Policy, practices, and progress with the USDA

So to kick my trip off in style, and to help me try and jump into this trip with both feet, yesterday I spent the day in Washington DC talking to the team at USDA that run the climate hubs project.

uasdaI was interested in finding out more about this initiative as it is looking at dealing with providing regional information, and targeted resources for farmers to help them adapt their businesses and understand where they may focus efforts.

These Hubs were set up in 2014 to “deliver science based knowledge, practical information and program support to farmers, ranchers, forest landowners and resource managers to make climate informed decisions in light of the increased risk and vulnerabilities associated with a changing climate” (USDA, Climate Hubs Factsheet).

capitol-hillIn the morning I met with  Bill Hohenstein, who heads up the Climate Change programme office for USDA. co-ordinating climate change programme s and activities across a load of different work streams, and then Dan Lawson, who works for NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Services, which seems to be like Natural England, but also dealing with soil, water etc), and Rachel Steele who co-ordinates the climate hubs.

Putting to one side at the moment the potential for change with the current administration, the US is similar to the UK in that agriculture has voluntary targets.

The main policy aim is to integrate climate change mitigation efforts into broader conservation efforts, and to make this more meaningful, they have come up with 10 building blocks for climate smart agriculture. These are:

  • Promotion of wood products
  • Stewardship of Federal forests
  • Livestock partnerships
  • Grazing and pasture lands
  • Conservation of sensitive lands
  • private forest growth and retention
  • Urban forests
  • Nitrogen stewardship
  • soil health
  • Energy generation and efficiency


nathistoryWhat really stood out to me was that this was a collaborative process. The hubs include USDA, NRCS, the Agricultural Research Service, Universities, extension providers and others to provide coordinated action which is adapted to regional conditions and priorities. What also helps is that there is funding (or cost sharing) for farmers to take up certain things under these building blocks. By bringing everyone together round the table, not only do you provide consistent messaging to farmers (everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet) but you include everyone who is talking to farmers, which increases the chance that you are including everything in the discussion.


The other area that I was keen to find out more about was how they were monitoring the success of these programmes. As in the UK, budgets are being squeezed and there is a necessity to demonstrate the value of programmes, in terms of what they are actually doing with farmers, rather than just providing resources, which may (or may not) change farmer’s actions.  This is something that they are starting to look at, looking to find quantitative methods of assessing the impacts of these programmes, and embedding measurable targets in the goals and objectives at the start of the project. They are looking to pull data from surveys that are already underway, to gather information on what farmers are doing and which practices they are changing. It will be interesting to see what develops!

Talking in stories

I then had lunch with Randy Johnson, who was part of the team that set up the climate hubs, but is now the director for Global Climate Change for NIFA (National Institute for Food and Agriculture).  He provides leadership and funding for programmes that advance science. A great character, we spent an hour discussing how to solve the issue, and what he was doing to try and help.  He shared with me his two messages that he had learnt so far:

Facts don’t change beliefs, experiences change beliefs

For every number (or statistic) you give, you have to tell a story. 

He told me about some interesting work that he had commissioned looking at farmer networks, and emphasised that we need to include social scientists in future research to address the very question of behavioural change. He explained, “there are 3 ways you can get farmers to do something, you can regulate, incentivise, or teach.   By tapping into trusted networks, and understanding the social networks that exist you make the job a whole lot easier.”

He also emphasised the need for co-ordnation, but stressed the importance of including farmers in the mix as well. “It’s got to be a team effort, and include co-production of knowledge, if you do that you are halfway there as you are all invested in the solutions. We can’t deal with this big stuff in isolation, we have got to co-produce and work together.”

How do we make it work?

After lunch, and a slightly interesting moment where I was considered a security threat as I was walking around without an escort and had to be named and shamed over the loud speaker, I finished the day meeting with Joel Larson, who also works at USDA. Joel’s focus is on looking at how to use voluntary programs to encourage practices to reduce emissions. We had a great hour discussing how to make these things work in practice, and came up with some interesting conclusions.

Its hard to make the transition – when monitoring of projects has always been done in traditional ways, in terms of number of people trained, number of publications disseminated, its hard to move to a more social system.

It takes flexibility and understanding by the policy makers – monitoring and especially true monitoring that follows farmers up long term is difficult to build into funding proposals because it costs more and is less measurable, and (shock horror) might not deliver. But until we start to try some of this stuff, we are never going to move past the level of understanding that we have now.

The use of technology – sharing information to make it easier. There are a large number of data sets out there, which surely could work together, to avoid duplicate data entry and make everything easier? I know its not without its issues especially around privacy and government agencies having information, but there must be something possible!

So as is normal from a Nuffield trip, head is full up already and its only day 2.  Off to Vermont today to see some farmers, and their annual show (which I am very excited about!) and to visit their Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.


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