Comparing Climate Change Communications Across Maine Wild Blueberry, Apple, and Potato Growing Communities
By Sarah Marcotte
In the face of changing climate, adaptations to agricultural systems are necessary to ensure the resilience of our food systems. Despite the increasing urgency for these measures, multiple barriers exist which prevent growers from adopting adaptive practices. Political tensions and attitudes of skepticism amongst growers have created challenges in communicating climate information, which has prompted research into methods of communication that more effectively promote understanding between growers and educational organizations. The focus of this study was to determine whether differences in communication methods by University of Maine Cooperative Extension to Maine growers could, in part, account for an increased level of concern about climate change amongst Maine wild blueberry and apple growers as compared to potato growers (Jemison et al. 2014). Written online content produced or recommended by Cooperative Extension was analyzed to determine how these sources discussed climate change. Only 3% of the available content mentioned climate change. 8 sources, written for wild blueberry and apple growers, mentioned climate change explicitly; no sources for potato growers addressed climate change. Interviews conducted with six Cooperative Extension specialists found that Extension uses a variety of outreach methods to reach growers and emphasizes grower-to-grower information flow as an important communication strategy. There were many different definitions of successful communication; some Extension agents felt that the goal of climate communication was to share information and create understanding, while others felt that the goal was to promote the adoption of adaptive practices. Most of the reasoning used by the interviewees to promote or justify adaptation was focused on the economy and profit. The results of this study suggest that the differences in Extension communication is not a significant factor contributing to differences in climate perceptions amongst Maine growers. More research into the role of Extension in climate communication networks is necessary.
Agriculture in Maine faces new challenges as a result of climate change. Warmer winters, increased spring rainfall, and summer droughts have been documented and are projected to worsen (Fernandez et al. 2020). These issues could create or exacerbate challenges with pests, disease, and weather damage in crops (Fernandez et al. 2020). Because of these challenges, it is essential that growers adapt their practices to protect the productivity and longevity of their operations. However, there are numerous barriers that present challenges to adoption of new climate change adaptation strategies by growers.
The short-term risks associated with market pressures and economics are often more concerning to farmers than the future risks associated with climate change (Takahashi et al. 2016). Farmers have noted that the costs to make changes to their practices (Schattman et al. 2019; Takahashi et al. 2016), as well as initially reduced yield and profit as the result of adopting sustainable management practices (Carolan 2006) are concerns that prevent them from implementing new practices. Additionally, farmers have reported difficulties in choosing management practices that respond to the short-term challenges while also preparing their operations to be resilient to long-term changes (Takahashi et al. 2016).
In addition to economic and logistical hurdles facing growers, attitudes of skepticism amongst farmers towards climate science and government can also present barriers to climate change adaptation in agriculture. Studies in several locations show that growers are typically aware that climate and weather patterns are changing, but are often skeptical or unsure whether this is due to human activity (Arbuckle, Morton, and Hobbs 2015; Jemison et al. 2014; Evans, Storer, and Wardell-Johnson 2011). Some believe that climate change is being used by scientists to secure funding and by politicians to control rural populations, which creates hesitance to commit to climate change action (Evans, Storer, and Wardell-Johnson 2011; Carolan 2019). Additionally, climate change communication in the United States is difficult in general because of the highly politicized nature of this issue (Van Boven, Ehret, and Sherman 2018). The political tension associated with the term “climate change” has led researchers and communicators to use alternative terms to avoid triggering politicized responses from growers (Jemison et al. 2014), but concerns have been raised that relying on terms such as “variable weather” and “changing weather patterns” when what is really being discussed by Extension or other science communicators is climate change could erode trust between researchers, educators, and growers (Tobin et al. 2017).
The challenges in communicating with growers that present these attitudes have prompted researchers to seek communication methods that promote understanding and encourage environmentally conscious practices. A study of climatologists from the North central region of the United States found that they were likely to consider their role in climate change decision-making processes to be the “pure scientist” and to avoid drawing connections between climate science and social and political issues (Wilke and Morton 2014). This study suggests that scientists could have a more positive impact on decision-making processes if they adopt the role of an “honest broker” who explains to decision-makers the pros and cons of all available strategies in the context of climate science so they can better understand the consequences of different approaches (Wilke and Morton 2014). Research also suggests that types of communication with growers that activate a “conservationist” identity that values long-term goals of protecting and improving their land are more effective in getting farmers to adopt adaptive practices than communication styles that activate a “productivist” identity that values high yield and high profits (Morton, Mcguire, and Cast 2017).
Cooperative Extension, a national educational organization operated through public land grant universities, has a unique role in conveying research-based climate information to growers. Concerns have been raised from Cooperative Extension educators and specialists in the Northeast climate hub that their programs struggle to engage growers in discussions on the necessity of implementing adaptive and mitigative practices (Tobin et al. 2017). Providing more in-depth training to Cooperative Extension educators on the economics of adaptation and creating cost-benefit analysis tools were suggested as possible solutions (Diehl et al. 2018; Tobin et al. 2017). Peer-to-peer communication between growers about newly adopted methods has also been suggested as a way to promote greater adoption of climate adaptation practices (Jemison et al. 2014). Additionally, a study conducted in the Midwestern US found that Cooperative Extension was a trusted source of climate information for private agricultural advisors, suggesting that Extension could have important indirect impacts on knowledge sharing and decision-making processes (Prokopy et al. 2015).
In previous research, wild blueberry growers and apple growers in Maine have both been reported to be particularly aware of and concerned about Maine’s changing climate, whereas those in other industries such as dairy and potatoes are less aware of and concerned about climate change (Jemison et al. 2014). The primary research question of this project was whether differences in communication by Cooperative Extension to wild blueberry, apple, and potato growers could, in part, explain these differences in perceptions. In addition to this primary goal, the analysis of interviews and Cooperative Extension materials lead to a broader focus on the role of Cooperative Extension in climate communication. These three crops were selected because all are input-intensive crops typically grown in monoculture and all have designated University of Maine Cooperative Extension branches and University of Maine research stations, so as to minimize differences between groups. The results of this work are intended to serve as preliminary results for further investigation.
Content Analysis of Outreach Material
Outreach material targeted or designed for each of the three types of crops (apple, wild blueberry, and potato) were assessed using a quantitative content analysis approach. The types of materials analyzed were factsheets, reports, newsletters, handbooks, PowerPoint presentations, and web pages on each of the respective crop’s University of Maine Cooperative Extension websites. These types of materials were selected as the focus of this study because they offered a large collection of recorded Extension communication over a range of many years, and because other forms of outreach, such as farm visits or conferences, were more difficult to access when this study took place because of Covid-19 restrictions. The Extension websites often had links to resources created by other institutions, such as Extension agencies from other states or growers’ associations. In these cases, the material was collected and analyzed if the link led to a specific page or collection of information. If the link led to a more general page, such as the front page of another Extension agency website, then the name of the site was recorded, but the content was not analyzed. The year of publication or revision and the length of the source were recorded. For the content written for apple growers, many of the sources focused more generally on tree fruits including, for example, pears and plums. These sources were still included and analyzed. Some interviewees recommended or sent resources that they use with growers that were not included on the Cooperative Extension website, which were also analyzed.
All of the content was read and sorted into two groups: those that explicitly mentioned climate change and those that did not. The sources that explicitly mentioned climate change were further analyzed to determine: 1) what kinds of values or reasonings the source used to advocate for climate change action; 2) how the source referred to government and policy; and 3) what kinds of uncertainty the source expressed about the climate future. There were three sources that focused mainly on non-climate related topics but mentioned climate change in some sections of the work. In those cases, the section of the source that discussed climate change was coded, but the rest of the source was not.
Interviews with Cooperative Extension Educators
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with six Extension agents, two per each crop studied. These six agents were selected through the Cooperative Extension directory and from recommendations from key informants. The interviews were conducted and recorded using Zoom, transcribed using the built-in Otter.ai service, and then manually checked for errors. The interviews were coded. The goal of the interviews was to assess: 1) what communication methods Cooperative Extension educators think are most engaging to growers; 2) what information about climate change they think is most relevant for growers; 3) what perceptions they have of grower’s motivations to adopt climate adaptations; and 4) what kinds of reasonings they used to justify adopting adaptive practices. The interviews took place in July 2020 and ranged between 15 to 50 minutes.
235 sources were collected from the Cooperative Extension websites. 66 sources were written for blueberry growers, 68 were written for potato growers, and 101 were written for apple and tree fruit growers. Of these sources, 8 explicitly mentioned climate change, 3 of which were written for blueberry growers and 5 for apple growers. None of the sources used an alternative term, such as “variable weather” or “increased weather variability,” in a way that referred to climate change. The sources that mentioned climate change were a combination of handbooks, research reports, checklists, and PowerPoint presentations. Excluding the PowerPoint presentations, the average length of these sources was 55.4 pages.
Table 1. Overview of all sources.
|Number mentioning topics relating to climate change
|Number mentioning climate change
Table 2. Overview of climate change sources.
|Year of pub.
|Whole source coded?
|Farming for Bees: Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms
|Mace Vaughan et al
|Bees and their habitats in four New England states
|Alison Dibble et al
|Status of Bees
|Self study checklist: Climate Adaptation Fellowship Fruit Tree Module
|Recent and Near‐future Climate Trends Important to Tree Fruit Production in the Northeastern U.S
|Farmer response to changing weather: Adaptation
|Farmer response to changing weather: Change is in the air
|Curriculum Guide for “Changing Weather Challenges and Adaptation Strategies for Northeastern U.S. Tree Fruit Growers”
The majority of sources that discussed climate change prioritized communicating region specific climate data over global climate data, although global climate data was sometimes used to contextualize climate data specific to Maine, New England, or the Northeastern climate hub.
The sources had a strong focus on the economics of climate change and adaptation with few mentions of the impacts that climate change may have on communities or society. The sources described what the environmental impacts of climate change could be, but these details were typically framed as ways climate change could impact production and profits. Some examples of different types of value statements are included below:
“This curriculum is focused on maintaining a profitable tree fruit orchard, not changing the whole world.” (Climate Adaptation Fellowship — Self Study Checklist)
“The value of perennial specialty crops is derived from not only the tonnage but also the quality of the harvested product, for example the size of a peach, the red blush on an apple, or the bouquet of a red wine produced from a particular vineyard.” (Climate Adaptation Fellowship — Recent and Near‐future Climate Trends Important to Tree Fruit Production in the Northeastern U.S.)
“Recognize that when you link your pollinator habitat to that of your neighbors, you create an entire farm community that ensures abundant crop yields for itself, that is resilient to changes in climate or honey bee availability, and that is a beautiful place to live.” (Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms)
“Perennial specialty crops have reduced yield and quality in association with water deficits, and reduced profits as a result.” (Climate Adaptation Fellowship — Recent and Near‐future Climate Trends Important to Tree Fruit Production in the Northeastern U.S.)
Of the eight sources that explicitly mentioned climate change, the three sources written for blueberry growers focused on bees and pollination. These described changes in pollinator distribution and behavior due to climate change and did not make any mentions of government or policy. The five sources written for apple growers were part of the Climate Adaptation Fellowship curriculum designed to help fruit tree growers in New England run resilient and profitable operations in the face of climate change. The guide to this curriculum stated that “by staying away from polemical debate and focusing on curriculum content, the workshop leaders can avoid engaging filters that can distort communication, block free exchange of ideas, and interfere with incorporating information into decisions.” All subsequent mentions of government or policy were to existing agencies, such as the National Resource Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture, and Farm Service Agency.
Sources acknowledged uncertainty in climate predictions and informed readers of the limitations of the predictions that they cited. One Climate Adaptation Fellowship source noted that although there is uncertainty, “you make decisions and act under uncertainty every day.” The sources written for blueberry growers, which were focused on bees, did not mention the causes of climate change. The sources written for apple growers stated that “addressing climate change at the global scale or the reasons why it is happening are not pertinent topics for this curriculum.” No source expressed uncertainty about the causes of climate change; this topic was either not mentioned or explicitly defined as non-topical for the source.
Interviewees were asked what types of communication techniques they used to reach growers and what they thought successful results of that communication looked like. All interviewees said that they used a variety of outreach strategies, including farm visits, one-on-one consultations, fact sheets, newsletters, hotlines, conferences, field days, research reports, websites, and videos. Many interviewees expressed the importance of grower-to-grower communication in spreading information throughout the grower community:
“When they go out to the farm day, they’re not only going out to listen to you, they’re going out to talk to their neighbors [and] find out what’s happening in their fields.”
“There are people in every industry that other people look to like, oh, these people are on the cutting edge. You get them on board, people will listen to them.”
“A lot of farmers will only start doing a new practice if another farmer says they tried it and it worked. There’s this network between farmers, and as Extension folks, we know this all too well. We’ll work with one farmer and then in doing that, like having a research project on their farm, they see the impact that that material or whatever it is, actually changed or improved the situation. So, then they will recommend that to their peers.”
In addition to highlighting the importance of grower-to-grower communication, many interviewees expressed the importance of grower-to-Extension communication, as well as their confidence in the growers and their expertise:
“And I think the potato growers that are still in the game are very, very, very savvy growers. They really know what they’re doing. They are on all aspects of it. And certainly soil, they recognize as being an important thing.”
“[Growers] are the smartest people ever. They are so smart and very intuitive.”
“If I’m having a conversation with somebody, I’m listening and I’m learning something from them because they are experts on their property and their crops. So, I treat them like the experts, and I gain their respect that way, and then I’m able to mention something that might be of help to them. So, I pick something out from what they’re explaining and suggest a solution”
“So those are some things that I have learned from growers. The biggest thing I’ve learned was how much growers are recognizing this intensive rain problem and that’s kind of new from before.”
Most definitions of successful communication included a goal of educating growers and presenting them with solutions to climate-related issues that their operations might be facing. Some interviewees placed emphasis on offering multiple solutions and allowing growers to determine what solutions make the most sense for them. Some examples of definitions of successful outreach are included below:
“But I would say success would be that a grower that wasn’t doing [irrigation] decides they need it and are willing to go and try to get NRCS or USDA to help support that investment.”
“Success is just giving them the information they need to deal with the problem and fix it by themselves.”
“So that’s really the successful piece, relating it to actual events that are affecting them and having negative outcomes. So, some of the positive outcomes are nice, but then again, the negative outcomes negate them completely.”
When asked what information was most essential for growers to make informed decisions about their management practices, most responses mentioned current and future weather data, the development of new adaptation techniques, the costs of implementing new adaptive practices, and having places to access assistance. Interviewees expressed the need for better long-term forecasting tools to help growers determine when to use different techniques or practices to prevent damage from different weather events such as heavy rain, drought, or frost:
“The cost is a big one. Whatever it be. The efficacy, so does it work? Under what conditions does it work?”
“I think it’s not anything specific to any particular problem but being able to have some expertise that they can contact immediately and help them deal with the problems that are occurring in the immediate season.”
“One of the things that myself and farmers would love to have would be a better long-term forecast. That would actually give us time to react to bad weather events.”
“They’re all looking for, you know, great methods to tell them when to go irrigate now say, well, at this point, we just don’t got it, but you just got to go out there and feel your soil and look at the forecast and do the best you can to develop a system that works for you.”
Most interviews had an emphasis on the economic aspects of farming operations, discussing things such as the financial impact of climate-related crop damage and loss, the costs of climate change adaptation, and grower concerns about their financial situations. There were many statements made about the necessity of tying sustainability to profitability and economic vitality:
“I think they respond more to other problems like lack of a strong market. That seems to direct them far more than concerns about climate change.”
“You got to make profitability, sustainability. That’s the big buzzword. I had a grower say to me the other day, if it’s not profitable, it’s not sustainable, you know? You can talk about water ditch diversions and everything else all day long. But if I’m not making money, it’s pointless. You know, I got to make money. I can’t live for nothing.”
“They’re really concerned with production and low prices and even having someone take over the fields. You know, if the economic climate isn’t good, then those fields get bought up by other people managing them.”
During these conversations, some interviewees expressed concerns about the politicization of climate change issues. These comments were often accompanied with concerns that those beliefs would be inappropriate to express, either to the growers or within the context of the interview. These comments centered around the idea that politically charged discourse and media create barriers to climate change literacy and action, for both growers and the country as a whole. Exact quotes on this topic were not included to protect the privacy and respect the wishes of the participants.
The interviewees were asked whether they used the term “climate change” when discussing management practices with growers or if they used other terms that had less political association. Of the 6 participants, 3 said that they openly used the term climate change, 2 said that they typically avoid using the term “climate change” in favor of terms such as “weather variability” or “increasingly variable weather patterns,” and 1 said that they did not talk about climate change with growers directly as a part of their job but would use the term “climate change” if they were having a casual discussion.
The original research question for this project was whether the differences in grower perceptions of climate change amongst wild blueberry, apple, and potato growers reported by Jemison et. al, 2014 were due in part to differences in the types of resources and language used to communicate to these three groups by Cooperative Extension. In the written content, there were no sources relating to climate change written for potato growers, whereas there were sources written for wild blueberry and apple growers. While this could be one factor contributing to the difference in receptiveness between potato growers and the two groups of fruit growers, it seems unlikely considering that only 8 sources out of all 235 sources available to growers mentioned climate change at all, meaning that low rates of discussion about climate change in written sources was common across all groups. It is possible that further study into other avenues of communication, such as farm visits and grower conferences, could yield different results.
In the interviews, many of the same issues (i.e., drought and unpredictable heavy rainfall) were mentioned by most or all of the people interviewed, and many of the same adaptive strategies (i.e., irrigation and drainage) were mentioned as responses to these problems. From this evidence, it seems that despite the differences in each crop’s physiology, most of the climate impacts that these crops face are very similar. From the data collected in this study, the style or method of communicating with growers does not seem to be a large contributing factor to their likeliness to adopt adaptive strategies or seek out climate change information.
Economics was cited as a major driver for climate change adaptations from Extension professionals. While this does acknowledge the importance of profit in sustaining growing operations, it is also unclear whether this focus on profitability leads to efficient adoption of adaptive practices. Using language that activates “productivist” mindsets that focus on short-term profits rather than long-term goals of sustainability have been found to reduce the likelihood that growers will adopt adaptive practices (Morton 2017). While the economic aspects of growing are important and could be compelling reasons to adopt new practices, it is possible that a broader focus on the social aspects of climate impacts and adaptation could have benefits in some cases. More research is necessary to determine what types of language surrounding profitability activate mindsets that hinder adaptation versus those that promote adaptation in order to use this language effectively.
The politicization of climate change presents issues for communicating climate change predictions, impacts, and adaptive or mitigative practices. The written content that focused on climate change as its main topic defined its focus as the adaptive strategies that tree fruit growers could adopt to address climate impacts to improve their resilience and profitability, and explicitly stated that it would not address the causes of climate change because of the political nature of that topic. Instead, the goal was to create actionable goals that all growers, regardless of their beliefs about anthropogenic climate change, could use to create profitable operations.
Similarly, in interviews, the interviewees expressed concerns about the politicization of climate change information. Despite acknowledging climate change as a reality supported by research-based information, interviewees felt as though other types of media had influenced public opinion about climate change, which affected their ability to freely have discussions with growers about this topic. Interviewees indicated that engaging with politics and worldviews was not an aspect of their job or the role of Extension, so despite their feelings about these communication barriers, they did not feel it was appropriate for them to address them.
A large question raised by these results is what is the role of Cooperative Extension in communicating climate change information in places where this issue moves beyond research-based findings into social impacts and policy? The official role of Extension is to deliver research-based information to the public, meaning that their ability to engage with some of the barriers to adaptation, such as political bias and division, is significantly limited by the nature of their role in communication. Additionally, Extension’s apolitical positions on these topics is a source of credibility for many growers, meaning that attempts by Extension to engage in conversation outside of their research-based knowledge sharing could erode growers’ trust. However, Extension is considered a trusted source of information by other private organizations who may have more leeway to have broader conversations about worldviews and politics, meaning that communication flow between Extension and other organizations could be important in promoting effective knowledge sharing. Investigation into Extension’s position in a larger communication network could prove to be useful in determining how to spread information and address communication barriers.
This study was designed as preliminary research for larger future projects. Thus, this study is limited in its sample sizes and the scope of its investigation but adds to the discussion about communication with growers about climate change adaptation. Only written Extension materials were included in the content analysis and only adaptive practices were discussed during interviews with Extension professionals. While these are not necessarily limitations, it should be noted that an examination of all outreach efforts and discussions of both adaptive and mitigative practices could reveal deeper insights into the intricacies of climate communication by Cooperative Extension and differences between the three groups studied that were not found with this research design.
No significant difference was found in the communication methods used by different crop specialists, suggesting that differences in perceptions amongst Maine growers noted by Jemison et al. 2014 is due to other factors beyond communication methods. It was found that economics was used as the most frequent justification for climate adaptation in Extension material and by Extension professionals. Because of previous research suggesting that some economic terminology or framing may hinder adoption of adaptive practices, more research is needed to determine how this use of economic reasoning shapes the understandings between Extension and growers on climate issues. A major barrier identified through this research was political responses towards climate issues. Climate change is a complex topic that encompasses many aspects of the environment, society, and economics. Because Extension’s role is to communicate research-based information to growers, they may not be the most suited organization to approach the social beliefs surrounding climate change in their communication with growers. Because of this, it may be necessary to look for other organizations who have a more appropriate role for addressing the social values that affect willingness to engage with discussions of climate change, and research how cooperation between these organizations and Extension could promote better awareness and understanding of the risks that climate change poses to agriculture in Maine.
This research was done for the Sustainable Food Systems Research Collaborative between the University of Maine and College of The Atlantic. This project was funded by United States Department of Agriculture – National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA), project number 2007-69006-26573.
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