Adaptation to Climate Change

I ran across this fascinating paper by Richard Sutch on the the relationship between the Dust Bowl and hybrid corn adoption.  The discussion is interesting in light of current discussions bout how and whether farmers will be able to adapt to climate change and whether technology development can help mitigate some adverse effects.

Here's a passage from Sutch.

The suggestion that I make in this chapter is that the severe drought of 1936 revealed an advantage of hybrid corn not previously recognized— its drought tolerance. This ecological resilience motivated some farmers to adopt hybrids despite their commercial unattractiveness in normal years. But that response to climate change had a tipping effect. The increase in sales of hybrid seed in 1937 and 1938 financed research at private seed companies that led to new varieties with significantly improved yields in normal years. This development provided the economic incentive for late adopters to follow suit. Because post- 1936 hybrid varieties conferred advantages beyond improved drought resistance, the negative ecological impact of the devastating 1936 drought had the surprising, but beneficial, consequence of moving more farmers to superior corn seed selection sooner than they might otherwise.

This long quote is from the conclusions and is well worth reading.

The sociologists Bryce Ryan and Neal Gross, writing in 1950, studied the diffusion of hybrid corn in two communities located in Greene County, Iowa (Ryan and Gross 1950). In their view, late adopters were farmers bound by tradition. They were irrational, backward, and “rural.” The early adopters by contrast were flexible, calculating, receptive, and “urbanized.” “Certainly,” they summarized, “farmers refusing to accept hybrid corn even for trial until after 1937 or 1938 were conservative beyond all demands of reasonable business methods”. They drew a policy implication: “The interest of a technically progressive agriculture may not be well served by social policies designed to preserve or revivify the traditional rural- folk community”. In part, this view was based on Ryan and Gross’s (incorrect) belief that hybrid corn was profitable in the early 1930s. I have suggested that this was not the case. Figure 7.11 should also give pause to the view that rural laggards delayed the adoption of hybrid corn. It would be hard to argue that the farmers in Iowa Crop Reporting District 6 were predominantly forward-thinking leaders, attentive, and flexible, while those in Indiana and Ohio were predominately backward rustics trapped by inflexible folk tradition.

I think an implication of this study is that farmers (even those of rural America in the 1930s) are remarkably resilient and adaptive. Sudden and dramatic climate change induced a prompt and prudent response. An unexpected consequence was that an otherwise more gradual process of technological development and adoption was given a kick start by the drought and the farmers’ response. That pushed the technology beyond a tipping point and propelled the major Corn Belt states to the universal adoption of hybrid corn by 1943. The country as a whole reached universal adoption by 1960.

The paper has a number of interesting discussions about the role of the USDA, federal research, and strong personalities that pushed along the development of hybrid corn.  For more on the history of the development of hybrid corn, see this previous post.