Rows and rows of Potato Plants grow in Idaho Agricultural Farms

A generally accurate story in the Idaho County Free Press (ICFP) numbers increasingly extreme weather due to climate change among the challenges facing agriculture in the state, resulting in a decline in farmers. This is false. Data prove climate change is not causing greater instances of extreme weather and, indeed, farm yields have increased fairly consistently during the recent period of modest warming. This being the case, climate change cannot be a factor leading to falling numbers of farmers.

The ICFP story, titled “Idaho’s economy fifth most dependent on agriculture,” notes there are many reasons the number of people farming for a living in Idaho are declining, from farm consolidation, COVID induced supply chain problems, to trade policy, to government regulations and beyond. But one factor the story lists as putting farmers behind the eight ball is climate change, and that is not true.

“The past few years have been challenging ones for the agriculture industry,” says ICFP. “The threat of global climate change has continued to produce warmer temperatures and more extreme weather events that threaten crops and livestock, and this summer, the U.S. is currently experiencing serious drought in some of its key agricultural regions ….”

As Climate at a Glance: Drought points out, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports with “high confidence” that precipitation has increased over mid-latitude land areas of the Northern Hemisphere (including the United States) during the past 70 years, while IPCC has “low confidence” about any negative trends globally.

Focusing just on the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports the United States is undergoing its longest period in recorded history without at least 40 percent of the country experiencing “very dry” conditions. Note also the peaks in drought around 1978, 1954, 1930, and 1900 are much larger than what the U.S. experienced in the 21st century and the late 20th century. Indeed, as recently as 2017 and 2019, the United States registered its smallest percentage of land area experiencing drought in recorded history.

Idaho is currently in the midst of a drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor currently list 100 percent of the state as experiencing at least moderate drought or worse. Just a year ago, however, less than 18 percent of the state was experiencing moderate drought conditions or worse. Drought is a weather event and, as everyone knows, the weather can change quickly.

Idaho, like much of the Western United States, has periodically experienced drought throughout its history. The last time Idaho experienced a drier March through July was in 1924, 100 years of global warming ago, when average temperatures were cooler. Records indicate Idaho’s current dry cycle is the fifth driest on record, since such records were routinely recorded by the government. Idaho experienced worse or drier “water years”—October to September— in 1924, 1931, 1977, and 1994 with three of the four worse water years than at present occurring during a time when many scientists were worried about falling temperatures and warning of a coming ice age.

Just as there is no evidence indicating climate change is causing worsening droughts across the U.S. in general or Idaho in particular, there is also no evidence other extreme weather events likely to impact Idaho, such as heatwaves or flooding have worsened. The IPCC admits having “low confidence” in any climate change impact regarding the frequency or severity of floods.

Going further, the IPCC says it has “low confidence” in even the “sign” of any changes—in other words, it is just as likely that climate change is making floods less frequent and less severe.

Concerning extreme heat or extended heat waves, data from NOAA, indicate heatwaves remain far less frequent and severe since 2000, than was the case during the 1930s – nearly 100 years of global warming ago. (See the figure).

Heatwave Index for the contiguous United States, 1895-2015 (no later data is available). The U.S. Annual Heat Wave Index tracks the occurrence of heat wave conditions across the United States. This index defines a heat wave as a period lasting at least four days with an average temperature that would only be expected to occur once every 10 years, based on the historical record. The index value for a given year depends on how often heat waves occur and how widespread they are. Source: Our World in Data, using data from NOAA.

A majority of each state’s all-time high temperature records were set during the first half of the 20th century – approximately 100 years of “global warming” ago.

Because climate change is not causing more extreme weather in Idaho, it also cannot be impacting crop production. The records show that during the recent period of modest warming, even as the number of farmers has declined, yields of Idaho’s major crops have consistently increased.

Idaho is the nation’s largest producer of potatoes and barley, and the second largest producer of sugar beets. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that between 2010 and 2019:

  • Idaho’s potato production has increased by approximately 16 percent and its yield per acre has grown by about 11 percent.
  • Idaho’s barley production has increased by more than 27 percent and its yield per acre has grown by more than 13 percent.
  • Idaho’s sugar beet production has increased by more than 22 percent and its yield per acre has grown by nearly 26 percent.

At the conclusion of ICFP’s article it reports on this good news, stating, “[b]y the measure of total factor productivity — essentially a ratio of agricultural inputs like land, labor, capital, and materials to outputs of crops and livestock — farms today are far more productive than they have ever been, part of a long-running trend dating back to at least the late 1940s.”

In a misguided effort to stoke climate alarm, the ICFP buried the lead, that Idaho’s farm productivity is higher than ever. Shame on them for doing so.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is managing editor of Environment & Climate News and a research fellow for environment and energy policy at The Heartland Institute. Burnett worked at the National Center for Policy Analysis for 18 years, most recently as a senior fellow in charge of NCPA’s environmental policy program. He has held various positions in professional and public policy organizations, including serving as a member of the Environment and Natural Resources Task Force in the Texas Comptroller’s e-Texas commission.

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