The threat of climate change is reported regularly, but how are the effects being perceived at ground level by UK farmers, and what are they doing about it? This study asks them.

A study by researchers at the University of Exeter has gathered information from farmers and agricultural stakeholders about their experiences with extreme weather and climate change. 

In the study, researchers interviewed 31 individuals from the farming community, including dairy, sheep, arable and mixed farmers on estates of different sizes, as well as advisors and consultants (now referred to as ‘stakeholders’). 

It should be noted that most farmers were from larger farms, and some were members of an organisation that promotes soil health, a factor that can increase climate resilience. So, these participants may have had increased climate awareness as a result.

Climate change and extreme weather perceptions

There was an agreement amongst interviewees that the climate is changing and that all agricultural businesses will need to adapt to the risks associated with these changes. However, the perceived levels of risk and the urgency of adaptation required varied among participants. 

One third felt climate change was a threat, one third felt it was more of an opportunity and one third felt it could be both. 

Researchers identified the risks as the impacts associated with an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Some had been experienced not long before the interviews took place.

Meanwhile, the study linked opportunities to longer-term changes in climate, such as increases in average temperatures leading to increased productivity and the potential to grow novel crops like grapes and hemp. 

Leafy green vines sprawl down a hillside in the english countryside.

Vineyard in Axe Valley in East Devon, UK (Savo Ilic/Shutterstock)

There was a sense that adapting to climate change would be essential to obtaining a competitive advantage over those who did not adapt.

For example, one livestock farmer said that “one man’s threat is another’s opportunity”, while a stakeholder said “some will adapt better, but that will be at the expense of those that don’t”. 

While these opinions are understandable from individual points of view, adapting to climate change at the expense of other farmers is far from ideal. Having sector-wide resilience would go much further in ensuring the security of the food industry. 

Some had a more laid-back view on the matter; since farming and the weather have always been intertwined, they see farming as being ‘naturally resilient’ with the ability to, as one arable farmer put it, “take climate change on the chin”. 

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It’s unclear as of yet whether this sense of durability is indicative of well-founded confidence or complacency. Certainly, several stakeholders agreed that the UK agricultural industry as a whole is not as resilient to the impacts of climate change as it needs to be and that some farmers seem unaware and unprepared. 

There were varying levels of concern about how extreme weather may affect farms within the next five years, typically a reflection of events that had previously been experienced (e.g., drought periods or heavy rainfall). 

Looking further forward to the next 10 to 20 years, there was agreement that the impacts of extreme weather are likely to be more significant, but few were seriously thinking about them as this lies outside of most farmers’ planning scope.

Observed impacts of extreme weather events

As part of the interview, the team asked farmers about the types of extreme weather events they had experienced over the last 10 years and whether the impacts had been positive or negative. All reported having at least one event with negative effects. In fact, though some reported positive impacts from a weather event, most were negative.

Brown flooded fields surrounding a farmhouse in West Yorkshire, UK.

Flooded fields in West Yorkshire, UK (Go My Media/Shutterstock)

Arable farmers reported 18 negative impacts, and livestock farmers reported 28 negative impacts for all types of weather events discussed (heavy rainfall, floods, drought, extreme heat, extreme cold, and wind). 

The study did not determine the frequency or severity of these events due to the small sample size. However, negative impacts on forage availability and grass growth were especially common for livestock farmers. 

For arable farmers, the common negative impacts cited were those of heavy rainfall and drought on crop yields. 

While some negative impacts only resulted in minor inconveniences, such as tree damage from storms, others resulted in significant financial losses. This can lead to large remedial costs, increases in production costs or reduced yields. 

One livestock farmer suffered a shortage of winter cattle feed due to the dry summer in 2018, reducing their profit margin for beef by 20%. 

The wet winter of 2012/13 reduced one arable farmer’s wheat production by 2 tons per hectare.

Conversely, arable farmers reported only four positive impacts, and livestock farmers reported only two. Livestock farmers linked these positive impacts to additional income from clearing snow and a wind turbine, not from direct benefits like increased productivity.

It’s important not to consider these figures exclusively at the farm scale; farmers highlighted that the markets can balance the costs of extreme weather events. 

One arable farmer reported that they had suffered from a poor harvest of winter crops due to a wet spring and dry summer in 2018, but that profit was not significantly reduced as “prices went through the roof”. 

Likewise, dairy farmers noted that when feed prices increased due to poor grass growth, milk prices increased due to a decline in global production, which covered most of their increased costs. 

But while increased prices in times of scarcity might cushion farmers from extreme events, it’s less than ideal for maintaining necessary production for the public. 

Adaptations to changing weather

Many of the interviewees were already making a variety of changes to improve the general resilience of their farms and their response to extreme weather. 

For arable farmers, these changes include the creation of reservoirs to collect rainwater, the use of larger machinery to take full advantage of small weather windows and the testing of new crops like soya. 

For livestock, farmers were expanding and improving livestock housing, reseeding pastures with more diverse seed mixes (e.g., with drought-tolerant cocksfoot), and using mob-grazing (short, high-intensity grazing followed by longer grass recovery times).

Some farmers noted that they did not necessarily make these changes with climate change directly in mind. This was especially the case for improving soil health, the aim of which is to improve productivity but also increase resilience to wet and dry conditions. 

One livestock farmer explained: “We’re working towards improving soil structure etc., which is good for us whether the climate changes or not, for nutrient-holding capacity, water drainage and retention etc. Your soil is the biggest living thing on your farm”. 

Another farmer suggested they were working towards a more holistic approach to farming, cross-breeding cows to create more resilient herds, and improving soil fertility to produce better quality feed while avoiding soil run-off of excess nutrients. 

The consensus among farmers seems to be that by improving the sustainability and health of their farms and practices, they will, as a result, have created farms that are more able to cope with the impacts of climate change.