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2019 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

Harvesting Peril: Extreme Weather and Climate Change on the American Farm

About the Project

Farmers are on the frontlines of climate change, yet they are included without much remark among conservative voters most skeptical about global warming and opposed to regulation.

It seems about as normal a circumstance as a rooster crowing at daybreak, until you begin to ask: Why is it that the people most vulnerable to a changing climate—most at the mercy of worsening extreme weather—remain unconcerned about the existential threat?

InsideClimate News decided to investigate the question. We published the answers we uncovered in a series of stories called “Harvesting Peril: Extreme Weather and Climate Change on the American Farm.”

The reporters found that the nation’s largest farm lobby, the American Farm Bureau Federation, has played a leading role shaping climate opinion on the American farm, to the detriment of the farmers it represents. It calls itself the “voice” of American agriculture, but the Farm Bureau has left its own members ill-prepared to cope with intensifying droughts, rain, heat and storms that threaten their livelihoods.

The group’s agenda has also undermined farmers’ ability to contribute to climate solutions they are in a unique position to provide. They could control greenhouse gas pollution on their farms by adopting proven agricultural practices that store carbon in the soil. Collectively, American farms have the potential to become a massive carbon sink, and provide farmers with a source of new income.

Our reporting shows that for decades the farm lobby has prevented an American agricultural response to climate change. It has also wielded its influence to undermine climate treaties and regulations that go well beyond the farm gate. In tandem with fossil fuel allies, it has sowed uncertainty about the science of global warming and the urgent need to bring it under control. It has championed the federal crop insurance program, which provides security to farmers without preparing them to respond to demands of a warming world. We also found that crop insurance is a cash cow for insurance affiliates with direct ties to Farm Bureau leadership.

Where does megafarming end and insurance begin? There’s no clear boundary between them, we found, no open space for talk of climate change, if not action, to stake a claim in farm country. That crop doesn’t grow there, and we explain why, little by little, step by step, until the harvest of peril comes into focus.

To piece together the stories in our series, our team pored over thousands of pages of financial and historical records about the farm industry. These encompassed original source documents we obtained going back to the 1980s, including correspondence between climate scientists and policymakers. We conducted more than 200 interviews with researchers, lobbyists, Congressional staffers, key agency officials, industry leaders—and, most importantly, with American farmers.