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

Final 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
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

Adapting to a changing climate is imperative for agriculture, yet agricultural service providers 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 service providers. In this one-year project, we conducted a comprehensive needs assessment to identify agricultural service providers’ knowledge gaps and training needs as related to helping farmers adapt to climate change. The primary purpose was to guide the development of a 3-year SARE PDP plan for Maine (submitted in April 2021) that focused on building service provider capacity in climate adaptation practices.

Three hundred eighty-one agricultural service providers across the Northeast completed an online survey. Among the 61 respondents who said they work with Maine farmers, 70% rated drought, extreme precipitation events, and changes in water availability as severe or major risks associated with climate change. Flooding and saturated soils, soil erosion, frost or freeze events, high temperatures, higher insect and disease pressure, and new insect pests and diseases were also ranked as severe or major climate change risks by half of these respondents. Eighty percent of the Maine respondents said they are interested in helping farmers address climate change but only about half said they currently have knowledge, skills, and confidence to help farmers address climate change on their farms. They reported being least confident in providing recommendations to farmers about investing in irrigation and water source development; ditching, water diversion, drainage tiles, and other ways to address too much water; and using weather-based decision tools. Among these Maine respondents, 83% indicated they would be likely or extremely likely to participate in professional development opportunities to improve their ability to help farmers adapt to climate change. A report and manuscript summarizing the results from the full regional survey are under preparation.

A farm tour/focus group conducted on August 25 in Presque Isle and focused on water management reinforced the need for professional development. The eleven participants from across Maine emphasized that the need for irrigation technical assistance is increasing in the state due to climate change but that current agricultural service providers do not necessarily have the knowledge or capacity needed to adequately address this need. They noted that the diversity of operations in the state in terms of scale and type of farm creates a diversity of technical assistance needs related to water management. They also noted that professional development training for generalist service providers could focus on the types of technical assistance needs, like irrigation management, that are ongoing rather than more one-time needs, like water source development and irrigation system design, that can be referred to specialists.

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 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 service providers.

Proposed Solution

In this one-year project, we conducted a comprehensive needs assessment to identify agricultural service providers’ knowledge gaps and training needs as related to helping farmers adapt to climate change. The primary purpose was to guide the development of a 3-year SARE PDP plan for Maine (submitted in April 2021) that focused on building service provider capacity in specific climate adaptation practices. We collaborated 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.

The needs assessment had two components: a region-wide online survey and one Maine farm tour/focus groups. We distributed the survey to 5,477 eligible participants in the Northeast, including Extension professionals, certified crop consultants, federal and state agency employees, non-profit organization employees, regional planning commissions, and local economic development councils from January 14 to March 5, 2021. Five hundred eighty-four agricultural service providers responded. Of those, 381 were considered valid responses in that they completed at least 50% of the survey and indicated that they provide direct technical support or other services to farm operators on a regular basis. Among respondents who said they work with Maine farmers, 61 responded to the survey and 55 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%).

Over 70% of the respondents who work with Maine farmers rated drought, extreme precipitation events, and changes in water availability as severe or major risks associated with climate change. Flooding and saturated soils, soil erosion, frost or freeze events, high temperatures, higher insect and disease pressure, and new insect pests and diseases were also rated as severe or major climate change risks by half of these respondents.

Seventy-six percent of the respondents who work with Maine farmers disagreed with the statement that “farmers do not need additional support to address climate change.” While 80% said they are interested in helping farmers address climate change but only about half said they currently have knowledge, skills, and confidence to help farmers address climate change on their farms. The respondents reported being least confident in providing recommendations to farmers about investing in irrigation and water source development; ditching, water diversion, drainage tiles, and other ways to address too much water; and using weather-based decision tools. They listed the following topics as ones 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 and new pest and disease pressures.

The farm tour and focus group was conducted on August 25 in Presque Isle. Twelve agricultural service providers from across Maine participated in the morning tour of water sourcing and irrigation systems on a large broccoli operation that was led by one of the farmer owners and his irrigation consultant. A two-hour guided focus group discussion with eleven of those participants followed in the afternoon. Participants emphasized that the need for irrigation technical assistance is increasing in the state due to climate change but that current agricultural service providers do not necessarily have the knowledge or capacity needed to adequately serve this need. They noted that the diversity of operations in the state in terms of scale and type of farm creates a diversity of technical assistance need related to water management. They also noted that some types of assistance, like water source development and irrigation system design, is needed infrequently and can be referred to specialists whereas other types of assistance, like irrigation management, is ongoing and often requested of more general service providers. Finally, the importance of soil health for water management and efficient irrigation was emphasized, as was the underutilization of technology to manage irrigation.

Agricultural Service Provider Interest

Among the Maine respondents, 83% indicated they would be 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. The Maine respondents were asked to list other topics of interest for a state professional development program but none had as much support as climate adaptation practices.

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 opportunities they have experienced, the most common responses included hands-on and on-farm activities, having 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.

Advisors/Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Rachel Schattman
  • Ruth Clements

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

None required for this one-year needs assessment 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
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
14
Proposed Completion Date:
April 30, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
July 9, 2021
Accomplishments:

Due to COVID restrictions, this milestone was postponed and reduced from two farm tour/focus group events to one event that was held in the summer of 2021. 199 ASPs in Maine received an invitation to participate and 14 signed up for the event. Because the host farmer wanted to limit the group size, participants were not encouraged to invite farmers as originally planned.

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
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
14
Proposed Completion Date:
July 31, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
August 11, 2021
Accomplishments:

Participants were directed to the farm website for background information and emailed a detailed itinerary and focus group information and consent form. They were not provided a 2-4 page farm overview as originally planned due to time constraints.

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
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
12
Proposed Completion Date:
August 31, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
August 25, 2021
Accomplishments:

Twelve agricultural service providers participated in the morning farm tour and eleven participated in the afternoon focus group. The results from the focus group are being used to guide implementation of Maine's new 3-year professional development program.

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
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
1
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
6
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2020
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
March 30, 2021
Accomplishments:

One farmer and six agricultural service providers (2 Extension, 1 nonprofit, 1 NRCS, 1 crop advisor, and 1 University of Maine researcher) agreed to serve on the advisory board.

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:
381
Proposed Completion Date:
February 5, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
March 5, 2021
Accomplishments:

The survey was distributed to 5,477 eligible participants, including Extension professionals, certified crop consultants, federal and state agency employees, non-profit organization employees, regional planning commissions, and local economic development councils from January 14 to March 5, 2021. 584 agricultural service providers responded. Of those, 381 were considered valid responses in that they completed at least 50% of the survey and indicated that they provide direct technical support or other services to farm operators on a regular basis.

Among respondents who said they work with Maine farmers, 61 responded to the survey and 55 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%).

A summary of some of the results from the respondents who work in Maine is included above in the Introduction.

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
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
6
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
April 7, 2021
Accomplishments:

The advisory board met on April 7, 2021 to review the results of the survey and develop the outline of our new 3-year professional development plan. Unfortunately, the farmer did not attend the meeting but was contacted later. Based on input from the advisory board, we made the following changes to our plan: trainees will be given the option to work in teams as well as individually on the farm project, trainees will be assigned farm projects at the beginning of the program to work on them over the course of the program, and one fewer webinar was planned. Advisor board members also provided suggestions for training topics and ways to find partner farmers for the farm projects.

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:
Completed
Date Completed:
April 20, 2021
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
Accomplishments:

The state coordinator and Dr. Schattman are currently analyzing and summarizing the results from the regional survey and Maine focus group with the goal of producing a report and submitting two journal articles by the end of January 2022.

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities conducted by the project team:

ActivityYear 1Year 2Year 3Total
Study circle / focus groups 1 0 0 1
Tours 1 0 0 1
Other educational activities: "Northeast Agricultural Service Provider Survey" 1 0 0 1

Beneficiaries who particpated in the project’s educational activities and events:

AudienceYear 1Year 2Year 3Total Individuals
Extension 128 0 0 128
NRCS 29 0 0 29
Nonprofit 39 0 0 39
Agency 114 0 0 114
Service providers (other or unspecified) 72 0 0 72

Participation Summary:

389 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities

Learning Outcomes

Key areas in which the service providers (and farmers if indicated above) reported a change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness::

No verification was conducted, nor required, for this was a one-year needs assessment project.

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers

Target #1

Target: Number of service providers who will take action to educate/advise farmers:
30
Target: The educational action(s) they will take:

30 ASPs in Maine will identify their knowledge gaps and training needs as related to helping farmers adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Target: The number of farmers who will be educated/advised by the service providers:
0
Target: Total size/scale of the farms these farmers manage (e.g. total acres or animal units managed, gross sales or production volume, etc.):

N/A

Verified: Number of service providers who reported taking the targeted action(s) to educate/advise farmers in each year:
Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
62
The educational action(s) taken:

In total, 62 service providers identified their knowledge gaps and training needs. Fifty-four agricultural service providers who work with Maine farmers completed the survey. Eleven participated in the farm tour and focus group, three of whom also had completed the survey.

Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

The target outcome was evaluated by the number of service providers who completed the regional survey, participated in the farm tour/focus group, or both. No further verification was required or appropriate for this was a one-year needs assessment project.

SARE Outreach

Outreach about SARE:

We have provided in-depth personal assistance to five farmers and seven agricultural service providers about SARE farmer and partnership grants. We provided information about the SARE grant programs to 11 service providers at one in-person event, the farm tour/focus group that we conducted in August. 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 none 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 18 0 0 18
Farmers 5 0 0 5
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.