additionally, organic farming methods that do not use fertilizers emit 40% fewer greenhouse gases, while receiving a market premium (although organic farm yields are generally lower) [10]. Even small changes contributing to a decrease in fossil fuels, such as selling corn to local ethanol plants and decreasing transportation costs, can be seen as positive changes being made by small farms that should continue. While change will be difficult, the examples above show how small farms are uniquely positioned to be innovators in the agriculture industry and that they can become leaders in adapting to climate change. These differences in the long-run also make business sense by saving on farm inputs, as well as energy and labor costs. Farms across the country need to look at this as an opportunity to move quicker and more nimbly than large, corporate farms, rather than be pushed out of farming by the impact climate change will continue to have.

Word Count: 715





[3] Company financial statements









Hyatt: Environmental Sustainability in Hospitality Industry


Generating change: A California utility copes with state regulation

Student comments on US Family Farms: Helping or Hurting?

  1. It is especially interesting to read about your perspective on how climate change is impacting the US farming industry given your background, Kaitlin. Thank you for sharing about such a personal topic! I thought that the parallels between your and @siyer’s post on McDonald’s were very interesting. ( Are large corporations (such as McDonald’s) so tied to the US farming industry that farmers may be able to utilize partnerships with these large organizations to help spur innovation?

  2. Great post! Thanks a lot for sharing- a very interesting topic. I had no idea the extent to which smaller-tier farms and US agricultural operations were being impacted by climate change.

    A few thoughts: you mention the issue that farms are brought into the debate as not just a victim but also a contributing cause to the problem: how has the tone of this debate shifted overtime? You mention that 8% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 were from agriculture – has the ensuing dialogue on sustainability been able to reduce this over the last few years? From the sounds of things, farmers have really been trying extremely hard to minimize the impacts of climate change, whether it be via precision agriculture, or the refinement of specific farming methods.

    I’d also love to know a little more about the geographical spread of these affected farms and agricultural industries: are their areas in the US that have been more adversely affected that others? You mention the case of Quality Grain Services in western Wisconsin: would you say that this example is representative of the larger group of affected farms? And how do you think different US states will be affected in the future – is law around this industry for example, more heavily affected by state or federal law?

    In doing some further reading after your post I came across this article from MIT, which talks about the MIT Integrated Global System Modeling (IGSM) framework, as a way to improve the availability of information needed by farmers to make more informed decisions: Have you come across other models similar to this, that would also inform your concluding thoughts about how the industry can most effectively evolve in the future? Are farmers being given enough information on how to truly assess their needs?

    Thanks again for sharing! Very thought-provoking.

Leave a comment