Climate change isn’t just for climatologists anymore — a $20 million grant is funding the study of local agriculture, the Regional Approaches to Climate Change (REACCH) Coordinated Agricultural Project, brings together three universities and numerous disciplines, including agricultural science, entomology, applied economics, sociology, visual arts and interpretive music.
The Inland Pacific Northwest is one of three studies being funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Funds are dispersed between UI, WSU and Oregon State University to conduct an integrative five-year project. It’s currently in its fourth year.
The universities have partnered with the Agricultural Research Service and the USDA to study the long-term impacts of rising temperatures on local wheat production. Wheat in the inland pacific northwest is grown under unique conditions, and makes up 12 to 18 percent of national yields annually — that’s why it was selected as the site of one of three NIFA projects across the country.
REACCH Director and UI Soils professor Sanford Eigenbrode is an entomologist, but he coordinates a team that includes specialists of cropping systems, agronomy, plant protection, wheat pathogens, soil and atmospheric scientists.
The diversity of the monstrous interdisciplinary team is appropriate, since the issue they’re tackling is monstrously complex Eigenbrode said.
According to Eigenbrode, the project looks at a timeline through the year 2050, when average annual temperatures are projected to have increased significantly. Understanding how these temperatures will affect agriculture, especially in regions like the Palouse, where wheat production is an integral part of the economy, is crucial.
“Because we’re dealing with means, you have very different years,” Eigenbrode said. “There could be some pretty unusual, difficult years for farming, and other years that look pretty much like today. It’s hard to convey that to farmers, but it’s what we think. It’s our mission as climate land grant scientists to pay attention to these trends on behalf of our stakeholders.”
Hilary Davis is a UI graduate student studying applied economics, and has been working with REACCH since it began four years ago. She’s tasked with conducting annual surveys with local producers in order to create a baseline understanding of current conditions, including yields, pests and farmers’ issues.
When it comes to climate change, most farmers, according to Davis, are skeptics.
“It’s hard when you watch the weather every day,” Davis said. “Most of us look at the weather and we care about it, but we haven’t spent our lives really, really looking at it and having our livelihood based off of it.”
Watching the same thing every day makes it harder to see it change, and farmers have been watching the weather for generations. This, Davis said, is what makes it hard for many farmers to accept rapidly rising temperatures. However, climate change may prove to be a relatively minor issue for farmers for just this reason.
“Eventually, climate change will change wheat production as we know it,” Davis said. “But weather changes are something (farmers) have had to adapt to over the years, so I don’t think climate change will be a dramatic issue for them.”
REACCH has made many conclusive strides, including discovering a previously unknown pest in the region and determining the effects of climate conditions on certain fungal pathogens of wheat. However, according to Eigenbrode, scientists have a long ways to go to understand fully how climate change will impact local agriculture. In the meantime, Eigenbrode said, they’re putting great emphasis on community education.
“By the end of the project, there’ll be 60 undergraduates who will have gone into the project and learned about climate change and agriculture and the big picture,” Eigenbrode said. “We also have high school stuff going on — we’ve devoted lesson plans and curricula for teachers to use to incorporate agriculture and climate into lessons, whether they’re science or ag teachers. We also conduct workshops for teachers every summer. We’ve visited K – 9 classrooms, but nothing really focused … however, we’re not done yet. We still hope to adapt some of the things we’ve done for elementary ages.”
REACCH will conclude next year, and the results of the study will be presented at a three-day conference slated to take place early this March. Many events at this conference will be open to the public, including keynote talks, an art exhibit with pieces produced by university students and an interpretive performance inspired by the study and composed by UI music professor Dan Bukvich.
Hannah Shirley can be reached at email@example.com