The agricultural sector is dealing with unprecedented challenges in the face of climate change. To shed light on the efforts being made to address these issues, Jenna Walczak, Ag Climate Resiliency Specialist for CCE’s Harvest New York team joined Cornell Cooperative Extension’s (CCE) ‘Extension Out Loud’ podcast for a conversation about helping farmers adapt to the changing climate and build resilience in their agricultural practices.
“Adaptation is the actions that we are taking in response to a changing climate. On farms in New York State, that might mean things like improving water management or soil health to be able to better withstand drought or flooding.”
In this episode, Walczak discusses climate vulnerabilities, strategies for adaptation, and the future landscape of farming in New York. While climate-related challenges affect the entire state, their intensity varies across regions. CCE’s work involves tailoring adaptation strategies to cater to the specific needs of each region, ensuring that farmers receive personalized support.
Walczak underscores the significance of re-establishing connections within agricultural communities and fostering the exchange of knowledge and experiences among farmers. By building stronger social networks, farmers can collectively address climate challenges and enhance their resilience.
“One thing that is important in the agricultural community in terms of building resilience is really developing and continuing to grow social networks.”
CCE plays a pivotal role in bridging the gap between university research and agricultural stakeholders. Specialists like Walczak serve as conduits for translating scientific knowledge into practical applications on farms. Events like the upcoming climate symposium facilitate collaboration among extension agents, researchers, and farmers, enabling them to share ideas and collectively strive toward a more resilient future for agriculture.
PAUL: Welcome to another episode of Extension Out Loud, a podcast from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I'm your host Paul Treadwell. For this episode, I sat down with Jenna Walczak:, the Ag climate resiliency specialist from Cornell Cooperative Extensions Harvest New York team. Our conversation focuses on the ever-evolving climate challenges confronting the agricultural sector in New York. We also discussed the work of Cornell Cooperative Extension in facilitating innovation and collaboration to support adaptation, and climate resiliency and agricultural practices.
JENNA: My name is Jenna, and I am an Ag Climate Resiliency Specialist on the Cornell Cooperative Extension Harvest New York Team.
PAUL: Welcome, Jenna. It's nice to meet you here. When we're looking at New York State, what are the main climate vulnerabilities farmers are currently facing?
JENNA: So there are a number of vulnerabilities or what are referred to as climate risks that are outlined in a 2014 report that's often called the ClimAID Report, and some of these include things like temperature, extreme heat, and more frequent and longer heatwaves are definitely of concern and something we already been seeing.
Another risk is related to precipitation. It's projected that in the coming decades we might be seeing more precipitation over the course of one year but that this precipitation will likely be falling in more extreme rainfall events where we're getting more than 1 or 2 inches in a 24-hour period.
Some other kind of risks or roller abilities are related to increased instances of diseases and things like that, so possibly more generations of an agricultural pest in one season.
PAUL: Given the fact that New York State is a large and geographically diverse State, do the climate vulnerabilities vary by region of the state, or is it pretty consistent across New York State?
JENNA: I think it's likely fair to say that every region will be seeing changes as a result of climate change but that the extent of those kind of risks or vulnerabilities may be different slightly from one region to another in the state.
But there are certain risks, things like sea level rise, that will be seen in the Hudson Valley or around New York City that won't be a problem in Central New York.
PAUL: At the outset of our conversation, can you just talk a little bit about the difference between climate and weather?
JENNA: Weather is often thought of as something that we are seeing from day to day in the shorter term sense while climate is the patterns that are happening over longer periods of time.
PAUL: Playing this out theoretically, we could-- for the climate, we could be experiencing a wetter climate, but we could have weather events that are droughts?
JENNA: Absolutely, absolutely, and I think an important piece related to that is with those climate projections that I was mentioning earlier that are outlined in the 2014 ClimAID Report is that along with that description of possible wetter years, more precipitation in one year, there's also likelihood or increased chance of short-term drought in the later summer.
PAUL: In your role, you talk a lot about climate adaptation. Can you describe for us what climate adaptation means? What is it? What does it look like in practice?
JENNA: Adaptation is the actions that we are taking in response to a changing climate, whether it is seeing more extreme precipitation or short-term drought or extreme heat. It's the actions that we're taking across the state and across sectors of the economy or particularly in agriculture to meet those challenges.
So on farms in New York State, that might mean things like improving water management or soil health in order to be able to better withstand drought or flooding. For our perennial cropping and trees, cropping systems, that might mean things like hail netting to try to avert the worst impacts of those events.
PAUL: How do you get the word out, and how do people begin to understand the challenges they're faces and then-- they're facing and then change their practices? Is there a particular method you have, or is there a better way to approach this work?
JENNA: Yeah I think what I'll say from my experience in my role in this position for about a year and a half now is I've been working to-- working with fellow Extension agents and technical service providers and especially farmers and others working in the natural resource field across New York State to build a common knowledge and a common understanding of some of the things that we've been talking about today, what the impacts of climate change will look like in New York State, many of which we're already seeing, as well as what the practical and the adaptation actions and climate mitigation actions that farmers can take as well as citizens and community members.
PAUL: So we know that farming is, at best, a dodgy business. It has a lot of risks and variabilities, whether it's crops or pests or livestock, financial issues. You throw the variable weather that we're experiencing into that. What are some of the fundamental things or fundamental practices that can be done to make a farm more resilient or more adaptable?
JENNA: In terms of resilience and adaptation, there are a lot of practices related to improving soil health and generally on-farm, other practices related to things like on-farm energy efficiency. Or as I mentioned earlier, water management can also take a number of forms on-farm, yeah, and some of the practices do vary based on the type of cropping system going on at an individual farm.
PAUL: You mentioned energy efficiency, and one thing this-- this is to the side of our main conversation, but one of the things that we're starting to see is the transition of some traditional agricultural land into solar farms. Can you talk a little bit about the trade-offs or the costs and benefits of taking some land and setting it aside for solar production?
JENNA: New York State has pretty ambitious goals in terms of renewable energy production, and part of that is increasing the amount of solar energy. So there have been a lot of conversations going on about how to best locate solar panels and taking into account the fact that we have certain areas of New York State that are prime agricultural land or prime agricultural soils. So there are now a lot of people doing work on the best use or siting of our land, which is really great and really important work.
But there's also a lot of exciting projects going on about co-locating solar agriculture through things like agrivoltaics. Solar grazing is something that is increasing in interest and awareness among farmers in Extension, and then there's also ideas about growing tree crops or perennial crops or other vegetable and agricultural crops under solar panels and a lot of really exciting work going on about that.
PAUL: I just have to ask because it sounds so cool. Solar grazing-- is it as simple as having your goats or your cows out grazing in fields with elevated solar panels, or is it something else?
JENNA: Oftentimes it's a sheep grazing under solar panels in New York State, and yeah, I've heard a little bit about different organizations working on training programs. There are specific challenges that I think one would face grazing animal [? grazing ?] area and solar panels related to maintenance and rotational grazing, grazing time, and things like that. And exciting to see the work being done there.
PAUL: Yeah, and it just sounds so cool. But anyways, if we're looking at being climate-resilient or these adaptation practices, what support is available to help farmers or producers who are building resiliency and adaptation into their processes and practices?
JENNA: For that education piece, there are county and regional team Extension agents across New York State working on a variety of climate-related topics, everything from silvopasture and agroforestry to rotational grazing, increasing soil health, you name it. There's a lot of expertise in New York State, so that's that educational piece.
And then as farmers are interested in implementing specific projects on their farm, they are able to connect to either the Soil and Water Conservation District in their County for specific climate related grant programs as well as the Natural Resources Conservation Service in their region to connect to some of those federal funding programs as well.
PAUL: To follow up on that, we have talked about educational and economic supports that are available. Is there support for farmers or producers who are coping with the social and emotional impacts of climate-related stressors? That's a whole other layer on top of the normal things. Do we have access to resources that will help them cope with that?
JENNA: Yes. In New York State, we are very fortunate to have a New York FarmNet, which runs an awesome group of both farm business, financial, and then mental health consultants across New York State and working with farmers and able to provide assistance in everything from business planning, succession planning to on-farm stresses that farmers and farm families and farm service providers are facing, which definitely may be increasing or overlapping due to climate concerns.
PAUL: So that leads me to a follow-up question that you personally and folks who are in positions like yours who are doing this work-- that it has a certain weight involved, a certain heaviness to the topic. How do you maintain your well being while you're dealing with this very heavy subject?
JENNA: I would say during the work day definitely connecting to colleagues and others who are doing similar work or able to express and share the challenges. And then outside of that, I enjoy spending time outdoors, so whenever I can get outside, hiking or biking or sitting by the Hudson River, that's what I enjoy.
PAUL: So in a prior conversation we had, we talked a little bit and we brushed on this topic of peer support amongst farmers in dealing with these things. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JENNA: Absolutely. I think one thing that is important in the agricultural community in terms of building resilience is really developing and continuing to grow and develop social networks, so whether that's farmers meeting one another and learning from one another, collaborating on projects, or farmers connecting to service providers, whether that's local Extension agents or Soil and Water Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service, or other agricultural nonprofits in the area.
And I think everyone who's working in the agricultural field just being aware of the services, educational events, financial supports available to them, and I think that can help farmers especially be able to access resources to preemptively prevent any sort of climate-related challenges on-farm, or in the unfortunate event that they do face an extreme weather event that might cause damage on their farm, that they know who to turn to get help as soon as possible.
PAUL: Yeah, and that, to me, is particularly interesting because that kind of calls back to-- the way things used to be, agricultural communities, farming communities used to be fairly tightly-knit, and there was a lot of-- I guess I would call it mutual aid that would happen amongst farmers. And so even under this-- due to the situation, but one of the positives is the reweaving of some of this connectedness we used to have in our agricultural communities.
And so Jenna, I understand that there is a climate symposium coming up in November at the CCE Agricultural In-Service. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is and what's going to be discussed at the symposium?
JENNA: Yeah, so on November 9, the last day of this year's in-service on Cornell's campus, we will have a climate symposium, and it's really geared towards all CCE Extension agents and county-based regional team as well as Cornell faculty and staffs and agricultural stakeholders across the state.
And the goal is really for everyone to have a chance to meet one another and connect and share the climate-related programming and education and research that they're working on and hopefully from there, to be able to, again, develop networks and learn who our colleagues are who we can connect to for future projects and programming. It's really supposed to be a start of this sort of work.
PAUL: So if I'm at home listening to this and I'm not associated with Cooperative Extension, if I'm a farmer who's curious, can I participate in the symposium?
JENNA: Yes. The event is open to the public as well, and I should also mention that for the first kind of half of the day, there'll be a virtual option for attendees as well.
PAUL: And how do people find out about this if they're interested?
JENNA: There is information on the in-service website.
PAUL: And we'll be sure to link to that in our show notes so that people can find that. One thing that just popped into my head as we were talking here is we have Cornell Cooperative Extension. You're out there doing the work. The in-service is happening, and that's on campus at Cornell. And you're going to have Cornell faculty and staff showing up. Can you talk about the relationship between the university and Extension and then how the benefits of university research might flow through you to our stakeholders?
JENNA: Absolutely, yeah. So there is a lot of work going on, a lot of research being done on campus at Cornell related to mitigating climate change on agricultural and forested and working regions across New York State, and out on farms across New York State is where we're really seeing a lot of the impacts of climate change.
And I think the role of Extension is to really connect those two, so to help express the needs of farmers and landowners in New York State to research being done at the university and vice versa to share that research being done at the university with farmers across the state. So it is really an exciting position to be in, yeah, to amplify that research and that work being done.
PAUL: So I have two last questions for you here, and I'm going to ask the more pessimistic one. First, so what do you see as the biggest barriers to progress when we talk about climate adaptation and farms?
JENNA: One barrier I would say is the fact that there is often a high cost to some kind of adaptation and mitigation projects, but the good news there is that there is a lot of funding available from both the state level in New York as well as from the federal level coming down from the USDA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service that is specifically geared to go to farmers to help them to implement climate mitigation and adaptation practices, so there's good news there.
I'd say another challenge is the fact that there are a number of people or farmers, gardeners who are interested in having agricultural production systems that are sustainable and resilient but they don't yet have access to land and resources in order to be able to pursue those agricultural operations.
PAUL: And just to follow up a little bit on the funding issue, how do people find out about funding that's available at the state or federal level?
JENNA: It's great to have a conversation with your county Soil and Water Conservation District staff or the regional Natural Resources Conservation Service technicians in your area as well because there can be a number of steps you have to go to before you can apply for the grant programs. But then those service providers are able to help guide you through that process.
PAUL: So my final question for you, on a more upbeat note, is, in the realm that you're working in climate and resiliency and adaptation, what makes you hopeful for the future?
JENNA: A couple of things. I would say one of the things that gives me hope is the youth engagement in climate and environmental issues and in all the energy. Yeah, definitely a lot of hope there.
And another is the community-based organizations and programs that are already at work on climate issues across New York State and leading the charge
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