Black Farmers and Climate Adaptation

Final report for GNC21-333

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2021: $14,968.00
Projected End Date: 05/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Ohio State University
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Douglas Jackson-Smith
Ohio State University
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Shoshanah Inwood
Ohio State University -OARDC
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Project Information


Farmers’ livelihoods are tied to agriculture and thus are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Farmers in the United States are already being affected by climate change impacts such as intense precipitation and/or drier and warmer weather conditions. Not all farmers are equally affected by climate impacts as farmers' climate change adaptation and resilience are influenced by access to resources, which are unevenly distributed. For Black farmers, vulnerability to climate change is exacerbated by years of institutional racial discrimination and limited access to financial and technical resources. Farmer climate adaptation research has not examined how Black farmers are experiencing and adapting to climate change. This study examines Black farmers’ experiences and responses to climate change. More specifically, the study aims to answer the following question: How are Black farmers experiencing and adapting to climate change?


The study compares Black farmers from a midwestern state (Ohio) and a southern state (North Carolina) via a qualitative approach involving semi-structured interviews with 37 farmers. Most of the Black farmers involved in the study noticed climate impacts and reported being affected by it. The farm impacts reported included direct and indirect climate impacts, positive impacts, and social impacts while the adaptive strategies described included infrastructure-focused strategies, crop-focused strategies, and conservation and mitigation-based strategies. Respondents described experiencing challenges including challenges pertaining directly to their farm operations as well as a lack of access to resources and equipment which can make adapting to climate change more difficult. Black farmers in both Ohio and North Carolina had similar experiences with climate impacts with the difference of pest pressure being more of a problem for North Carolina farmers while having an extended growing season was a positive impact of climate change only reported by Ohio farmers. Farmers from both states also explained the racialized nature of some of the challenges they face especially as it pertains to access to information and resources which some of them linked to their capacity to respond to climate change.  The study underscores the need to support Black farmers existing efforts to adapt to climate change as well as the need for less restrictive and more flexible programs that would allow Black farmers to apply for agricultural programs with more ease and less financial burdens.

Project Objectives:

The project had the following objectives:

  1. Gain an understanding of Black farmers' experiences and responses to climate change. This was done by identifying the socio-economic and biophysical impacts of climate change on Black farmers and their land. Other factors explored include Black farmers’ perception and prioritization of climate risks, the relationship between adaptation strategies and Black farmers’ risk perceptions, and the variation of impacts and responses by location. 
  2. Inform climate adaptation and sustainable agriculture programs that work with Black farmers regarding how to assist them with climate adaptation strategies by disseminating the research to practitioners, agricultural staff, and policymakers. 


Materials and methods:

The study compares the experiences and responses of Black farmers from Ohio and North Carolina as it pertains to climate change. A comparative study of the two states is useful to emphasize potential differences between the types of the climate impacts Black farmers are exposed and the nature of their social networks and relationships, two factors which are susceptible of influencing Back farmers experiences with and responses to climate change.  

The lack of research on Black farmers’ climate adaptation made the use of an explorative qualitative approach more appropriate. I used semi-structured interviews and grounded theory to allow for the emergence of themes that could not be fully anticipated. 37 farmers were interviewed: 15 in Ohio and 22 in North Carolina. The farmers interviewed were identified through key informants in both states, farmers’ directories, and snowball sampling.  

Farmers were asked about weather changes observed over the years, the impacts of weather changes on their operations, their strategies to respond to climate impacts, their concerns’ level vis à vis climate change, and the challenges they face. 

The raw data from these interviews was coded in NVivo and validated by multiple members of the research team in an iterative process. 

Research results and discussion:

32 out of 37 respondents reported having noticed changes in the weather including changes in precipitation, wind patterns, temperature, increased pest pressure and flooding, a shift in the seasons, extreme weather patterns, and unpredictability.

A majority (60%) of respondents mentioned their farming operations were affected by direct (18) and indirect (3) climate impacts, positive impacts (2), and social impacts (2). The direct impacts mentioned include both weather-related impacts and farm impacts. Farmers described experiencing weather impacts such as excess water, excessive heat, and low moisture as well as farm impacts like pest pressure, lost crops and livestock, stressed crops, and delayed planting. Most of the farmers reporting having lost crops described the loss in terms of the crops dying, often due to an early or late frost, heavy rains, flooding, or extended drought periods. Several farmers, particularly those from North Carolina (7 from NC out of 9 farmers) had an issue with pest pressure. These direct impacts on crop and livestock production led to indirect impacts on the farmers’ households and businesses, including increased labor demands, loss of revenue, and difficulty in planning for the future. Two farmers (both from Ohio) highlighted some positive impacts of climate change namely how milder winters have decreased their labor needs and allowed them to retain their trees and grape vines better. Two farmers emphasized some of the social consequences of climate change including farmers’ stress and community food shortage. About 40% of the farmers interviewed either reported that their farm was not affected by climate impacts or did not provide any account of climate impacts on their farm. Among the farmers who reported not being impacted by climate change, three were proactively using adaptive measures (starting plants indoors, growing indoors, raised beds, and trenches) and connected the low impacts on their operations to those measures. Other reasons making climate impacts less relevant to farmers included operating as a not-for-profit farming operation thus not relying as much on farm revenues, and planting crops that have a later planting date.

A little less than half (16) of the respondents indicated being concerned about the impacts of climate change on the future of their farm operations namely with regards to food production, loss of crops and livestock, lower production, soil quality, infrastructural damages, the sustainability of farming, access to water, and being able to plant in open fields. Nine respondents reported not being concerned due to the lack of impacts they were seeing in their areas, their outlook on life or spirituality, and the perceived temporal distance of climate change. The sentiment of the remaining study participants was mixed: some respondents mentioned not being concerned about climate change impacts on the future of their operations but named specific factors that they believe either have reduced or will reduce climate impacts on their operations while others reported being concerned about climate impacts in general but not necessarily for their operations.

The Black farmers interviewed were engaged in three main types of adaptive responses which included infrastructure-focused strategies, crop-focused strategies, and conservation and mitigation-based strategies. The majority of farmers in the study reported using an infrastructure-based strategy including the use of high tunnels or greenhouses, row covers, animal shelters, and water management strategies including swales, raised beds, reshaping rows, irrigation systems, and water tanks/barrels. Roughly a quarter of the farmers reported using crop-focused strategies including modifying planting schedule, increasing use of inputs (fertilizers and pesticides), planting different crops, and using multiple locations for their field crops to take advantage of different micro-climates. Lastly, six farmers reported adopting conservation and mitigation-focused strategies including installation of wildlife habitats and pollination strips on the edge of their farms, planting cover crops, using renewable energy, and avoiding tillage.  Only three of the farmers said they were not doing anything to adapt to climate change. These farmers mentioned continuing to do what they have always done, being overwhelmed with labor, or not needing to address the changes they were noticing since they were beneficial to them.

Study participants listed three main types of challenges including challenges directly tied to their farm operations (27), a lack of access to equipment and resources (23), and community-related challenges (6). The challenges reported by Black farmers particularly the farm-focused challenges and the lack of access to resources have the potential to compete with or constrain their ability to focus on climate issues. As they reflected on the climate impacts they were experiencing on their farm, three farmers directly connected the role of access to equipment and resources to the mediation of experienced impacts. They described how their lack of access to equipment and resources, namely a lack of access to irrigation systems, poor drainage, and high upfront costs needed in some governmental programs may exacerbate climate impacts on their operations.

Respondents also conveyed the racialized nature of some of the challenges they were facing. This is the case for a farmer from Ohio who tied access to loans to race: “A tractor is going to be $30,000, for a used one. So I know that a lot of the average farmer is 60 some years old and white and owns so many acres and has all of this equipment and infrastructure and stuff, but they do because there's usually a lot of loans involved”. Another farmer from North Carolina perceived personal safety as an issue for her as a Black rural farmer in a conservative white space: “Sometimes we had concerns about just security because we're in what used to be considered Trump territory, stuff like that. So, we would also… being an Afro-indigenous group, we had concerns about that.” Information was also perceived to be scarcer for Black farmers especially when it pertains to information about resources, market access, and farming advice.

There were no major regional differences regarding the experiences of Black farmers with climate change. Black farmers in North Carolina were more likely to be multigenerational while farmers in Ohio were more likely to be beginning farmers. Consequently, the Black farmers in Ohio were the only ones to bring up the learning curve of farming (13% of Ohio farmers interviewed) as a challenge for them.  The majority of Black farmers interviewed from Ohio and North Carolina reported having witnessed and experienced climate impacts. As expected, the nature of the impacts noticed slightly varied based on the location: farmers in Ohio were more likely to mention the extension of the growing season due to higher temperatures while North Carolina farmers were more likely to report the difficulty of dealing with higher pest pressure on their farms. Farmers from both Ohio and North Carolina reported lack of information as being a challenge to them but the nature of said lack of information seemed to vary based on location. The Black farmers in North Carolina perceived information about opportunities including access to markets and financial opportunities as being withheld from them by both non-governmental agricultural staff (namely farmers markets) and governmental agricultural staff. The Black farmers in Ohio on the other hand reported having non-Black neighbor farmers be reticent to answer farming questions or perceiving extension agents to lack patience when discussing certain topics with them as if they were expected to already know the answer. Overall, the experiences of Black farmers in Ohio and North Carolina with climate change are similar and so are their adaptation strategies.

Climate change denial was not a major trend in the study: only five respondents denied either the occurrence or the cause of climate change. This suggests a potential lesser occurrence of climate denial among Black farmers, but more research would be needed on the matter as this exploratory study is not easily generalizable to the Black farming population. Attitude towards climate change is often described in climate adaptation literature as an indicator of behavior. In this study, whether the Black farmers in the study mentioned being concerned about climate change or not did not seem to affect their adaptive strategies. Some of the respondents who expressed concerns regarding the impacts of climate on the future of their operations were engaging in adaptative responses. However, some farmers pointed to their adaptive strategies as the reason for their lack of concern regarding climate impacts on their farms while others seemed to interpret the word “concern” in a negative light and conveyed the importance of addressing climate change while denying feeling of “concern”. Additionally, it is also probable that adversity in the form of lack of access to resources may render the threat of climate change just one more obstacle to overcome for Black farmers, thus the mixed sentiment towards being concerned about climate change. Nonetheless, the farmers in the study were for the most part still engaged in some type of adaptive strategies including adopting new crop varieties, transitioning to no-till farming, changing their infrastructure, improving soil conditions, and adjusting the timing and location of their operations.

Access to resources remains a barrier for most of the Black farmers in the study with regards to maintaining and improving their farm which also impacts their ability to respond to climate change.

The study also had some limitations including the lack of generalization linked to a small sample size and limited travel time to engage in more extensive interactions with respondents beyond the interviews. 

Overall, this project makes it clear that there need to be less restrictive and more flexible programs that would allow Black farmers to access financial support and much-needed cost-share agricultural programs.

Participation Summary
37 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

40 Farmers participated
30 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Journal articles

With the findings of this study, I have written three articles that are still in progress. The first article titled “Institutional Engagement of Black Farmers for Climate Resilience: The Implications of Needs Perception, Outreach Strategies, and Barriers” will be submitted to the Journal of Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy. The second article titled “Black Farmers' Experiences and Responses to Climate Change: A Case Study of Ohio and North Carolina” will be submitted to the journal Environmental Sociology. The third article titled “Black Farmers and Climate Change: The Role of Social Relationships in Adaptation” will be submitted to the Journal of Society and Natural Resources.

Webinars, talks, and presentations:

So far, I have presented my findings at the Rural Sociological Society Annual meetings of 2022 and 2023 and at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. In addition, my presentation submissions for 2024 have been accepted for the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society’s annual conference. I am also part of a panel discussion for a webinar organized by the Rural Sociological Society.

Curricula, factsheets, or educational tools

In addition to the journal articles, I am working on a research brief to submit to the Journal of Extension and select agricultural institutions to increase institutional knowledge on the needs of Black farmers as well as the challenges they face as it pertains to climate adaptation.


Project Outcomes

2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

While conducting this research, I learned about the importance of climate change for the Black farmers I interviewed. In my post-interview conversations with some of the Black farmers I talked to, I would tell them about organizations that offer some of the resources they mentioned they wanted or needed to be more resilient farmers. While I have no way of measuring the actual impact of those conversations in terms of their translation into actual resources or connections made, for some of the farmers, their knowledge of the resource outlets available to them was increased.

Communicating organizational resources to Black farmers and making information about their needs available to relevant institutions has the potential to improve how institutions engage with Black farmers in climate resilience efforts and increase Black farmers’ participation in agricultural programs. Consequently, we might see an increase in Black farmers’ access to the resources that have the potential to yield both the environmental benefits linked to the use of more sustainable agricultural practices and the economic benefits of getting access to financial resources to fund climate-smart agricultural practices.

Climate adaptation being an inherently social process also means that economic and environmental benefits cannot be decoupled from social benefits. Farmers being able to make their farm operations less vulnerable to climate impacts will allow them to maintain or improve their livelihoods and quality of life.

Knowledge Gained:

This project was eye-opening for me and has helped me improve my research skills. For me, the project underscores the importance of access to resources to bridge the gap in the use of sustainable agricultural practices in the face of climate change. It also highlighted how racial discrimination can undermine efforts to spread the adoption of sustainable agriculture practices. Lastly, this project solidifies the importance of social relationships and trust as part of the foundation for the dissemination of sustainable agriculture.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.