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Building Climate Expertise in Extension

Climate change has become a primary topic of discussion and research in the agricultural sector and among agricultural producers. Extension professionals in the North Central Region (NCR) are well situated to be purveyors of climate science relating to agriculture and production systems. About two-thirds of farmers in the U.S. Corn Belt believe climate change is occurring, due to either human or natural causes, or both. Only 40% believe human causes can be attributed. The National Climate Assessment (NCA, 2018) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014) both detailed strong agreement, and high likelihood, of human-caused climate change globally, which is not consistent with farmer beliefs. Most Extension and Agriculture advisors do not have educational backgrounds in meteorology or climatology.

This may be the root of their discomfort with the topic, as Wilke et al. (2015) found in surveys of agriculture advisors. In general, Extension and Agriculture advisors have similar climate change beliefs as the producers they serve. USDA and other federal agencies are studying climate change and its impacts on all sectors of the economy (agriculture, energy, commerce, transportation, etc.), and making strides to follow the President’s Climate Action Plan (2013). Many federal agencies established regional centers to address concerns at local or regional scales. USDA’s Regional Climate Hubs are among those groups, and focus on using Extension to provide knowledge and advice to agriculture producers. Three USDA Regional Climate Hubs are active in the NCR. For these reasons, it is important that Extension professionals become familiar, and comfortable, with climate science pertaining to agriculture production. NCR SARE has been a benefactor to climate curriculum in the past (ENC11-127, ENC12-136). Research and training opportunities provide Extension Educators with basic knowledge and allow some to specialize programming to address climate change issues. In 2017, the North Central Climate Collaborative (NC3) was established as an initiative with Extension Educator and/or Specialist representation in all 12 states.

This group provided regional in-person trainings to other Educators and provided webinars on climate change and agriculture topics every other month. In months when webinars were not provided, the team met to discuss issues impacting the states and opportunities for the region. The NC3 received funding in past efforts through the North Central Region Water Network. Within the NC3, expertise varies greatly. All Educators have some expertise in agriculture, although some are more versed in livestock, field crop, or horticulture than others. All Educators have a basic understanding of climate change principles. This project endeavors to identify and analyze gaps in advanced knowledge of climate change and agricultural principles, and to address them by creating state or regional Specialists in climate change and sustainable agriculture. Ongoing webinars are held on climate and climate change projects. A three-day virtual conference, “Advanced Climate Change Topics: North Central Climate 201,” was held on in-depth topics: new climate “normals,” climate projections and models, climate assessments, National Weather Service Climate Projection Center Outlooks, climate justice, community climate risk and planning, climate indicators on agriculture, adaptation through conservation, and climate’s impact on habitat, conservation, wildlife and fisheries.

Webinars have generated favorable responses. Almost all survey respondents show knowledge gained, with over 90% intending to initiate action or share information. More than 600 people have attended a webinar since October 2019. The 430 registrants of the North Central Climate 201 Conference were sent a post-survey via email. Of 29 who responded, they indicated they work in Extension (20.0%), state or federal agencies (17.1%), local government (17.1%), or the USDA (14.3%). All indicated they work in states across the Midwest and beyond. Respondents indicated they most valued the speaker and presentation about climate justice, stating: “Wonderfully presented and full of information I plan to use.” “Being an EPA employee working with smaller rural communities, climate justice has significant overlap with environmental justice, which is an EPA focus. It helps to better understand that overlap.” “As an agency employee, we slip easily into acronyms and jargon. It’s good to be pushed toward engaging the public, and the speaker Bringing World-Class Education to Rural and Urban Communities 6 provided good suggestions on how to do this effectively.” “This was new information for me and provided information that I could incorporate into my work.” “It had a lot of useful information that I can use in my climate presentations to make them more effective.”

As a result of attending, most (82.4%) felt somewhat, or much more, comfortable doing climate-related education. They reported increased awareness about people located in other states who are working on climate issues, and on where to find information and resources about climate. They also reported increased understanding of climate research and outreach happening across the region. Respondents reported they expect to use information they learned for their professional development, regulation/policy discussions, community planning, and educational curricula. For actions, respondents indicated, as a result of the conference, they would use more climate information in their work, do more climate related programs, make updates to existing climate related programs, and recommend changes to agricultural operations. Despite the conference being virtual, over half (55.2%) felt they developed connections/contacts with out-of-state experts they could consult with about climate questions. Extension’s North Central Climate Collaborative (NC3) opportunities are building climate change expertise in Extension personnel to enhance delivery of educational programs to those in agriculture and the community.

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