Extending climate change science: Can we learn from the Midwest extension lessons?

By Gabrielle Roesch-McNally,

Image from Sustainable Corn project that outlines recommendations for agricultural extension and climate change outreach to farmers.
Image from Sustainable Corn project that outlines recommendations for agricultural extension and climate change outreach to farmers.

Climate change is now being referred to as a “Super Wicked Problem”- a sticky wicket, a quagmire, a quandary- in other words, climate change is a complex social-ecological problem. Because climate change is such a difficult problem to solve, it is critical that we explore it from many angles and from the viewpoint of diverse stakeholder groups. This post focuses on one stakeholder group that is critical to include in efforts to develop and share climate change solutions across agricultural and ranching communities: University Extension. Many national studies have found that Extension is a trusted source of information among farmers, particularly when it comes to soil and water conservation decisions. Private agricultural advisors are also seeking out extension to provide resources on the topic of climate change.I recently moved back to the Northwest to take a job as the Fellow with the Northwest Climate Hub. Before this I was part of a six-year long project where extension educators and scientists worked with farmers to better understand the impacts of increasingly variable and more extreme weather associated with projected climate changes across the U.S. Midwest. As a result of this work, we learned many lessons that helped researchers, extension educators, and landowners better understand climate impacts to regional cropping systems and potential actions that could be taken to reduce vulnerability.

Photo of an Extension field day outreach event. Photo by Gabrielle Roesch-McNally
Photo of an Extension field day outreach event. Photo by Gabrielle Roesch-McNally

The team summarized these lessons into a series of recommendations (find them all in the full report) for engaging landowners on the topic of climate resilience. Now that I’m back in the Pacific Northwest, I find myself thinking about how applicable the recommendations are to this region. In that vein, I have identified three outreach and education recommendations that are the most relevant to our context here in the Northwest:

Recommendation #1: Focus on tangible adaptive actions that producers may implement on their land to reduce risks associated with more extreme and variable weather. This includes enlarging the range of possible actions available for landowners while acknowledging costs and benefits of adaptive management practices (e.g., no-till, irrigation, cover crops/green manure).

Recommendation #2: Actively explore topics of soil and water conservation, particularly because practices that emphasize soil health and erosion prevention may be much more appealing to producers than explicitly tackling weather and climate change issues. This may help to develop purposeful linkages between efforts to preserve and enhance soil resources with the topic of creating greater resilience in the face of more extreme and variable weather.

Recommendation #3: Work closely with scientists to develop continuous communication feedback loops between scientific findings and local communities, which will inform the production of new knowledge and the identification of specific needs and opportunities.

It is fairly clear that the strengths of extension in serving the needs of relevant stakeholders is fairly universal across the U.S. However, we have seen the decline in extension support across the country, and most regions could use additional resources to support outreach and extension efforts aimed at tackling climate change issues head on. In an effort to better integrate these recommendations into programming, the authors of the Midwest report offer some interesting ideas about how to better support climate change outreach in new and existing extension efforts. These include:

  • Establish leadership groups at state or regional level to encourage exchange across research scientists and extension educators, and to link climate change education with existing programming (seems our Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University is playing this role regionally)
  • Designate an agri-climate coordinator for each state to assist in the development of outreach materials and program delivery and increase the communication between university researchers, extension professionals, and private industry (the Northwest Climate Hub and the Climate Friendly Farming programs are helping to fill this need)

The diversity of the agroecosystem in the Northwest, in comparison to the relative homogeneity of the landscape in the Midwest will make applying these recommendations more tricky. The Northwest is well-situated for building agroecosystem resilience because of the diversity of markets, cropping systems, and stakeholders, including extension, thus making our region well-equipped for tackling climate change issues.

Though additional applied research may be necessary, the nascent Climate Hubs, in partnership with our extension and university partners, offer a great opportunity for helping to connect and support more collaboration across agencies, researchers, extension professionals and land managers to develop tools and resources that will help reduce vulnerability associated with more extreme and variable weather. And such collaborations will continue to depend on the strengths of University Extension to develop and share climate change solutions across the diversity of managed landscapes in our region.

Guest blog author information: Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, PhD, Northwest Climate Hub
3200 SW Jefferson Way, Corvallis, OR 97331; groeschmcnally@fs.fed.us; 541-750-7091