Identifying Gaps in Knowledge and Capacity to Help Farmers Adapt to a Changing Climate

Progress report for SNE20-007-ME

Project Type: PDP State Program
Funds awarded in 2020: $46,662.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2021
Grant Recipient: UMaine Coop Extension
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
State Coordinators:
Ellen Mallory
UMaine Coop Extension
Co-Coordinators:
Thomas Molloy
University of Maine
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Project Information

Summary:

Adapting to a changing climate is imperative for agriculture, yet agricultural service providers (ASPs) may feel ill-equipped to make recommendations about new practices and technologies that could help farmers adapt. Current and projected changes in weather present new opportunities and risks for agriculture in Maine, such as a longer growing seasons but increased risks of spring frosts, summer droughts, wetter/cooler springs, and more frequent and intense rainfall. In many cases, the climate adaptation practices identified by farmers and advisors (e.g. irrigation and weather-based decision support tools) require new knowledge and skills, not just for the farmer but also for their ASPs. In this one-year project, we will conduct a comprehensive needs assessment to identify ASPs’ knowledge gaps and training needs as related to helping farmers adapt to climate change. The primary purpose is to guide the development of a 3-year SARE PDP plan for Maine, to be submitted in April 2021, that will focus on building ASP capacity in the identified topic areas. The needs assessment will have two components: a region-wide online survey and two Maine farm tour/focus groups. The survey will ascertain ASPs’ perceived need for farmer outreach and their level of confidence in making specific and detailed recommendations related to climate adaptation practices previously identified by farmers and researchers in regional studies. The Maine farm tour/focus groups will complement the survey. These sessions will provide a rich, in-depth assessment of ASPs’ knowledge gaps and perceived professional development needs related to climate adaptation practices. The format of these sessions will include a tour of a case study farm focused on climate change issues and adaptation practices, followed by a guided round table discussion. Each session will be limited to 12 participants and include 9 ASPs and 3 farmers. The two farms will be selected to represent small/medium- and large-scale operations in different parts of the state. Results from the needs assessment survey and focus groups will be made available to others in a research report and scholarly manuscript to be posted on websites for the Northeast Climate Hub and the Maine Climate and Agriculture Network.

Performance Target:

The objective of this one-year plan is to identify knowledge gaps and training needs of ASPs in Maine and the Northeast region as related to helping farmers adopt practices and utilize resources that reduce climate risks, and design a 3-year state PDP project to address those needs.

Introduction:

Agricultural Need

Adapting to a changing climate is imperative for agriculture, yet agricultural service providers (ASPs) may feel ill-equipped to make recommendations about new practices and technologies that could help farmers adapt (Haigh et al., 2015; Wiener et al., 2020). Current and projected changes in weather present new opportunities and risks for agriculture in Maine (Fernandez et al., 2020) and the Northeast (Tobin et al., 2015; Wolfe et al., 2018). Longer growing seasons might allow farmers to grow new varieties and crops, but increased risks of spring frosts, summer droughts, wetter/cooler springs, and more frequent and intense rainfall pose serious threats to crop production and farm viability. In many cases, the climate adaptation practices identified by farmers and advisors in regional studies (e.g. irrigation, drainage, weather-based decision support tools especially regarding pests and diseases, information on adaptive varieties, and financial management strategies; Johnson et al., 2019; White et al., 2018) require new knowledge and skills, not just for farmers but also for their ASPs.

 

Proposed Solution

In this one-year project, we will conduct a comprehensive needs assessment to identify ASPs’ knowledge gaps and training needs as related to helping farmers adapt to climate change. The primary purpose is to guide the development of a 3-year SARE PDP plan for Maine, to be submitted in April 2021, that will focus on building ASP capacity in the identified topic areas. We will collaborate with Dr. Rachel Schattman, a new UMaine faculty member with expertise in climate change adaptation and needs assessment methods, to expand the scope of this work to the Northeast and produce a research report and scholarly manuscript that will be of use to others.

 

The needs assessment will have two components: a region-wide online survey and two Maine farm tour/focus groups. The survey will ascertain ASPs’ perceived need for farmer outreach and their level of confidence in making specific and detailed recommendations related to climate adaptation practices previously identified by farmers and researchers in the regional studies cited above. For instance, irrigation is a key tool to reduce risks associated with changing precipitation patterns that, to be used appropriately, requires knowledge about different types of irrigation equipment, irrigation scheduling, soil moisture monitoring tools, water source management, and regulations. Specific areas for professional development will be identified and ASPs’ ability and willingness to engage in professional development opportunities will be assessed. The survey will be administered online in January 2021, using the Dillman Tailored Design Method (Dillman et al., 2008), and analyzed by a graduate student research assistant using R (R Core Team, 2020).

 

The Maine farm tour/focus groups will complement the survey by providing a rich, in-depth assessment of ASPs’ knowledge gaps and perceived professional development needs related to climate adaptation practices. The format of these sessions will include a visit to a case study farm, followed by a round table discussion. To be effective as a needs assessment method, the sessions will be limited to 12 participants. Nine will be ASPs and three will be farmers invited by three of the ASPs. Before the session, the group will receive and read a 2-4 page farm overview document outlining farm enterprises, production methods, and climate related concerns and adaptation practices. On the day of the session, the farmer host will give a tour of their farm, with a focus on climate change issues and adaptation practices, and answer questions from the group (approximately 2 hours total). The group will then move to an Extension county office for lunch followed by a guided group discussion led by the State Coordinator (approximately 2 hours). Discussion questions will be prepared ahead by the State Coordinator and Dr. Schattman. The first session will highlight water management practices on a large-scale vegetable farm and be held in the fall of 2020 (or postponed until spring if physical distancing restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are still in place). The second session will be held the following summer on a smaller-scale farm. The sessions will be audio recorded, transcribed, anonymized, and analyzed using NVivo software by the graduate student.

 

Agricultural Service Provider Interest

This needs assessment project will identify the topic areas and educational methods of most interest to ASPs in Maine. We have selected farm climate adaptation as the general topic, but acknowledge that ASPs may be more interested in other topics. For this reason, on the survey, we will include a short series of broad questions to determine other topics ASPs may be more interested in for the state PDP program.

Advisors/Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Rachel Schattman
  • Graduate Research Assistant, to be determined

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

None required for this 1-year project.

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Prior to the start of this one-year project, 50 agricultural service providers (ASPs) from the full scope of organizations, institutions, and agencies in Maine receive and at least 9 respond to an invitation to participate in a day-long climate and agriculture farm tour/focus group in the fall. Participation by ASPs representing underrepresented farmer groups will be encouraged. If physical distancing orders to control the spread of COVID-19 are still in place for the fall, this event will be postponed until the next spring. After the start of this project, 41 ASPs who did not participate in the first session receive and at least 9 respond to an invitation to participate in a second farm tour/focus group in the summer of 2021. For each focus group, 3 ASPs are asked to invite a farmer with whom they work closely to also participate.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
6
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
18
Proposed Completion Date:
April 30, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

This milestone has been postponed until summer of 2021 due to COVID restrictions. We have arranged to conduct one focus group at the end of July that will focus on managing too much and too little water on a large-scale brocolli operation in northern Maine.

Milestone #2 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

18 ASPs and 6 farmers who signed up to participate in the focus groups receive a 2-4 page farm overview at least one week before the tour and read it prior to the tour. The overview includes a description of the farm enterprises and production methods, the climate change related issues the farmer has experienced, any changes the farm is considering or has implemented in response, and any other practices of interest implemented on the farm.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
6
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
18
Proposed Completion Date:
July 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #3 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

18 ASPs and 6 farmers participate in one of two climate and ag farm tour/focus groups, led by the State Coordinator, Outreach Coordinator, and Dr. Schattman. If possible, the first event will take place in the fall of 2020 and results will be used to guide development of the next state 3-year plan. The second will be held in the summer of 2021 and results used to guide implementation of the 3-year plan.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
6
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
18
Proposed Completion Date:
August 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

The first farm tour/focus group has been postponed until summer 2021 due to COVID restrictions.

Milestone #4 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

5-6 ag service providers and farmers agree to serve on a Maine SARE PDP Advisory Group to provide input into the development and implementation of the new 3-year Maine state PDP plan. This group will include at least one person from each of the following groups: farmer, Extension educator, government agency, non-profit, and Certified Crop Advisor.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
1
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
4
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2020
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

We are currently forming this committee with the intention to meet as a group at the end of March to review the results of the survey and develop the outline of our new 3-year plan.

Milestone #5 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Ag service providers (estimate 300 target respondents) throughout the Northeast receive an email with the online needs assessment survey on January 11. Non-respondents receive two follow-up reminder emails spaced one week apart. Fifty percent (~150 respondents) complete the survey. Fifty ag service providers in Maine receive the same survey with additional questions specific to designing the next 3-year State PDP and Outreach Plan, and 60% (about 30 respondents) complete the survey. (February 5, 2021)

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
180
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
467
Proposed Completion Date:
February 5, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
March 5, 2021
Accomplishments:

The survey was distributed to 5286 email addresses from January 14 to March 5, 2021. 585 agricultural service providers responded and 467 completed the entire survey. Among respondents who said they work with Maine farmers, 65 responded to the survey and 54 completed it. Their primary affiliations were: Extension (47%), non-profit (23%), private consultants (13%), Federal/NRCS (6%), Conservation District (4%), State agency (4%), and Other (4%).

In a preliminary analysis of the respondents who work with Maine farmers, 83% indicated they are likely (55%) or extremely likely (28%) to participate in professional development opportunities to improve their ability to help farmers adapt to climate change. Interest was equal among respondents who work with mixed vegetable farmers, field crop farmers, and livestock farmers.

Respondents listed the following climate change adaptation topics they would be interested in learning more about: practices to cope with too little and too much water, including irrigation; economics of adaptation and mitigation strategies, business planning for climate adaptation, new pest and disease pressures.

Respondents preferred to engage in professional development in the following ways: in person (88%), online synchronous (62%), online asynchronous (23%), and printed material (13%). In responding to an open ended question about the most effective professional development programs experiences, the most common responses included hands-on and on-farm activities, farmers involved, in-depth learning, and mixing individual and group learning. A number of respondents mentioned the Reading the Farm program as an effective model.

Milestone #6 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

The State Coordinator and Outreach Coordinator meet with the Advisory Group to review the results from the needs assessment survey and first farm tour/focus group, and outline a 3-year State PDP Plan based on those results.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
1
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
4
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #7 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

The State Coordinator and Outreach Coordinator develop and submit a 3-year State PDP Plan. (April 15, 2021)

Proposed Completion Date:
April 15, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #8 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Dr. Schattman, the graduate student, and the State Coordinator produce a report, to be posted on websites for the Northeast Climate Hub and the Maine Climate and Agriculture, and a manuscript submitted to a scholarly journal, on the results of the needs assessment survey. Funding from Northeast SARE will be recognized in both. Report and scholarly publication will likely be released after this project term.

Proposed Completion Date:
December 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers

SARE Outreach

Outreach about SARE:

Since October, we have provided in-depth personal assistance to four farmers and four agricultural service providers about SARE farmer and partnership grants. We created a online display for the 2021 Maine Agricultural and Trades Show that was a 5-day all-virtual event from January 19 to 23. Typically, a large number of our in-person contacts come from this annual event but this year it was impossible to know how many people accessed the online display. All other winter workshops and conferences also were held online this year but no others have included an option for virtual displays or other forms of virtual outreach. Instead, we focused our attention on expanding our mailing list for distributing SARE grant announcements. We made a concerted effort to reach farmers and service providers associated Maine tribes, immigrant communities, and the aquaculture industry. We are pleased to see that these efforts appear to be reflected in the increased diversity (and number) of Farmer and Professional Development grants awarded in Maine in 2021.

Recieved information about SARE grant programs and information resouces:

Audience Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Total
Service providers 4 0 0 4
Farmers 4 0 0 4
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.