Amid freeze, farmers convene in Acadiana to confront climate change

A man speaks into a microphone in a room filled with people.
Former NFL player turned cattle farmer Duriel Harris, 69, speaks during a group session at the Inaugural Louisiana Farmers Climate Convening at Chicot State Park near Ville Platte, La., on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

After retiring from the National Football League, Duriel Harris felt drawn to the country lifestyle. Originally from Texas, the former Miami Dolphins wide receiver had always dreamed of having his own ranch, and what started as a few cows in a pasture turned into a full-blown cattle operation in the span of just six years.

“I got into it as a hobby, but then I saw the need, the dwindling number of small, minority farmers,” Harris said. “In sports, I was a role model for a lot of young kids. I want to be that role model for kids who want to get into agriculture.”

But there’s one thing in particular that has made farming more challenging, and will likely make it even more difficult for the generation Harris hopes to inspire: climate change. 

“I know its effect, because it’s affected me,” he said. Harris recently dug a pond on his property so his black-hide cattle could cool down during the peak of increasingly hot and long summers.

Harris is one of roughly 120 farmers, organizers and advocates who convened at Chicot State Park this week to discuss the impacts of climate change on agriculture, especially small-scale farms and ranches like Harris’s. 

Participants of the Inaugural Louisiana Farmers Climate Convening at Chicot State Park near Ville Platte, La., sit in an “affinity group” for LGBTQ farmers on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

In the parking lot, mud-crusted pickup trucks and Toyota Priuses parked side by side, filling up nearly all the tree-covered parking spaces. 

“Farmers often think that their problems are personal problems, and don’t realize that most of the challenges that they’re facing are systemic,” said Margee Green, executive director of SPROUT NOLA, a New Orleans based organization set up to support small-scale farmers across Louisiana.

Through its advocacy work on the federal government’s 2024 Farm Bill, the organization assembled a coalition of farmers from across the state, including Harris, who then went on to invite others to the convening near Ville Platte on Sunday and Monday.

“We identified a core group of farmers who are not only like, ‘yeah, this is happening, I’m feeling the effects of it’, but they were fired up enough to want to talk about it,” Green said. Together, they hope to develop strategies for educating and advocating on the issue of climate change, find solutions to help small farmers deal with its effects and build a community of support.

The morning started with a keynote speaker elaborating on the issue of “climate grief and processing a changing environment.” Attendees were then asked to split into “affinity groups,” such as Black, indigenous and other people of color in farming, or farmers who identify as LGBTQ. The afternoon program included yoga and breathwork sessions.

Posters announce programming at the Inaugural Louisiana Farmers Climate Convening at Chicot State Park near Ville Platte, La., on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

Green acknowledged that some of Sunday’s programming wasn’t necessarily what most people would anticipate on the agenda of an agricultural conference, and that it might even turn off some farmers. 

The second day of the conference, she noted, was centered on practical solutions, such as small-scale carbon sequestration and cover cropping, and their implementation. “We don’t want to move too slowly for folks who are ready to try to figure out how to, you know, have their farms be part of the solution,” Green said. If climate grief isn’t a major concern, finding sustainable markets and diversifying sales avenues still might be.

Maggie Kaiser, who runs a small-scale urban farm and greenhouse in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, spoke on the value of agricultural cooperatives as a tool for building community on Sunday. As an attendee, Kaiser said she was particularly interested in the work around seed saving and swapping taking place at the conference, with a special session dedicated to seed work in Louisiana held Monday.

Seeds brought in by farmers from across the state are arranged on a table for a seed swap at the Inaugural Louisiana Farmers Climate Convening at Chicot State Park near Ville Platte, La., on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

Most seeds, Kaiser pointed out, come from northern states and, as a result, aren’t well-adapted to the extreme heat and temperature changes of Louisiana’s climate. “So they’re not necessarily crops that would do well for us,” she explained. “The seed swap is such an important part of our climate convening, because we want to start a culture of exchanging seeds within our own state.”

The crafting of this year’s Farm Bill, a process that takes place every five years, is another opportunity for Louisiana farmers to try and improve conditions for small-scale farming in the state and make their voices heard on how climate change is affecting them, said SPROUTS Research and Policy Manager Devin Wright.

Wright served as boots on the ground, traveling across the state to gather input from farmers on what they think agricultural policy for the future should look like, including how and whether it should address climate change.

“The Farm Bill historically hasn’t dealt with climate change at all,” Wright said. This year is an opportunity to change that, she noted. “There are a lot of folks around the country and here in Louisiana who are hoping that this Farm Bill will be the ‘Climate Farm Bill’.”

The details of what that could look like are still to be determined, but putting additional funds towards farms that engage in “climate-smart practices,” such as going beyond standard practice to conserve water and energy, are one way Wright says agriculture can be part of the climate crisis solution.

In the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, $20 billion was set aside for conservation efforts, something Wright hopes could become a regular investment in the federal government’s agricultural spending. 

Wright acknowledged that this was a big ask, but argued that it was money well-spent considering the costs of climate change, and with “agriculture being an industry that is uniquely positioned to actually undo harms that we’ve done.”