Jolley: 5 minutes with Clay Pope and the magic of YouTube

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I didn’t see Clay Pope’s heart-to-heart with President Obama when it was first posted on YouTube. I discovered the now famous video when I read Timothy Egan’s New York Times Opinionator Blog last week.  The title, “Hix Nix Climate Fix,” offended me but it was a clever re-use of one of the most famous headlines in newspaper history.

Clay Pope Pope is a sixth-generation western Oklahoma farmer who is also the executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.  Sixth-generation means he is not far removed from the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a major disruptor of farming and existing farming practices, which he calls the greatest ecological disaster of modern times.  His video called on the President to use his bully pulpit to bring the issue of global warming to center stage. 

It’s a call that probably didn’t sit well with many of his friends and neighbors.  Oklahoma ranchers are famous for their distrust of the issue and even more famous for their distrust of the motives and capabilities of the federal government.  Most of them would rather be left alone to solve their own problems without ‘assistance.’

But if they want to call Pope a “tree hugger” or worse, he’s earned the honor of that title.  He’s worked hard to help manage the things that can have a dramatic impact on American farming and that “vowel-crushing twang” mentioned by Egan masks an intense knowledge of how climate change can affect agriculture.

The heart of his message was a well-reasoned plea to stop the political posturing and sit down to discuss the problem.  A respectful, adult conversation can go a long way toward developing a common sense approach to global warming.  I spent about an hour on the phone with him and here is what he had to say.

 

Q. Clay, you created a bit of a dust-up with your recent YouTube video urging President Obama to take a more aggressive stand on climate issues in his State of the Union address. Before we get to the content of that video, let’s talk about your background and why you thought the weather was important enough to talk about in such an open forum.

A. I’ve lived in western Oklahoma my whole life.  Western Oklahoma was the bullseye for the dust bowl in the 1930’s.  We’ve always been in the bull’s-eye for extreme weather of all kinds.If you listen to the climatologists they will tell you that with climate change what have always been the extremes will now become more and more the norm. We’ve always had droughts and flash floods. The concern is that with climate change the droughts will be longer and hotter and the 100-year flood may become the 50-year flood. That’s somethingwe need to talk about.

As a farmer and rancher, I think we need to start a conversation on this subject. When I look at this issue, I figure the President has the bully pulpit and he can help lead that conversation.

Q. The video got a major boost in traffic when Timothy Egan, blogging “Hix Nix Climate Fix” in the New York Times, said, “Clay Pope, a rancher from Loyal, Okla., recently cut a YouTube video urging President Obama to highlight the climate change threat to agriculture. It was good to see Pope, who speaks with the kind of vowel-crushing twang rarely heard in Washington policy circles, take up the good fight, especially considering the risk he exposed himself to from primitive politicians in his home state.”  

I think Egan might have the “risk” part of his commentary right. I see a lot of email traffic from climate change doubters and Oklahoma seems to be ground zero for people who think it’s misguided at best, and a cruel hoax at worst. What’s been the response from your home state friends?

  1. A.   I have gotten some good ribbing from some while others are upset because they look at climate change just as a political issue.That’s not the right way to look at it.

I think it behooves us to look at climate change from the perspective of what effects it will have on agriculture.  We’ve always said that we want policy decisions that affect us to be based on sound science. Well, we can’t just pick and choose the science we agree with.  We have to accept science for what it is.  We need to have an open and honest discussion about climate change because the science tells us it’s a real deal.

Here’s how I look at it-nature runs like an engine. You can go out to your truck right now and start taking things out from under the hood and it will still run.  Sooner or later though, you’ll take out something that’s important.  We also know what happens when you shoot nitrous oxide into a gas engine.  That’s what we’ve done with climate change.  We’ve speeded up a natural process. Now, how do we control it?

Climate change is a natural process that we’ve sped up.  What naturally would take centuries to happen we’ve accelerated to the point that it takes just a few decades.  Think of it like the Dust Bowl. Erosion is a natural process—in the 1930’s we sped it up.  We put a natural process on steroids.  That’s what we’re doing now with climate change.

 

Q. Lately much of the debate about climate change has been politically pigeon-holed as a right wing vs left wing issue. To quote your YouTube video, though, one of the strongest supporters was George W. Bush who said this about new technologies, “…these technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.”

What are the politics behind climate change and should it be a political issue?

A. It can’t help but be a political issuebecause the government is involved, but that complicates things in our hyper-partisan atmosphere.  It shouldn’t be a left vs. right issue, though because like so many things reality is somewhere in the middle.  I just think we need to have an adult conversation about it. 

And the thing is, we’ve been down this road before.  Again, look at erosion. What most people don’t know is that the drought of the 1950’s was actually worse than the drought of the 1930’s and these last two years have been dryer than that.Because we had a serious discussion about the Dust Bowl and took the problem head on, we madeimprovements on the land and the Dust Storms of the 1930’s didn’t reappear. We turned back the greatest man-made ecological disasterof modern times by working with the Government to create voluntary programs that helped address the problem.We used our heads then. We can do it now.

Q. Let’s talk about the drought and its effects on the farm belt. I drove through Oklahoma in last August to get a better sense of what was happening. I saw hundreds of miles of burned out crop land, wind-whipped dust and temperatures around 115 degrees. I heard radio reports of wildfires that eventually destroyed 40 structures near Tulsa and another blaze that destroyed at least 25 structures, including a handful of homes, near Noble, about 30 miles south of Oklahoma City. The weather patterns seemed extreme even by Oklahoma’s standards. Is this going to be a continuing problem?

A. We’ve always had crazy weather here and that’s not going to change.  With the Rocky Mountains to our west, the Gulf to our south and cold air to our north, we can’t avoid weather extremes.  What’s bad though is that what we’ve always thought of as the bad outliers will become the norm.  Late freezes, longer and hotter droughts, more violent rain events, heavy ice storms—what we have always seen as exceptionally bad weather will become more and more common.

Q. The Great American Midwest is the world’s breadbasket – corn, wheat, cattle, hogs – its production goes a long way to feeding a hungry world but it has been staggered by extreme weather conditions. The major crop lands of Europe and Asia have seen similar weather patterns but, in spite of all that, we’ve managed to maintain most of the world’s agricultural output with improvements in seed stock, genetics and better automation. If the current weather patterns continue, how sustainable are our farming practices?

A.  It’s a challenge we need to think about. The good news is that a lot of what we’ll need to do is something we should be doing anyway if we want to feed and clothe the world.  We need to be looking at soil health more. When you consider we’ve lost anywhere from 60% to 80% of the organic matter in our soils, and when you consider that a big part of organic matter is carbon, that makes for a big climate sink in our farm ground.

Take a practice like no-till. We all learned in high school that plants suck in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.  That CO2 is then stored in the soil by the plant as organic matter.  No-till can “sequester” around a half a metric ton of CO2 per acre per year.  In Oklahoma, it also translates into 3 gallons of diesel less per acre per year to grow wheat, so you are spending less on fuel while you put less CO2 in the atmosphere. Studies have also shown that for every 1% increase in organic matter in the soil you get up to $750 worth of additional nutrients per acrewhile you triple the grounds moisture holding capacity andreduce moisture loss to evaporation since you lose a half to three quarters of an inch of moisture every time you work your ground.

So, by converting to a practice like no-till you conserve what moisture you have. You reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. You reduce diesel use (and fuel costs). You reduce soil erosion. You help improve water quality (by controlling run-off you also reduce non-point source pollution) and provide additional food and cover for wildlife.  You do this all while increasing your long-term production by improving your soil’s health.  This is just one practice—you can make similar cases for practices like better pasture management or the adoption of new production technology.  The beef industry is a great example of how improved technology and improved genetics can reduce carbon footprints because studies have shown the industry is already doing it-they just aren’t getting credit for it because we are not having aconversation about the issue.

Q. You suggested we should try to prevent climate change in the first place. Others have suggested it’s too late and a better approach would be to find hardier seed stock that can withstand heat and drought, and move animal agriculture farther north to what could become a more hospitable climate. The drought conditions have already forced culling of herds in the Southern states and a slight increase in herd size in some Northern states. Can we still do something to alleviate changing weather patterns or are we in the early stages of an inevitable Northward migration?

A.I hope we’re not seeing an inevitable move northward.  We are seeing some wildlife and insects migrating further north already, though, and the fear is that if the climate keeps changing the industry will be forced to follow.  Is there a silver bullet that will change that?  No.  We’ll have to adapt and manage the change.  We’ll have to become better stewards of our natural resources.

Take the Ogallala Aquifer that supports farming in the Panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. It’s a finite resource and we need to continue adopting better irrigation methods to conserve it as long as we can.  What can we do to help folks convert to the most efficient irrigation systems possible?  Drip systems are much more efficient than center pivots but they cost a lot of money.

The climatologists talk about more extreme rain events.  Can we do more to capture water that comes during these heavy rains and use it later?  Do we need to help more with pond construction and clean out? Can practices like no-till help us control run-off and erosion during heavy rains while conserving soil moisture during the droughts?  We need to be talking about this.

Can we figure out how to feed cattle in a hotter southern climate?  Can we maintain our irrigated corn production? How will this change in climate affect cattle feeders on the southern plains and will it have a domino effect on guys like me who run stocker calves on winter wheat and have cow calf operations?

Can we adapt to these changes or mitigate them?  Yes. But first we have to sit down and decide what needs to be done. Science tells us climate change is the real deal. We need to have a serious discussion and when I say we, I mean agriculture, because we’ll be affected most by these weather extremes. Hoping this all goes away isn’t a good strategy.

I’m not a big fan of regulations. I think if we can address a man-made ecological disaster like the Dust Bowl through sensible, voluntary programs we can have similar success when it comes to climate change.  That’s not to say regulations don’t have their place—but I honestly believe if we look at this problem for what it is, the seeds to solving this issue have already been sown in the past.  In the 1930’s we weren’t afraid to take the bull by the horns and address a natural resource crisis. There’s no reason we can’t do the same today.

Side Note: If you didn’t watch it when it first ran on your local PBS station, here is a link to Ken Burns’ film on the Dust Bowl: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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