18th Conference on Applied Climatology
Presidential Forum


Emerging niche clienteles for climate-based decision dupport: organic farmers in Georgia (U.S.)

Carrie A. Furman, University of Georgia / Southeast Climate Consortium, Griffin, GA; and C. Roncoli, T. A. Crane, J. Paz, and G. Hoogenboom

Research documenting the impacts of seasonal climate variability on crop performance has shown that seasonal climate forecasts can improve farmers' capacity to manage risk and optimize gains. Climate application efforts have strived to package and deliver information to agricultural stakeholders, but these approaches have not always reached alternative groups that fall outside of mainstream communication and outreach channels. The Southeast Climate Consortium (SECC) is one of such efforts. This collaborative, research project integrates climate, agricultural, and social science research to develop climate-based decision-support tools for application in agricultural and natural resource management in the southeast United States (www.agroclimate.org). Central to the SECC approach are the participation of stakeholders in priority setting and tool development and the involvement of agricultural extension in assessment and outreach efforts. However, this reliance on extension for information dissemination has meant that the SECC has so far largely reached mainstream farmers.

Organic farming has been one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in the United States for over a decade and is rapidly gaining ground in the Southeast. But the technological characteristics and philosophical orientation that defines these operations mean that they may need to be reached through alternative channels rather than through the extension service. This paper reports on research conducted among organic farmers in Georgia to ascertain to what extent they are interested and able to use climate-based decision support systems and what are the best avenues of communication to serve this emerging clientele. The research design combines quantitative and qualitative methods. Quantitative data was collected through an online survey, completed by 40 respondents. In addition, semi-structured interviews with 31 participants yielded rich contextual information. Research questions focused on participants' agricultural management systems, how they perceive climate change, and their knowledge, use, perceptions, and attitudes toward weather and climate predictions. Cognizant of the key role that boundary organizations play in ensuring credibility and legitimacy among stakeholder groups, the research team conducted the research in partnership with Georgia Organics, a non-profit organization that includes producers, consumers, and food-related businesses in Georgia.

Organic farmers, due to the small-scale diversified nature of their farms, differ from conventional producers in the Southeast U.S in important ways that have implications for how they may access, understand, use, and assess climate information. They are a more diverse group, with greater percentages of women. Organic operations generally consist of small landholdings, mostly devoted to growing fresh produce, which is highly vulnerable to climate extremes. Organic farmers tend to be relatively young and new to farming, and, therefore, less able than conventional producers to rely on accumulated experience and/or knowledge of prior generations of farmers and family members.

The diverse social backgrounds and worldviews of organic farmers translate into an eclectic style of knowledge management. Their conservation ethic and intimate involvement with the land lead them to appreciate traditional farmer knowledge and be attentive to environmental signs and place-based knowledge. On the other hand, many organic farmers are highly educated, computer literate, and innovation-oriented, and interested in experimenting with new ideas and tools. They tend to be critical thinkers who are inclined to question, rather than automatically accept, scientific authority and conventional wisdom. New information is often triangulated across multiple sources and cross-checked against farmers' own experience and that of other farmers. In addition to other farmers, internet resources, conferences and workshops, and farmer organizations are among the most commonly trusted and used sources of information.

Weather forecasts are most commonly used by the organic farmers in this study because trust in predictive information tends to diminish according to the forecast temporal scale. Almost all farmers surveyed and interviewed use weather forecasts daily to decide when to plant, where to irrigate, and whether and when to hire labor. Climate information, on the other hand, are used less often and mostly for longer-range decisions, such as planning when seeds are started in green houses or hoop houses and about which beds need irrigation infrastructure. However, the research uncovered several additional potential applications of seasonal climate forecasts, if access to and trust in such information were established.

In fact, research findings show that weather and climate factors are among the most important drivers that shape agricultural decisions. Farmers use multiple strategies to manage climate risk. Production strategies include crop diversification, staggered planting, hoop/green houses, irrigation technologies. Marketing relationships also enable some organic farmers to share risk through customers' willingness to pay higher prices or accept lower quality and quantity of produce. In addition to adaptation strategies, farmers interviewed expressed a high level of concern with climate change mitigation. Most of them reported using farming practices that seek to reduce their own carbon footprint. This concern about climate change provides an important entry point for communicating other kinds of climate information, such as seasonal climate outlooks.

This study generated recommendations to better reach and serve this clientele. For example, a focus on crops and crop families that are popular among organic farmers will help attract their interest. The ability to predict and monitor key parameters identified by the research (ex. freezes, hurricanes) as well as tools to deal with associated threats (ex. pests) will increase the salience of climate based decision support tools. These tools need to fit the multiple timeframes that are relevant to organic farmers, including real-time weather information, short-term weather forecasts, seasonal climate predictions, and climate change projections. To ensure legitimacy, information needs to be delivered with the collaboration of key boundary organizations and/or via respected mentors that have established credentials among organic farmers. In summary, it is imperative that the ways climate information is presented and packaged into decision support systems reflect an understanding of the social practices of information processing and risk management that are embraced by organic farmers.

extended abstract  Extended Abstract (320K)

Recorded presentation

Joint Session 1, Climate Services at the Regional Climate Centers, State Climate Offices and Regional Integrated Science Assessments I
Thursday, 21 January 2010, 8:30 AM-9:45 AM, B212

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