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New Climate-focused Agriculture Program Aims to Train Students, Professionals and Farmers

January 18, 2022
A $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will enable a new project at UC Merced to create an integrated program to develop multi-faceted pathways to climate-smart agriculture solutions.
A $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will enable a new project at UC Merced to create an integrated program to develop multi-faceted pathways to climate-smart agriculture solutions.

California is the largest and the most diverse agricultural economy in the nation with revenue exceeding $50 billion — larger than the combined agricultural economies of the other 10 western states.  

But the state and its residents, especially the disadvantaged, are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.  

A $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will enable a new project at UC Merced to create an integrated program to develop multi-faceted pathways to climate-smart agriculture solutions. 

Cooperative Extension Specialist Tapan Pathak, with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is leading the effort. He plans to involve farmers and ranchers, technical service providers and students in a variety of training and educational activities. 

Pathak plans to conduct needs assessments with local stakeholders, workshops and climate-smart agriculture training, as well as service-learning opportunities for students through the extension program.   

“Farmers and ranchers, including the socially disadvantaged, are under constant pressure to adjust to uncertain weather and climate events to minimize risks, but often have limited access to technical assistance and fewer resources to adapt to climate change,” Pathak explained. “The critical initial step for developing a climate-smart agriculture program for them is to understand and document their perceptions, experiences and knowledge of climate-change exposures, potential impacts and social vulnerabilities.” 

The researchers also need to know what tools and resources would assist them in making strategic decisions, and what types of education and outreach activities would help them choose and implement climate-smart agriculture practices. 

Pathak and his team will conduct needs assessments in three phases: a statewide survey to get information from a diverse group of farmers and ranchers, then focus groups and informal personal interviews. 

Another group of people the program aims to reach are technical service providers — those front-line farm and ranch counselors who are often asked questions on climate change, weather variability and local implications, but often have limited training on climate change.  

“There is overwhelming evidence of the importance of integrating climate change into research, education and outreach activities carried out by Cooperative Extension, local, state and federal resource staff-managed programs or operations to improve sustainability, to adapt and to mitigate climate change impacts,” Pathak said. “However, individuals in these groups are content area experts and by and large do not have specific training in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. For example, federal resource staff are required to consider climate change in project planning and aspects of operations but have no to very limited training on climate change, and even less on how to incorporate such information into federal workflow.” 

Finally, the student experience will form a large component of this effort. As the next generation of a climate-ready workforce, students need education and training in both climate change and agriculture, as well as practical learning opportunities. 

Pathak plans to provide opportunities for University of California undergraduates as well as California Community College students through a UC Merced Summer Institute on Climate and Agriculture certificate course; a UC Davis credit-based course called Science and Society: Climate Change and Agriculture; and a certificate course for community college students, professionals and non-degree seeking students. The Summer Institute on Climate and Agriculture will pay students from any major to learn about climate and agricultural science, including topics such as climate science fundamentals; interaction of weather and climate with agriculture; the food-energy-water nexus; hands-on weather and climate data analysis for detecting trends; climate change impacts on agriculture; automation and data analytics; climate and water: conflicts and implications; and climate change communication.  

“In addition, we will organize field trips, such as visiting and learning from local farming operations, county Cooperative Extension offices and USDA-ARS research facilities, irrigation districts and reservoirs, and visiting a National Weather Service office,” he said. “Each of these visits will give students the opportunity to meet, network with and learn from experts, scientists and professionals, all of which could benefit their future careers.”  

The project is part of an investment in Cooperative Extension and USDA Climate Hubs efforts to bolster climate research and share climate-smart solutions directly with the agricultural communities. The USDA recently invested $9 million in several such projects as part of NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the nation’s leading competitive grants program for agricultural sciences. 

“These new NIFA-funded projects will work toward net-zero emissions in agriculture, working lands and communities adapted to climate change, training a diverse workforce that can communicate and incorporate climate considerations into management and climate justice that is appropriate for unique U.S. agronomic conditions,” said NIFA Director Carrie Castille.