Extension and Ag Researchers Work Toward Agroecosystem Resilience

Introduction: The eastern Corn Belt Region (ECBR) of the United States (Figure 1) has experienced increasing temperatures with more extreme precipitation events in recent decades. Current climate projections show these trends will likely continue and intensify in the future. As a result, land use and management adaptations impacted by the agricultural, policy, and technological sectors will be needed to meet food production challenges and secure the economy. Thus, stakeholders at household, firm, industry, community, and regional levels need more information and a better understanding of the system-wide implications of these changes.

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Figure 1: Eastern Corn Belt Region of the U.S. and key River Basins evaluated in the study.

Researchers and extension professionals at The Ohio State University are working together to unwrap some of the complexity involved in this grand challenge through a project linking expected local climate change, farmer decisions, and ecosystem, economic, and policy outcomes. Since the ECBR agroecosystem is managed with agricultural production, conservation, and societal well-being goals in mind, a linked set of climate systems, regional economy, and agroecological models are used to evaluate policy and program impacts. Using results from one model to inform input into another model provides a means to project decision impacts on the sustainability and resilience of this region under varying future scenarios. Here we summarize the main findings to date. For larger versions of the figures below, videos explaining the project components in more detail, and our stakeholder engagement process, please visit Agroecosystem Resilience Project.

Climate Future: Figure 2 summarizes the mean changes in temperature and precipitation throughout the remainder of this century given different climate scenarios (low or high degree of change – think range or possible change). In both scenarios, temperatures rise, the growing season lengthens, and precipitation increases and becomes more intense across the ECBR, though there are regional differences. These changes impact farmer decisions such as when to plant and harvest, what crops and varieties to grow, and nutrient application timing decisions. The climate scenarios identified increase crop stress, accelerate plant growth, and increase potential weed, insect, and disease pressure. It will also likely affect the size of equipment farmers will use, whether to take advantage of the longer growing seasons with double cropping, and potentially lead to more erosion and nutrient loss in the absence of mitigation.   

[Click here or on the infographic for a larger version]

Figure 2: Infographic showing change in climate across the Eastern Corn Belt Region of the U.S. Current ranges are indicated in blue with a Low (yellow) and High (red) range of change indicated for key temperature and precipitation variables.

Farmer Decisions: Farmers across the region were presented with a range of climate scenarios in a mail survey. The questions asked how they intended to adapt to climate variability and what differences among farmers cause changes in intended adaptations. Figure 3 shows a second infographic based on these results and the following are the key takeaways from the 918 viable surveys returned:

  • Most farmers (51%) believe that the climate is changing but mostly due to natural changes, while 42% believe there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether the climate is changing. 
  • While respondents have experienced climate impacts (e.g., warmer winters, variable planting dates, variable rainfall), the experience of these impacts is still varied across the farming population and only of slight concern to most farmers. 
  • Most farmers (55%) report planting more resilient varieties of crops already grown as a form of adaptation. Approximately one-quarter report other past adaptations such as outsourcing activities, seeking off-farm employment and installing more drainage tile. 
  • Future adaptations of greatest interest include continuing to plant more resilient varieties of crops that they already grow, continuing to outsource some activities on the farm (e.g., fertilizer application, etc.), and changing tillage practices (e.g., adopting no-till or conservation tillage). 
  • In terms of explaining future adaptation, a consistent trend is that adaptation is more likely on larger farms. Farmer characteristics (e.g., climate concern, prior experience with climate impacts) help explain whether someone is likely to engage in some adaptation, but such characteristics were not as useful at understanding specific adaptations (beyond land retirement).
  • Finally, the expected future changes in climate and shifts in conservation payments helped explain what specific adaptations were selected (e.g., drainage tile more likely to increase when the future is characterized by later planting dates and more rainfall). 

[Click here or on the infographic below for a larger version.]

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Figure 3: Infographic showing the Main Adapter Types (yellow -middle), Main Decisions facing farmers (red – left), and the Top Adaptation Practices (blue -right) given expected climate future. Farmer thoughts on climate change are provided in the inset at the bottom of the graphic.

Regional Model, Ecosystems Services, Optimal Policies: Work on the integration of all these components into a regional agroecosystem model continues. Our current work focuses on establishing models to address policies by state and local governments that augment federal policy requirements and incentives and/or address issues that have not been addressed in federal policy. We have conceptualized, and are preparing to simulate, a carbon-trading scheme that, combined with aggressive carbon sequestration efforts, can reduce the costs of reducing net carbon emissions in the region. These efforts have been guided by suggestions from our Stakeholder Advisory Group, made up of local and regional commodity, agribusiness, and policy experts.   

Extension and Engagement: We continue to disseminate climate related results to diverse stakeholders including those attending Ag meetings, private consulting and insurance firms, Farm Science Review, and through the North Central Climate Collaborative. In addition to the infographics above, we have created a series of educational videos with a second round focusing on ecosystem services and the policy assessment being developed. Participants have reported increases in their knowledge of climate and agriculture, including awareness of changes that are happening, challenges farmers will face, and ways they can reduce negative impacts on their farming operations. We encourage everyone to check back with us at Agroecosystem Resilience Project as we complete this project in the coming year.

Project Leads

Robyn Wilson – Project Leader, School of Environment and Natural Resources/School of Communication, Farmer behavioral modeling, wilson.1376@osu.edu

Gregory LaBarge – OSU Extension, Stakeholder Advisory Team coordination & farmer/stakeholder engagement, labarge.1@osu.edu

Aaron Wilson – Byrd Center/OSU Extension/State Climate Office of Ohio, Climate projections and Education Outreach, wilson.1010@osu.edu

Yongyang Cai – Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics (AEDE)/Sustainability Institute, Integrated model developer and economist, cai.619@osu.edu

Elena Irwin – Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics

(AEDE)/Sustainability Institute, Multi-sector regional economic and land use modeling, irwin.78@osu.edu

Kaiguang Zhao – School of Environment and Natural Resources, Model change in ecosystem services, zhao.1423@osu.edu

Alan Randall – Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics (AEDE), Design

of regional model and interpretation of results, randall.3@osu.edu

Jason Cervenec - Byrd Center/State Climate Office of Ohio, Farmer/stakeholder engagement, cervenec.1@osu.edu

Kristi Lekies – School of Environment and Natural Resources, Evaluator, lekies.1@osu.edu

Crop Observation and Recommendation Network

C.O.R.N. Newsletter is a summary of crop observations, related information, and appropriate recommendations for Ohio crop producers and industry. C.O.R.N. Newsletter is produced by the Ohio State University Extension Agronomy Team, state specialists at The Ohio State University and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). C.O.R.N. Newsletter questions are directed to Extension and OARDC state specialists and associates at Ohio State.