The observed increases in extreme weather events experienced by the Northeast region over the last 50 years have put farmers on the front lines of dealing with the impacts of climate change. However, the regional climatic forecasts for the next century and coming decades will exacerbate familiar challenges of variable and extreme weather, and pose a new level of risk in the region which significantly threatens the viability of most farms. Projected increases in heavy precipitation events and droughts are of particular concern to growers.
The significant crop loss experienced by New England farms during the drought of 2016, and flooding of 2012, indicate that most farms are not adequately prepared to deal with these extreme weather events. This project aims to generate practical, usable and accessible information for growers about how to proactively address these risks, and support them in transitions towards sustainability and climate resilience.
Thoughtful and informed approaches to research and outreach on climate change adaptation are critical to addressing the politically charged and dauntingly complex nature of the topic. Stakeholder feedback from the region indicates that farmers are eager to understand how to sustainably manage these climate-related risks, but they need information that is tangible and focused on their local operating context. This project is narrowed to focus specifically on vegetable and berry farms, in order to provide information which will be useful to the unique needs and challenges shared by these farmers. By focusing this research specifically on drought and extreme precipitation, we expect that farmers will be able to relate personally to these impacts, and consequently, the end data will be more useable.
By collecting information across state lines in New England, we hope to address the potential bias of diffusion theory, whereby adaptive practices may be in use within peer groups, but may be different across different peer networks. Using a regional approach will offer potentially new ideas and approaches across state lines, and contribute to advancements in the diffusion of innovation theory and understandings of how emerging innovations are adopted.
This project addresses the needs of growers by 1) providing information about practical strategies to address drought and extreme precipitation, 2) providing information about the innovative approaches used by vegetable and berry farmers across the region, 3) researching and communicating in ways that addresses the climate information usability gap, and 4) evaluating how cover crops contribute to buffering the impacts of drought and extreme precipitation in this region.
This project addresses SARE goals specifically by advancing understandings of how sustainable innovations are discovered, considered, and adopted. The research will directly investigate best management practices for reducing risks associated with climate change that have a documented impact on farm financial viability, natural resources and quality of life for farmers in the northeast.
1. Identify and assess the adaptive strategies already in use by vegetable and berry farmers in Northern New England to address drought and extreme precipitation.
2. Identify promising strategies for managing drought and extreme precipitation on vegetable and berry farms in Northern New England.
3. Assess influences on adaptive farm management decisions, including what sources of information are most influential, the perceived benefits and tradeoffs of adaptive practices, and what weather prediction tools are in use.
4. Analyze and compare adaptive management practices in use across geographic regions within NNE and across farmer network affiliations, and compare this to extant research and literature.
5. Evaluate the perceived benefits and drawbacks of cover crops on vegetable and berry farms in Northern New England, and compare this to recommendations in extant research and literature.
6. Bridge the localized expertise of farmers with science-based expertise, and regionalized outreach experts to identify the information, resources, communication styles and support needed to help farmers adapt to climate change.
7. Apply a farmer’s first approach to research which addresses the climate information usability gap.
Phase 1: Regional Survey
In the first year of the project my goal is to survey 250 vegetable & berry farmers in Northern New England about how they are adapting management to drought and extreme precipitation. By the end of 2018, I will also have analyzed the data, and generate a report for sharing back to the community.
Data Collection: Farmer Organizations Stabilize the Research/Farmer Interface
I have connected with farmer groups and organizations to bridge my research and outreach project to the growing community. I asked each of the collaborating organizations for advice about how to best reach their constituents and have followed the advice of each. For some organizations this has meant bringing my survey to their conference, meeting, or other event. For some groups I have been advised to send out an email solicitation. Some groups have recommended both. To this date (12/30/2017), I have gathered surveys at the MOFGA Farmer-to-Farmer Conference in Northport, ME, the Rural Vermont Farmers Climate Banquet in Barre, VT and the New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference in Manchester, NH. Data collection of the survey portion of this project will continue through March 2017.
Developing the Survey Instrument
The survey instrument was developed and refined with feedback from 6 academics, 5 farmers and 4 extension professionals. I have been able to generate identical digital and paper versions of the same survey through the KoboToobox platform and have anchored the digital version of the survey on a UVM website, housed within the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative page here: https://www.uvm.edu/agroecology/adaptationsurvey/
The survey contains open and closed ended questions focusing on the following information: 1) how are farmers managing for those risks, 2) how are farmers planning to manage for those risks, 3) innovative practices farmers have heard about, 4) what factors influence their decision making, 5) perceived trade-offs of promising strategies, 6) where do farmers learn about new management strategies, 7) current farmer networks , and 8) basic demographic, geographic and production information.
Drawing in Survey Respondents
Participation incentives in the form of Bee’sWrap (donated) and chocolate bars (purchased with support from the USDA Northeast Climate Hub) are offered to farmers who are willing to take the survey. The tabling materials are designed to be welcoming, and include relevant outreach materials from the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the USDA Northeast Climate Hub. Event organizers and extension agents who know about the project have helped encourage attendees to take the survey. The overall effect has been very successful, and I have gathered more surveys than expected at these events. Farmers who have taken the survey have all expressed interest in seeing the results of the survey data, and are grateful for my research on this topic.
Interest from more collaborators
Other organizations, beyond the scope of my original proposal, have expressed interest in sending my survey out to their farmers. At this time, I have welcomed this collaboration and the potential for the survey to have a more robust sample size, but I am also concerned that I may have more data to analyze than I have budgeted my time to deal with. Some of this interest in collaboration includes expanded geographic scope to include the North American Raspberrry and Blackberry Growers Association and a network of growers working with Rosy Madden in Nova Scotia. Deciding about expanded scope of analysis will hinge upon exploring the potential for more funding to support additional analysis time.
In response to the high level of interest in the project, I have also created a small website to describe the project and put updates: https://adaptationsurvey.wordpress.com
The project has been fortunate to have attracted a few undergraduate students from UVM who are involved as interns, and are enthusiastic about helping at events and the information we are gathering. They are eager to read relevant articles and be involved as much as they can.
Information gathered in the survey will be analyzed using a variety of statistical and qualitative methods. Systematic and thorough analysis of survey data will ensure key findings are not overlooked. Categorical data will be reported in frequency, including non-response. Multiple choice and numeric answers will be analyzed for abundance. Data will be analyzed through descriptive statistics, chi-square, correlation and regression analyses for quantitative variables, and coding for qualitative variables. Associations between management strategies and soil type, geography, and farm demographics will be assessed using univariate and multivariate statistical analysis. Narrative answers will be analyzed for emergent themes using rigorous qualitative methods guided by grounded theory and constant comparative analysis (Lindlof and Taylor 2011).
Phase 2: Sharing Back & Focus Groups
A report based on the survey results will be shared back to survey participants and grower communities.
Focus groups will be held in the second year in collaboration with the farmer organizations who have partnered with the project in the first year. These focus groups will serve to collect qualitative data on the implications of research done in year 1, and identify the information, resources, communication styles and support needed to help vegetable and berry farmers adapt to climate change. These focus group discussions will be guided by questions about what support and information is needed by farmers to help the agricultural community adapt to risks posed by extreme weather. The focus groups invite farmers to take part in analyzing a topic which is directly important to their livelihoods, and create an opportunity to untangle the web of complex influences on climate adaptation and management decisions.
Full results of the survey will be available next year.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Research findings from this project will be presented in multiple formats and multiple channels to maximize contact with stakeholders. Partnering with existing outreach channels that are trusted and familiar to farmers will ensure that the information generated in this project is delivered effectively to farmers.
The table and which I have been using to promote the survey in the first year has included outreach materials about climate resilience provided by the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the USDA Northeast Climate Hub. This includes a collection of about 10 briefs and case studies that are available for visitors to take with them. We also have a tablet on the table which displays the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s recent video series of farmers in New England telling stories about how they are adapting to the increases in extreme weather. The USDA Northeast Climate Hub’s web-based “As if you were there” adaptive management visualizations are also viewed by visitors on the tablet. Farmers and advisors who visit the table interact with these materials and engage in conversations about the topic. Many have expressed gratitude for the work and interest in the results, and noted the general lack of resources and conversation about the topic elsewhere. Each farmer who has taken the survey has been exposed to the outreach materials and engaged in thinking about adaptive management strategies.
I will present preliminary results from the survey at the USDA Northeast Climate Hub University Network Meeting on March 14th, 2018. Key findings from the first year will also be presented to farmers at conferences in the second year, (TBD).
Research Briefs & Articles
Research results are intended to be presented in accessible research brief formats and longer narrative analyses, including:
- A full report based on the survey results in year 1
- A shorter research brief summary/fact sheet with the survey results from year 1.
- Blog posts
- Scholarly articles
- A research brief based on the results of the focus groups in year 2
I am mentoring four undergraduate students who have volunteered and interned with the project thus far. They are passionate abut sustainable agriculture and love the Farmer First approach of the project.