AUSTIN, Tex. — When thousands of farmers gathered here this week for the annual convention of the country's most powerful agricultural group, they heard a lot of welcome news.
President Donald Trump, visiting the American Farm Bureau Federation convention for the third year in a row, touted two recently negotiated trade deals designed to give a jolt to the ailing farm economy. The gathering also celebrated the Trump administration's continued rollbacks of environmental regulations, including one squarely in the crosshairs of Farm Bureau lobbyists which would have expanded the reach of the Clean Water Act.
Farmers also listened as the Farm Bureau's voting delegates adopted a handful of new climate-related positions—11 in all—a move that represents a concession of sorts for an organization that has long worked against climate policy. The group continues to question the causes of climate change and opposes any regulation of greenhouse gasses by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Among the newly adopted amendments: One supporting research and education to promote soil health, a key requirement for ensuring soil's ability to capture and store carbon, and another that calls for "unbiased science-based research on climate change."
"Our members just want it to be scientifically proven," said Regan Beck, the director of government affairs for the Texas Farm Bureau, referring to the link between human activity and climate change.
Also among the newly adopted amendments are a handful intended to defend agriculture against what many farmers say is an unfair villainization of their industry. One amendment called for more research to document the "beneficial impact of agricultural efforts designed to increase climate resilience." Another opposes any "laws or policies that implicate agricultural activity of any kind as a cause for climate change without empirical evidence."
Over the last year and a half, sweeping national and international reports have outlined global agriculture's contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and have also warned of the disastrous consequences climate change could have on agriculture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said last August that the entire food production system, including transportation, accounted for 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally and called for improved land use and less meat-intensive diets as part of the comprehensive, urgent effort needed to prevent a global climate catastrophe. The EPA says that emissions from the U.S. agricultural sector are about 9 percent of total emissions.
The battery of reports and growing public pressure has put American agricultural interests on the defensive. At the same time, successive weather-related disasters across the Midwestern farm belt have increasingly mirrored the science, which projects that climate change will lead to more heat, drought, extreme rain and flooding.
Last year was the wettest on record in many parts of the Midwest, prompting the government to pay roughly $9 billion in disaster aid and insurance payouts. That, along with $28 billion in bailout funds for 2018 and 2019 to compensate farmers for losses from Trump's trade war with China, helped boost farm income, despite an otherwise disastrous year. The payouts also raised more questions about the mushrooming cost of insurance and disaster bailouts as the effects of climate change worsen. Even some farmers question the public's tolerance for paying the tab.
"Well, Trump's going to give us money, but how does the public take this?" said Fred Meng, a corn and soybean farmer from Troy, Kansas, referring to the latest round of trade aid. "Every time there's a disaster, we get a bailout."
Farmers at the convention expressed growing optimism about the economic opportunities in taking steps to address climate change. One recent analysis found that soil and land conservation practices could bring more than $8 billion into farming communities, and that the average family farm could earn nearly $22,000 in additional income for taking carbon-storing steps on its farm.
"We have the carbon sink," said Bob Schofner, a rancher from Arkansas and one of the 346 voting delegates at the convention. "Agriculture is the only thing that can do something about this."
'He's Fighting for the American Farmer'
When President Donald Trump strolled onto the convention stage Sunday, thousands of farmers rose to their feet and cheered, many of them chanting "Four More Years!"
Having just announced two new trade deals—one with China, and one replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada—Trump could claim he had delivered for farmers. (Markets have yet to respond, and prices remain low.)
"Before I took office, American agriculture was being crushed by an onslaught of massive taxes, crippling regulations, burdensome federal mandates—you know about that," the president said. "I released it. I released it all. And horrendous trade deals. And they were horrendous indeed."
Normally, the annual convention is an opportunity for farmers to learn about the newest technologies in agriculture or the latest policy developments. The conference's most important function is crafting the Farm Bureau's "policy book"—the hefty volume of positions that define its lobbying strategy.
But increasingly the event has become more of a political rally and a celebration of Trump's strategic, cozy relationship with the farm lobby and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, one of a handful of cabinet-level leaders who have remained in their posts since the beginning of the administration.
The administration hasn't always fallen in line with the agriculture lobby's demands: Trump's trade war with China bruised the farm economy badly, and his administration has granted a record number of waivers to small oil refineries under the Renewable Fuel Standard. Those waivers meant that less corn-based ethanol was blended into fuels, angering corn growers and the broader farm lobby.
But this week, any lingering tension appeared to be in the rearview mirror.
"He's fighting for the American farmer," said Craig Louder, a cattle rancher from Jerome, Idaho. "He's a slam dunk."
Bubble-Wrapped by Regulation?
The day after Trump's appearance, Tennessee Farm Bureau President Jeff Aiken and Secretary Perdue took to the convention stage for a question-and-answer session.
Aiken asked Perdue what he sees as the biggest challenge facing American agriculture.
"We have bubble-wrapped ourselves in so much regulation that it just constrains us," Perdue responded.
In crafting his answer, Perdue was reiterating a stance that American farmers have held for decades: They don't want environmental regulations that might dictate how they manage their land.
In large part, they have long gotten their wish. Air and water emissions from agricultural operations are barely regulated under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and the current administration continues to cut back on environmental regulation, including replacing an Obama-era rule that would have broadened the scope of the Clean Water Act.
Meanwhile, emissions from agriculture have climbed since 1990, application of fertilizer—which is not federally regulated—contributes to a growing algae bloom problem and the number of larger, polluting facilities continues to climb. This week the Environmental Working Group issued a new report finding the number of large industrial hog facilities in Iowa, the nation's biggest hog-producing state, has climbed from nearly 800 to nearly 4,000 since 1990.
Sitting in front of the Farm Bureau crowd this week Perdue said otherwise, citing the oft-repeated sentiment that farmers are the best stewards of the land.
"They're all conservationists and environmentalists," he said.
Climate Change as 'Shock and Awe'
In a workshop held Saturday, two young Farm Bureau members explained the basics of climate change to a room full of wary farmers.
Kalena Bruce, a farmer and accountant from Stockton, Missouri, told the group that she included climate change in the title of their presentation for "shock and awe" and to "get you in the door."
Ryan Amberg, a brand manager for the Felco Company from New York, reminded the group that the EPA puts agricultural emissions at about 9 percent. "We're looking good here," he said, pointing to a chart. "It's showing American agricultural efficiency. It's a good indication we're doing something right."
Both were doing their best to persuade the skeptics in the room, even making attempts to "lighten the conversation a bit," as Amberg put it.
Amberg tried to highlight some seeming positives, pointing to data that showed the reduction of methane emitted per head of cattle. (Overall, methane emissions from agriculture have risen about 65 percent since 1990, according to the EPA.) He was attempting to tread a line between putting the room in a defensive crouch and convincing farmers that climate change affects them—and that they can do something about it.
"We've got to get better," Amberg told the room, adding, "We know the issue at hand."