Friday, November 10, 2023

NSF funds holistic approach to help farmers adapt to climate change

"There is already a lot of work on what climate change may mean for agriculture in general," says Emily Burchfield, Emory assistant professor of environmental sciences. "But what climate change means for an individual farm must be filtered through issues particular to that farm."

By Carol Clark

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Emily Burchfield, Emory assistant professor of environmental sciences, $1.6 million to lead efforts to identify emerging pressures on agriculture in Georgia, Iowa and Ohio and to develop predictive models to help farmers and policymakers weather these changes. 

“In a nutshell, we’re trying to understand what climate change will mean for agriculture in these three states,” Burchfield says. “We’ll be integrating biophysical projections based on environmental data with insights gathered from farmers and agricultural experts.” 

The goal is to develop possible scenarios for the impacts of climate change — along with the evolving technical, socioeconomic and political landscapes in each state — for how and where crops could be grown over the next 30 to 40 years. The researchers will create a public, online tool to allow farmers and policymakers to explore the possible futures of agriculture at regional and state levels and to support their efforts to manage these scenarios. 

The grant is part of the NSF Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems Program (DISES). 

“Traditionally, the NSF has mainly split programs into the social sciences and the natural sciences but DISES is one of their newer programs that joins the two, looking at how nature affects people and people affect nature,” Burchfield says. “Coupling human and natural systems in theoretical frameworks allows us to take on some of the grand challenges that we’re facing, like climate change and food and water security.” 

Burchfield is principal investigator for the project, which also includes researchers from Arizona State University, Ohio State University and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. 

A range of agricultural systems 

While the two main crops in both Iowa and Ohio are corn and soy, agriculture in Georgia is far more diverse. The state leads the nation in the production of peanuts, pecans, blueberries and spring onions and is also a leading producer of cotton, watermelon, peaches, cucumbers, sweet corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupes, rye and cabbage. 

Agriculture contributes nearly $70 billion annually to Georgia’s economy and one in seven Georgians works in agriculture, forestry or related fields, according to the Georgia Farm Bureau. 

“Compared to other parts of the country, Georgia is incredibly diverse not just in terms of what is grown in the state but in terms of who grows it,” Burchfield says. “A lot of exciting changes are happening in the state — citrus production is moving into South Georgia. And the biggest organic farm east of the Mississippi is located in Georgia, producing carrots.” 

While California currently produces the bulk of the nation’s produce, that state is facing significant challenges for water availability, Burchfield notes. “Georgia has a unique opportunity to expand its fresh-produce production to help meet future demand,” she says. “We want to provide farmers the resources they need to capitalize on such trends.” 

Building tools for the future of farming 

Burchfield’s research combines spatial-temporal social and environmental data to understand the future of food security in the United States, including the consequences of a changing climate. 

For the current project, the researchers will draw from available climate, soil and land-use data to create biophysical models for how changes in climate will affect where and how particular crops can be grown. These models will be integrated with data gathered from surveys and focus groups conducted with agricultural experts, climatologists and farmers working the land throughout Georgia, Iowa and Ohio. 

The project aims to get input from a diverse range of farmers growing different crops and using different management practices. 

“There is already a lot of work on what climate change may mean for agriculture in general,” Burchfield says. “But what climate change means for an individual farm must be filtered through issues particular to that farm. So many dimensions that matter deeply to farmers are not included in policy discussions about agriculture.” 

Farmers will be asked what information and resources they need to sustain their operations and to adapt to climate change. “We want to understand the vision that farmers have for the future of their farms,” Burchfield says. “What would they would like to see happen? What do they see as the barriers and bridges to achieving that vision?” 

The public, online tool that the researchers develop will include interactive maps for crop forecasts by region. It will also provide information to guide policymakers and to help farmers adapt to the changes ahead. 

“It’s impossible to accurately say exactly what’s going to happen in the future,” Burchfield says. “But combining biophysical data with an understanding of the technical, economic and political changes emerging in each of these states, along with the expertise of our farmers, will allow us to forecast trends for how suitable particular regions will be for growing certain crops. The bottom line is we are pulling together the best information available to give a sense of the emergent opportunities in the state for agriculture as well as the emergent challenges.” 


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