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Connecting Youth to the Changing Weather

You can watch the weather from your window and learn about these natural patterns. You can feel the weather from being outside and learn how it impacts the land. You can collect data from a weather station and learn to calculate the patterns and impacts. You can now connect to tools to help you make informed decisions about working the land.

During the summer of 2019, several young farm workers studied the weather at Seneca Nation of Indians’ Gakwi:yo:h Farms.

They learned about soil, rain, crops, and how to manage a farm using weather as a guide. This resulted from a joint project between the Seneca Nation and the USDA Northeast Climate Hub called, “Connecting Youth to the Changing Weather.” The vision for this began when leaders of Seneca Nation Emergency Management Department noticed a disconnect between youth and the land. A grant from the USDA Forest Service helped encourage youth to engage with an on-site weather station provided by Natural Resources Conservation Service. Guest scientists, teachers, and land management professionals helped the students discover ways that changing weather patterns impact the land. Seneca Nation youth were encouraged to be environmental stewards as they learned about the impact of the changing climate on natural resources.

The Seneca Nation installed the weather station in 2018. This was made possible through a partnership with the USDA Northeast Climate Hub, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. The national-level weather station project is called TSCAN, or Tribal Soil Climate Analysis Network. Managers of the newly created Gakwi:yo:h Farms use the weather data to make climate-based decisions for crop management. This knowledge helps them determine which crops and planting strategies may result in better harvest yields. Hosting the TSCAN weather station helps meet the Seneca Nation’s educational goal to engage youth in creative science programing and hands-on outdoor learning.

Throughout the summer, the farm hosted learning opportunities that linked to the weather station. Cultural traditions were incorporated to raise the youth’s sense of land stewardship.

The youth were engaged with the natural world around them as they learned; about planting specific crops, required care, harvesting, and lastly, cleaning and storage methods for the crops. This shared project brought together many agencies and organizations. As youth worked on daily farming operations, they made use of lessons from their guests. They walked out to the weather station and learned about the monitoring components that collect data, how they work, and how the information can be used. A nearby professor shared how to observe clouds as part of GLOBE protocols. GLOBE is an educational program that contributes measurements to a global database. These local weather observations are important for making decisions around a shifting climate. The group learned about tools that nearby organizations use to manage ecosystems and local watersheds. The youth and farm workers went into the field plots and took several measurements to determine the health of their soils. They also used online tools that made use of the on-site weather data. This process of discovering ways to use weather data integrates traditional practices into more recent farm management techniques. Through meeting professionals and hearing presentations, the youth also learned about careers in natural resources that exist right in their own backyard.

Gakwi:yo:h Farms was established with the mission to address food security and food sovereignty through community engagement and wellness.

Gakwi:yo:h Farms was established with the mission to address food security and food sovereignty through community engagement and wellness. Photo by USDA Northeast Climate Hub. 

With climate change, much of western New York is experiencing more intense rainfall. When lots of rain comes all at once, it can wash away soil or erode the land.

Developing healthier soils with better infiltration throughout the farm provides more resilience to heavy rainfall. Healthy soil, especially when covered, is less likely to erode. Soil Scientists from the Natural Resource Conservation Service visited the farm as part of this program. They shared a series of soil health demonstrations. Using the tools brought by the NRCS scientists, young farmers at Gakwi:yo:h Farms discovered that previous tillage methods had created compacted soils. Another visiting scientist helped the youth evaluate soil characteristics. They discussed the conditions that impact crop growth and disease. Gakwi:yo:h Farms was experiencing a poor pepper crop at the time.

Using their new tools, the youth were able to determine that soil compaction and water deficiencies had both played a role. Data from the weather station feeds directly into an online water deficit calculator tool that estimates soil water content. The tool teaches users about the current and forecasted water deficits by using historical climate data, forecasted rainfall, and site-specific data (soil type, crop type, planting dates and irrigation). The online tool showed that soil moisture had sometimes been limiting crop growth. Farm managers and youth in the program at Gakwi:yo:h Farms consulted with the Natural Resource Conversation Service to create a two-way learning opportunity. This collaborative relationship may lead to establishing an irrigation system at the farm. Data inputs from the weather station can help with future irrigation scheduling.

To cap off the summer of learning, the youth took a field trip to nearby Alleghany National Forest. There they discovered how climate change is influencing land management practices on the trail systems, at gas drilling sites, and with forest cultivation harvests.

The trip through the forest showed the youth physical evidence of these practices in the actual way the forest had grown, with and without proper management. US Forest Service staff talked about how they found their way into a career in forestry and the many angles of opportunity in such careers.

Funding from this youth engagement and conservation education program was used to hire 6 summer youth as farm workers. The educational program was combined with other youth programs at the Seneca Nation to bring learning opportunities to over 20 Seneca youth. The youth developed knowledge and skills to interpret weather and soil data, and observed how these translate into harvest numbers and making decisions about how to manage their land. Through this learning, farm managers have increased use of weather tools and traditional ecological knowledge. A sense of stewardship to our natural environment has grown among the youth. They gained exposure to multiple career paths in natural resource management. Throughout this project, collaborators learned about how to incorporate traditional Seneca ideas, thought and knowledge. These concepts are central to a deep appreciation of, and reverence for, the natural world. Seneca youth and, by association, the broader community learned about the current state of the climate. This prompted discussions about the ways in which we can all be social and cultural agents for climate adaptation.

Acknowledgements: Erin Lane, Mike Gates, Michael Snyder, Suzanne Baker, Michael Jabot, Barbara McGuinness, Nicole Kubiczki, Richard Hatfield, Amy Langner, Elizabeth Buck, Shannon Dougherty, Paula Pichon, Art Degeatano, Matt Havens, Zachary Warning, Susan Cox, Gerry Fisher, Jennifer Bourgeault, and all the Seneca youth and Farm staff who participated in the learning adventures.

Top Photo: The Tribal Soil Climate Analysis Network (TSCAN) supports natural resource assessments and conservation activities through its network of automated climate monitoring and data collection sites. Photo by USDA Northeast Climate Hub.