Multiple climate projections for the Pacific Northwest suggest that our region’s agriculture will be impacted as the climate continues to change. Are farmers preparing for these changes? And if not, why not? These are the questions I hoped to answer as part of a recent research effort I participated in.
Working with the US Department of Agriculture Northwest Climate Hub—where I conduct social science research and climate outreach with farmers—I recently completed a study published in the journal Environments that examines the perceived risks associated with climate change held by farmers in the inland Pacific Northwest, the semiarid region stretching over central Washington, northwest Oregon, and northern Idaho.
Though semiarid, the inland Pacific Northwest is very productive. Farmers in the region are known for growing cereal crops for national and global markets, including more than 17% of the nation’s wheat. Climate change is expected to impact the region’s agriculture and the farmers who depend upon it.
I took on this research project because I was curious about inland Pacific Northwest farmers’ awareness of climate change risks. I wanted to know how their perceptions of these risks might influence their willingness to make significant changes to their farming practices.
My research found that the greater the perception of environmental and economic risks associated with climate change, the more likely farmers were to report that they would change their farming practices into order to adapt.
This blog reviews how I arrived at this conclusion and why more outreach is probably needed in the inland Pacific Northwest to convey the risks of climate change to farmers.
To understand how farmers’ perceptions of climate-associated risks related to their intentions to respond to those risks, I examined a subset of questions from two surveys of farmers in the inland Pacific Northwest.
Conducted by researchers at the University of Idaho, Washington State University, and Oregon State University, the surveys (2012–2013 and 2015–2016) explored a suite of questions regarding farm management practices and beliefs around climate change and attitudes towards adaptation.
The surveys were distributed to roughly 1,200 inland Pacific Northwest wheat farmers. Using the results of the two surveys I tallied the number of farmers who anticipated making significant changes to their operations in response to climate change. Then I examined how farmers’ perceptions of climate-associated risks—including environmental and economic impacts—influenced their intentions to adapt their farming practices in the future.
Some Farmers Anticipate Making Changes
Climate change projections for the inland Pacific Northwest suggest that higher temperatures, more frost-free days, and more extreme precipitation events will become the new norm as the century progresses. As a result, wheat producers are likely to experience both positive and negative effects from these impacts. For instance, wheat yields are likely to increase through the end of the century. However, higher temperatures are likely to degrade the quality of the wheat produced and may reduce the prices that farmers receive for their crop.
In the two surveys, farmers were presented with a plausible future scenario based on climate projections and related impacts similar to the ones listed above. Specifically, farmers were asked to consider a world in which the inland Pacific Northwest’s winters had become warmer and wetter while the region’s summers had become hotter and drier. Farmers were then asked to rate how likely they would be to make significant changes to their farming practices given this scenario. (Farmer respondents assessed whether they would make significantchanges to their cropping system, crop rotation, tillage system, soil conservation, and crop insurance practices.)
Out of the 1,209 survey participants, only about a quarter of farmers anticipated making changes to their farming practices in response to projected climate changes.
Why did only 300 or so farmers plan to take action in response to projected climate change while the others did not? Here’s where things get interesting.
Let’s talk about risk.
Risk Perceptions Inform Future Action
Typically, risk refers to a situation or event where something people care about is threatened. Risk perception is a way to grapple with our perceptions of the severity of a threat.
When we assess risk—be it determining whether we are likely to get hit crossing a busy street or whether a crop is likely to survive a certain level of drought—we frequently need to make decisions where the outcome is uncertain. For instance, a farmer regularly has to make decisions based on weekly weather forecasts. However, conditions from day to day still remain uncertain.
When making decisions, a farmer has to weigh potential risks, as well as benefits, associated with taking an action. Because climate change presents near-term and long-term potential consequences and impacts to specific cropping systems, the risks associated with climate change take this everyday decision-making process and the inherent uncertainty associated with it and amplify them.
To understand how inland Pacific Northwest farmers’ perceptions of climate-related risks translated (or not) into intentions to change behavior, I used a statistical model. My analysis revealed that the more climate risks a farmer perceived, the more likely that farmer was to plan on making changes to his or her operations in the future.
Supporting Adaptation for more Resilient Farms
Based on the results of my study, I would argue that more extension and outreach efforts are needed in the inland Pacific Northwest to better convey climate change impacts.
Improved extension efforts in the region could better frame the risks associated with climate change and pair those risks with potential actions that farmers can take to reduce their vulnerability to projected changes. Inland Pacific Northwest wheat producers could focus on crop diversification and soil health strategies to enhance on-farm resilience. By taking adaptive action, the region’s farmers might be able to reduce the risks associated with climate change now and in the future.
The two surveys reviewed for this blog and the associated study were conducted as part of the Regional Approaches to Climate Change in Pacific Northwest Agriculture (REACCH) project. REACCH was a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded effort to explore climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies for the inland Pacific Northwest wheat and cereal crop industry. The climate scenario used in the surveys was developed by REACCH.
Roesch-McNally, Gabrielle E.
“US Inland Pacific Northwest Wheat Farmers’ Perceived Risks: Motivating Intentions to Adapt to Climate Change?.”
Environments 5, no. 4 (2018): 49.
The USDA Northwest Climate Hub
- The greater the perception of environmental and economic risks associated with climate change, the more likely farmers were to report that they would change their farming practices into order to adapt.
Pics and Figures:
Featured Image: Wheat and canola crops planted at the Washington State University Cook Agronomy Farm near Pullman, Washington. (Photo Credit: Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, all rights reserved.)
Gabrielle Roesch-McNally is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the USDA Northwest Climate Hub. Gabrielle earned her PhD from Iowa State University in sociology and sustainable agriculture. Her research interests include agricultural adaptation, sustainable transitions in natural resource management, environmental decision-making, and coproduction. This is her first time contributing to The Climate CIRCulator.