May 22, 2024

NIU weather project focuses on climate impacts to farmers, farming, food

Victor Gensini

DEKALB, Ill. — A two-year research project at Northern Illinois University is taking a deep dive — and a big listen — into farming and the impacts of climate change on farming in northern Illinois.

“At the end of the day, agriculture is one of the most sensitive economies to weather and climate and here, especially in northern Illinois, but across the Corn Belt,” said Victor Gensini, associate professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

A research project that will focus on communication with farmers and others in the ag industry and also develop high-resolution computer modeling of the impacts of climate change on any given farms and fields was selected to receive $660,000 in Community Project Funding as part of the passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022.

Gensini and Walker Ashley, an atmospheric scientist and disaster geographer in the NIU Department of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, developed the project, “Understanding and Mitigating Future Weather and Climate Risks to American Agriculture.”

The funding for the program came through the office of former congressman Adam Kinzinger, a Republican who represented Illinois’ 16th District.

“We are one of the largest producers of corn and soybeans in the world. Small shifts in a potential future climate, of temperature or rainfall, would have pretty significant impacts on the growing season, the ability to sustain yields for particular crops. Changes in temperatures and precipitation also cause changes in pests that affect corn and soybeans,” Gensini said.

Gensini said the project is focusing on farming and impacts to farmers on a local level.

“We want to make sure we fully understand the ramifications of the projected changes in weather conditions at a very local scale, not just these global temperature projections of future climates,” he said.

“We need to understand what is going on, what the potential for change is at the local level. That includes at your field. What is the potential for change in precipitation or temperatures?”

On a technology level, the project’s goal is to create modeling that can show the impacts of climate change on a field-by-field basis.

“The major driving force of why this project was selected is we are generating some very novel high resolution models for the future of perils at field scale. Those types of projections don’t exist currently,” Gensini said.

A major part of the funding for the project is being used to develop those models.

“We are generating these very high-resolution simulations so we can better answer the question — what does climate change look like for my field at this specific address? Those are the questions we will be able to ask and answer because we have that very high-resolution information,” Gensini said.

Another outcome of the project will be the development of best-practices documents that outline how farmers receive weather and climate information and how scientists can best offer education and information on weather and climate.

“How can we educate them on the future potential changes tin weather and climate? How to engage and how to speak the same language as one another is something we are learning right now,” Gensini said.

That part of the project is aimed at improving communication between scientists and farmers.

“We want to create a conduit, a pipeline of communication between researchers who are focusing on weather and climate and those who are actually out there, putting the seed in the ground and harvesting the crops. Those are two completely different camps that generally don’t talk to one another,” Gensini said.

Gensini said that one aspect of the project will be talking to farmers themselves — when the time is right.

“It is very hard to have conversations with farmers during harvest season or during planting season. If you stay outside of those windows, you have a much better opportunity for conversations,” he said.

“We have presented a couple of times at the DeKalb County Farm Bureau. We have some leads in terms of stakeholders who are putting us in touch with local farmers.”

The reach of those conversations extends beyond row crops, like corn and soybeans.

“We are talking to local farmers, not just family farms, but folks who are doing much larger, commercial-scale farming and people who are doing non-traditional farming, folks who have done traditional farming, but who are now doing orchards,” Gensini said.

The first step in those conversations is to get an idea of how agriculturalists get their weather information.

“We are asking some very basic questions right now. We are not orchestrating or trying to lead people down a path,” Gensini said.

“We want to know what they know and how they know what they know. Where do they receive that information? How do they make decisions based on weather and climate information? That is going to allow us insight into their thought process.”

Gensini said those questions include asking whether farmers trust the concept of climate change.

“There are people in this district, constituents, farmers, who do understand climate change. They see it impacting their yields on a year-to-year basis and the ability to run their operations,” he said.

“I think that is especially true with family farms, the farms that are going to be passed down generation to generation and farming is in their blood. They realize that these longer-term time horizons and the changes in these variables is going to affect maybe not this year’s yields or next year’s yields, but certainly the yields of their children.”

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor