Extension will be key partner in USDA climate hubs

Hubs will provide education, assistance to landowners by centralizing regional climate information.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced on February 5, 2014, the location of seven regional climate hubs to work with farmers, forest landowners and ranchers to manage the risks associated with a rapidly-changing climate. The hubs will use existing USDA facilities and partnerships, including Michigan State University Extension, to provide practical scientific information and education to assist land managers with decisions about adapting to and mitigating climate change and variability. The hubs support the Federal Climate Action Plan, announced by President Obama in June 2013.

The regional hubs are an acknowledgement that climate change looks different in different parts of the United States. While the Southwest has been predominantly affected by drought and wildfires, the Great Lakes region has seen a slight increase in annual perception, especially in spring and winter months. Because the Midwest already experiences wide extremes in both temperature and precipitation, an increase in these extremes makes Michigan agriculture even more vulnerable to climate variability. Specialty crops in particular—fruits and vegetables—are heavily dependent on water and specific temperature ranges.

The Midwest’s main climate hub will be located in Ames, Iowa, with a “sub-hub,” in Houghton, Mich., housed at the U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station. Forests, like crops, are already being affected by a changing climate. Drought and average warming temperatures make certain tree species more vulnerable to wildfires and invasive species.

But forests and crops are part of a larger climate system. (As plants, they “breathe in” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and “breathe out” oxygen.) Changes in how these resources are managed can either help balance greenhouse gas emissions (mitigate) or contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. For example, field crop farmers may plant cover crops to help fill the “brown” gaps in cropping systems with “green” plants. This practice helps store carbon in the soil (meaning less carbon dioxide escapes into the atmosphere) and adds and/or retains nutrients, which can decrease the need for nitrogen fertilizer in the spring (nitrogen, in its nitrous oxide form, is a potent greenhouse gas). And forests can be managed for their carbon sequestration abilities.

In June 2013, when Secretary Vilsak first announced the creation of the climate hubs, he called the centers “an extension service for the 21st Century.” Extension has a long history in seeking out stakeholder needs and collaborating on pragmatic, science-based solutions for its clients.