As a researcher, Dr. Rachel Schattman’s work is at the nexus of social science and agroecology.
Her doctoral work at the University of Vermont investigated farmer perspectives on climate change adaptation and risk management. Since earning her degree in 2016, Rachel has been an integral member of the USDA Northeast Climate Hub team, serving as a USDA Climate Hub Fellow. She has been the leader on several USDA Climate Hub research and outreach projects, including a National survey with USDA field employees on their understanding of the risks associated with climate change, and a farmer-to-farmer program on climate adaptation, called the Climate Adaptation Fellowship. Rachel’s recent survey with Vermont and Massachusetts growers combined with on-farm irrigation field trials in 2018 has spurred the need for greater education and understanding around water management for the region.
Here, we get to catch up with Rachel on her scientific career and future research priorities.
Why did you decide to become a scientist (in agriculture)?
RS: I spent my high school and college summers working on a variety of farms. Mostly these farms grew diversified vegetables, but I also worked for cheese makers, and cow and goat dairies. I loved how the farmers were always trying to figure out a better way to do things. They were constantly trying new approaches, evaluating the results, and coming up with fresh ideas. I later came to find out that their process was very scientific, and I tried to emulate them when I started my own vegetable operation in 2009. Then, in graduate school at the University of Vermont, I fell in love with the research process. It was only natural to combine the two most engaging things I had ever done: science and sustainable agriculture.
What is your favorite aspect of your research position with the USDA Climate Hubs?
RS: I appreciate so many things about the Climate Hubs! I love being a part of a passionate and dedicated team of co-workers. Everyone is very invested in their work. Together, we’re working towards making the best climate information useful to land managers. While I focus mostly in agriculture, I’m happy to be part of a bigger (national) team that also addresses the needs of foresters, rangeland managers, and farmers who work in very different environments from the one I work in (the Northeast).
I also appreciate that my position with the Hubs allows me to be responsive to the needs of a regional community of growers. I’ve enjoyed developing my research in irrigation management and connecting with land grant partners across the Northeast on related projects. Together, I think we can develop some very good and necessary information that will help diversified vegetable farmers address the effects of climate change on their farms.
You just received a grant to conduct irrigation trials and farmer focus groups from Northeast SARE, what got you interested in this work?
RS: During my doctoral research, I asked many farmers about their perceptions of climate change and climate risk. Water management came up over and over as an important environmental challenge. In the Northeast, where we are expected to see an uptick in our average yearly rainfall, incidence of drought are also becoming more frequent. Farmers often have to content with both too much water and too little, sometimes in the same growing season. In 2018, I conducted an exploratory survey with vegetable growers in Vermont and Massachusetts to see what their current water management practices were. I found that there was a lot of room for improvement when it came to water efficiency practices. Since irrigation is such a big part of how vegetable growers use water, it seemed best to start there.
I teamed up with Dr. Joshua Faulkner, an agricultural engineer at the University of Vermont, to see what we could do to help growers dial in their water use practices. Together, we designed a two-part project that includes field trials and focus groups. In the field trials, we will look at how yield, crop quality, and nutrient run-off is affected by different irrigation practices. Specifically, we will measure differences between irrigation that is “cued” by soil condition (a common practice), timers, and soil moisture sensor data. Meanwhile, the focus groups will give farmers an opportunity to explore soil moisture sensor hardware and software, and give feedback on the utility of these systems. Currently, not many farmers use soil moisture sensors, but we think that this project may convince them that it’s worth it.
What do you hope to achieve through your research?
RS: Farming is a dynamic business, and farmers are constantly facing tradeoffs with every management decision. My broad goal is to provide them with timely information to help them make good decisions, and by doing so to be good stewards of our shared natural resources.
What project of yours do you feel will have the greatest positive impact on agriculture in the region?
RS: The Climate Adaptation Fellowship, a curriculum design project I was involved in, will be very useful in coming years. In brief, this project brought together many partners from across the Northeast to develop teaching modules about climate adaptation for vegetable/small fruit, tree fruit, dairy, and forestry audiences. The people we envisioned becoming “climate adaptation fellows” are farmers and land use advisors who are already thinking about climate change. Our course will help them bring their understanding about climate change adaption and communication to the next level. The curriculum development process, which was highly collaborative, was supported by USDA NIFA. All of the materials will be online and open for anyone to use. We are also looking for opportunities to pilot the four modules, which we hope to do sometime in the next 2-years.
What research project has been the most noteworthy to you over the past few years?
RS: One of my favorite projects has been in collaboration with several University of Vermont collaborators including Dr. Stephanie Hurley, Dr. Meredith Niles, Martha Caswell, and Holly Greenleaf. Together, our team looked at digitally altered photographs of farm practices and their potential as tools for climate change communication. Our results showed us that images depicting certain on-farm practices are very good at starting interesting conversations with both farmers and agricultural advisors. In particular, these images are most effective when they show practices that change the landscape, are very expensive to put in place, or people don’t know a lot about. For example, in the Northeast there is a lot of confusion about what silvopasture is. Some people think it means turning cows out into a woodlot, but other people think it means planting trees in hay land or pasture. A photosimulation can be very useful to get people on the same page about what a climate adaptation practice is, and the variety of different ways it can be used.
What’s next on your agenda?
RS: I am excited to announce that the Northeast Climate Hub will be holding the Northeast Specialty Crop Water Symposium on December 18-19, 2019 in Burlington Vermont. This symposium is designed to be a place for agricultural water researchers and agricultural advisors, students and industry representative to come together and talk about topics relevant to our region. We will also be inviting experts from parts of the country that have struggled more with water shortages than the Northeast, so that we can learn from their experiences. My hope is that people who are interested in this topic will attend, share their innovative ideas and projects, and that we can all start to think more strategically about how agriculture in the Northeast can best prepare for climate change and its effect on water availability and quality.