Discussion series gives agricultural community a chance to weigh in on climate change

Network News Summer 2013, Vol. 26 No. 2
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A series of meetings designed by the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program to deepen the conversation between farmers, scientists, and agricultural professionals on a wide range of issues is proving quite a hit. In a continuing effort that began in 2012, KBS LTER Education & Outreach Coordinator, Dr. Julie Doll, and her colleagues from Michigan State University (MSU) Extension hosted three discussion events in March focusing on climate change, alternative energy, and the impacts they may have on Michigan’s agriculture and environment. These meetings were initiated to enhance cooperation and build on current and future collaborations by hearing from farmers and sharing with them what KBS and MSU scientists have learned about those issues. In addition to KBS scientists and MSU extension educators, field crop farmers, fruit producers, agribusiness staff, and government agency representatives participated in these daylong discussion meetings.

During the meetings, Doll and colleagues used a new approach, a “fishbowl activity” which is a facilitated discussion that helps participants develop an increased understanding of varied viewpoints on a topic. The fishbowl approach allows participants to take turns sharing knowledge and opinions while others observe and reflect on what is being said. This activity encouraged participants to engage in dialogue and learn from each other on the complex—and potentially polarizing—topic of climate change.

At the beginning of each day, the farmers sat in an inner circle (the “fishbowl”) and discussed their experiences of climate change and how they were coping with increased weather and climate uncertainty. Meanwhile, those in the outer circle (scientists and extension educators) listened and took notes.

Next, it was the scientists’ turn in the fishbowl, where they discussed their research related to climate, energy, and carbon, while the farmers listened. (For the third meeting in the series, agribusiness staff and government agency representatives were first in the fishbowl.) At this meeting, MSU’s state climatologist and KBS LTER investigator, Dr. Jeff Andresen, shared Michigan trends in temperature, precipitation, and extreme events. KBS LTER investigator, Dr. Dale Mutch, talked about nitrogen management for carbon credits, explaining the newly launched Nitrous Oxide Reduction Protocol that KBS LTER investigators helped to establish in U.S. carbon markets. MSU Extension specialist Dennis Pennington shared information on energy and cellulosic biofuel production, a major research focus of the KBS LTER.

The farmers responded to these topics by addressing another round of questions related to climate variability, carbon sequestration, energy consumption, and growing biofuels on farms. At the end of the day, the whole group came together around the table to share their understanding on these topics and chart out next steps. The farmers expressed interested in continuing conversations and pursuing research ideas related to energy and climate. The information gathered during the series will help develop research projects and outreach programming, as well as grant seeking efforts.

Post-event evaluations revealed that 100 percent of the farmers agreed the discussions were an effective way to gather information and help facilitate conversations with MSU extension educators and campus faculty about future research and outreach programming. One farmer noted that these meetings were a great start and should be held more frequently. Another observed, “[The] session helped to bring home some of the climate change issues we are facing.”

This discussion series was a follow-up to a September 2012 Carbon, Energy and Climate Conference, aNorth Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE) professional development and training initiative that was co-hosted by KBS LTER and held at the Station.