Purdue University agricultural economist Otto Doering shares data about climate change with guests at the annual conference of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, tying it into tools being developed at Purdue that could help them better anticipate extreme weather events that could affect their farms.
Purdue University agricultural economist Otto Doering shares data about climate change with guests at the annual conference of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, tying it into tools being developed at Purdue that could help them better anticipate extreme weather events that could affect their farms.

INDIANAPOLIS — Though it is not known what effect the increased greenhouse gases present in the Earth’s atmosphere will have on the future, scientists are urging members of agriculture to be proactive in responding to a changing climate.

Agriculture accounts for a significant portion of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and methane emissions found in the earth’s atmosphere, studies indicate.

Agriculture and deforestation account for about one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, with methane from livestock production being the most important type of farm-related emission, according to a recent news report from Purdue University.

“2012 is the warmest weather year on record in American history,” said Purdue agricultural economist Otto Doering, who spoke at the annual conference of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts about extreme weather, climate change and the farm bill.

“The increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are known by scientists to relate to human activity, and already we think we’re seeing the impact of climate change, though we don’t know how much hotter the planet will get,” he said.

Doering pointed to work being done by scientists in Australia, where temperatures have surged to record levels in recent years. Climatologists there are monitoring the waters of the Indian Ocean to detect temperature changes that could influence monsoons and weather.

Their work in climate variability has enabled them to develop a system to try and forecast for farmers the amount of rain they will receive each year to plant their wheat crop accordingly, Doering said, citing work done at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

Worldwide work on climate change has influenced people at Purdue to develop a similar model for agriculture in the future, he noted.

One of those models in the new U2U project through the Purdue University Climate Change Research Center.

Started in April 2011 with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U2U is a five-year project between nine universities aimed at making climate change resources more user-friendly and applicable to Extension work being done on agro-climate concerns.

“We’re hoping to improve existing climate information for agricultural producers and their advisers in the 12-state region of the Corn Belt, and we’re doing that by developing enhanced decision and support tools for our stakeholders,” said Melissa Widhalm, U2U program manager.

The program coordinators are developing tools to improve access to existing climate records, with some extending to incorporate corn phenology and others helping farmers with irrigation, tiling and management practices based on past and future climate data in different areas, Widhalm said.

“There are hundreds of weather stations across the U.S., many of which go back 30 to 100 years in history, and those are quality-controlled and put into our database so others can access them,” she said. “We’re using high-quality observation information.”

“One of the benefits of the project is we have five state climatologists from across the region and two regional climate centers covering the Corn Belt to make sure the best information is available and used,” she added.

Widhalm said the specialists envision developing a suite of tools to help people examine the effects of different climate scenarios on their finances or environment.

A critical component to the U2U program in addition to data collection and agronomic and climate modeling work is stakeholder engagement.

Widhalm cited a mail survey conducted among 4,778 farmers with a minimum of 80 acres of corn and $100,000 in gross farm income in 22 of the top corn-producing watersheds across the Midwest last February that found about 66 percent agreed that climate change was occurring, with 8 percent citing exclusive human causes and 25 percent attributing it to mostly natural causes.

“Climate Change Beliefs, Concerns and Support for Adaptation and Mitigation among Corn Belt Farmers,” a collaboration between Iowa State University and U2U, found that 31 percent of the farmers surveyed said they believed there is not enough evidence to determine whether climate change is occurring, while 4 percent do not believe it is happening.

“We’re also planning some focus groups, and we’ll have a lot of instances throughout the project where stakeholders and scientists can get together and make sure they are communicating,” the program manager said.

“Our other survey was done with private and public advisers for selected states in the region in which we asked them about a variety of topics, including their use of weather and climate information, risk management strategies and which information sources they trust.”

Widhalm said an interesting outcome of the survey was that a significant correlation was found between respondents’ climate change beliefs and their willingness to use climate information for their farm. Tools currently being developed through the U2U program include a climate lookup tool to improve access to user-friendly websites and an assistant for nitrogen management for long-term management strategies.

Widhalm said that while no work currently is being done to study the impacts of climate on agriculture, the program participants are using models to predict how it could affect profitability on the farm.

“In the Midwest, we already have a variable climate — it’s the nature of the weather in this area — but the weather is expected to become more variable and more extreme, with more droughts in the spring and summer that could affect when farmers get out in the spring to plant,” she said. “One of the immediate effects of climate is on water availability at critical times during the growing season.”

Widhalm noted that the National Climate Assessment, a publication of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is expected to be released this month.

Doering, a participant in the U2U project, said it could be a very useful tool in providing farmers with information about weather events that are likely to occur to help them gauge risk and manage decisions they make on their farm.

“It’s your farm and your decision. I can’t just write a prescription for it, but I can tell you the consequences of your actions,” the economist said. “The farmer has to be engaged to the point that the farmer makes those judgments.”

In addition, future extreme events could compel farmers to realize the positive difference that cover crops and soil health can make in helping their farms adapt to nutrient management, Doering said.

It will be difficult for scientists to convince farmers to invest in climate-adapted technology when they’ve enjoyed good weather for years on end, but it is a good start, he added.