USDA has created seven climate “hubs” around the nation to help farmers adapt to the anticipated impacts of climate change.
The aim of the hubs is to translate the results of scientific research by federal and state agencies, universities and private partners into information farmers can use, said Bill Hohenstein, director of USDA’s Climate Change Program.
Some of the expected impacts include temperature and precipitation changes and the increased probability of extreme weather such as drought, he said.
While some work will focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation, the primary emphasis of the climate hubs will be helping farmers adapt to and manage climate-related risks, he said.
The new climate hubs are an effort to get a better understanding of what the future might hold and get that information to producers to aid in their long-term planning, he said.
The hubs, plus two “sub-hubs,” are part of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, which will improve coordination among research agencies, Hohenstein said. The hubs typically will not communicate directly with ag producers. Instead, they will work with organizations that farmers rely on for information, such as extension services, seed companies, crop consultants and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, he said.
The hubs will also build on USDA’s ongoing climate research, which is funded at $80 million to $100 million a year, with $50,000 going to each hub this year for start-up costs. The hubs will be staffed by four to 10 researchers at USDA facilities, with the work and funding coming from those agencies and their budgets, he said.
Much climate change-related information is already available, and the hubs will be planning the organization of that information, setting up websites and doing outreach to find out agriculture’s concerns and priorities, he said.
“We’re in this for the long haul. The issue of climate change is not going away,” he said.
Though the regional hubs will primarily package existing research to deliver to producers, some will also extend research to broader geographic areas and perform additional research on crops, insects and diseases, said Jerry Hatfield, an agricultural climatologist and director of USDA-Agricultural Research Service National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa, one of USDA’s new climate hubs.
Finding out which information producers want and need, how they will use it and when it is needed is the first step.
“It will be an interesting challenge for us,” he said.
For instance, he’s talked with growers who want to know what the weather conditions will be during the 2015 growing season, and they want that information by mid-summer this year to make next year’s seed purchases, he said.
USDA’s effort to address the impacts of climate and weather on agricultural production is nothing new. What’s unique about the hubs is building a delivery system to get that information into producers’ hands most effectively and putting it in a risk-management framework, he said.
At the Northwest hub, which is in the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, Ore., scientists will be talking with the agricultural community to better understand how they can contribute to what other agencies are doing and what producers need, said Beatrice Van Horne, natural resources specialist at the research station.
The focus is to assist farmers, ranchers and forest landowners in their decision-making about longer-term investments, she said.
Producers’ primary concerns in the region are the quantity and timing of water runoff, but related outreach could also involve choosing suitable crop, tree and grass varieties and understanding the outlook for rangeland, wildfires, disease and pests, she said.
Those are all things that are going to change as the climate changes, she said.
“It’s very important that we make the information we have available to these people. They should have the best information available to make the decisions they’re making every day,” she said.
The Northwest hub is working with other federal and state agencies and organizations, universities and forest and ag extension services to find out what information producers need and what will be most useful, she said.
Van Horne invites input from ag organizations and expects extension services that already have producer survey methods in place to help with the process, she said.
Farm organization feedback
The National Farmers Union applauds the administration’s effort to engage ag producers on solutions to address climate change and views the climate hubs as a positive approach, said Brittany Jablonsky, the organization’s director of communications.
This effort is not regulatory or legislative and is a common-sense approach, giving producers resources and technical assistance to address the impacts of climate change, such as drought and extreme weather events, she said.
Those things impact farmers’ bottom lines, and the climate hubs will be a benefit to producers, providing them better ability to adapt to some of these things that are happening, she said.
American Farm Bureau Federation views the climate hubs as positive, although they are not at the top of its priority list or necessarily need to be done in the name of climate change, said Andrew Walmsley, Farm Bureau’s director of congressional relations.
Farmers have always dealt with climate variability and Mother Nature, and there are plenty of challenges ahead, he said.
Addressing any issue in agriculture with a better understanding and better coordination of resources for research and technology is a benefit to farmers, he said.
Cynthia Cory, director of environmental affairs for California Farm Bureau, said there are two sides to the climate initiative. One is helping ag producers adapt to climate change and the other is to mitigate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, she said.
Cory has served on USDA’s air quality task force for nearly a decade and now serves on its greenhouse gas subcommittee. Reducing GHG emissions and predicting their effects on the climate is complex, she said.
Research focused on the arid West is critical in light of California’s mandatory program to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, she said.
While farms fall under the mandated emissions cap, larger entities — such as oil refineries and electricity providers — will have to do costly facility retrofits or buy carbon credits to comply. Finding ways to reduce emissions on farms and being able to sell those credits would benefit farmers and the state as a whole, she said.
Finding those reductions is a long-term process and must be science-based and verifiable. It’s important to get it right, and the Southwest regional climate hub and sub-hub can provide the research to help, she said.