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Interview with an Extension Vegetable Specialist Concerning Climate Change: Part 1


Agriculture isn’t just a job for University of Massachusetts Extension Vegetable Specialist, Katie Campbell-Nelson, it’s a part of who she is.

"No matter where I went, helping people farm was always a productive and important way to live, despite whatever else was going on." This universal outlook on the importance of agriculture blossomed early in childhood, where being part of the community while growing up in rural Indonesia also meant farming. Today, Katie coordinates a core team of educators with specialties in integrated pest management, nutrient management and food safety to better extend research and education to the public. 

What it means to ‘extend to the public’

In a typical week, Katie and her team visit with farmers across Massachusetts, work regionally with other Extension services and commodity groups to host educational programming, tackle applied research trials, and publish their weekly Vegetable Notes newsletter. Katie sees the purpose of Extension as to make connections, or more specifically, to connect farmers with other farmers. A lot of the farmers she works with are advancing knowledge in their own fields, as she explains: 

“Someone may be particularly good at a particular practice or technique, and I’m just sort of taking that information and bringing it to another farm, and enhancing that research, as well as the social networks that farmers need to access the research to improve their practices.”

Katie visits many farms in Massachusetts regularly to build relationships with growers and to better track their progress through a season. Sometimes, depending on the practice being used, Katie may work with a farm for two or three years. Often, farms that Katie and her team work closely with open their doors to UMass Extension as hosts of educational programming events or for research trials. Other farmers might simply give Katie a call to let her know what pests they’re scouting for that week, or ask for guidance on how to troubleshoot an issue. On a yearly basis, UMass Extension works closely with about 10 Massachusetts farms, and partners with up to 20 more farms to help with pest scouting and tracking. Pest alerts and timely articles go out to over 2,500 subscribers via Vegetable Notes.

The underlying issue for farmers today

Farmers are facing more and more fluctuation in the climate, which their success depends upon. Katie believes that in one way or another, the many varied problems she works on with farmers are all related to climate change. “Either too much water or not enough water, and the extremes of it,” quips Katie before adding that these problems are just part of a far bigger issue: climate change. 

“I don’t philosophize with the farmer about whether they’re dealing with climate change; the underlying issue, whatever farmers call it, whatever they want to call it- it’s still climate change.” 

Climate change goes far beyond just too much or not enough water, explains Katie. For example, the timing of rain events influences the way in which weeds germinate, which in turn changes the way farmers need to cultivate their fields. 

“[You used to be able to] just get in a field once. You could till your potatoes and you could cultivate for weeds at the same time. But now, in a changing climate where it happens to be dry, and none of the weeds germinate, then after you till you may get moisture, and the weeds germinate… we’re just struggling with a whole new set of problems that we never had to deal with before.”

Katie also believes that it’s important to acknowledge that there are short term (like changes in weed germination in a given year) and long-term effects of climate change that impact farmers. Many adaptation practices can address these long-term impacts. For example, farmers who have increased their cover cropping practices over the years are noticing that fields with more organic matter or less tillage tend to hold moisture better, drain better and can therefore withstand more extreme fluctuations in precipitation better. 

Famers have already responded to climate change

One strength of the farmers Katie works with today is that they’re starting to get used to the difference. Growing conditions are not as predictable as they have been in the past; climate variability is the new normal. “The science is there, the predictions are there, we know what effects it has,” Katie notes. Many of the farmers Katie works with have already adapted to climate change on an ‘as needed’ basis and are experimenting. Simply put, farmers have diversified more, found new and different markets, and changed their production practices. Many have implemented or use more row covers, low tunnels, and high tunnels to protect crops from intense precipitation events and temperature swings.

Established farmers are surviving changes well

Established farmers in the Northeast may have a leg up on new farmers. Compared to beginning farmers, they tend to own their land rather than lease it, own or have access to more solid infrastructure, and tend to hold more financial capital to invest in equipment or make the change in practice(s) needed to survive the changes in climate. They also hold a greater depth of experience and records to help them identify when things need to change in their farm management approach. With this in mind, it’s important that the wisdom and experience of these farmers is combined with applied research to help solve the large problems climate change poses to our region’s agriculture.

“I haven’t been around long enough or I haven’t even been in this job long enough to even say ‘oh, wow, this really is different,’ but to hear farmers who have been doing this for forty or fifty years, which is twenty years longer than I’ve been alive, and have them say that this (the climate) is different—that means something.” 

A farmer’s biggest strength is not exclusive

According to Katie, the greatest strengths farmers poses are not unique to farmers in Massachusetts, or even to farmers in the Northeast. As Katie sees it, farmers’ principal strengths are their creativity and adaptability to new situations. As a business, farming is a notoriously risky one. Farmers must be able to quickly learn a new practice, retrofit a new piece of equipment, make hard decisions, and be ever flexible in response to timing and seasons. To this end, a farm cannot survive without the creativity and ingenuity of the farmer. These same strengths are “also basically their biggest strengths in adapting to climate change,” muses Katie. Yet, she adds that we need to learn to change and adapt together more. Creativity and adaptability go only so far on a per farm basis when the issue at hand is so vast. She reminds us that, to keep up, we need to get better at both accessing expertise and learning from one another. Ultimately, our ability as a region to buffer the extremes that we are going to face in the future (and are already facing) depends not only on our ingenuity, but also on our ability to work together.

Similar to Extension professionals like Katie, the USDA Northeast Climate Hub also works to help make scientific research more approachable and applicable to growers and producers, so that climate-informed management decisions can be made with greater confidence. Bridging the knowledge gap between the research field and the farm field means less trial and error, more accessible expertise, and greater overall climate resiliency for farmers. 

This is the first installment of a two-part article by Karrah Kwasnik, Digital Content Manager, USDA Northeast Climate Hub, from an interview with Katie Campbell-Nelson, Vegetable Specialist, of UMass Extension in August 2016