UM Research Examines Ways to Make Climate Data More Useful for Farmers and Ranchers

Gathering and analyzing data are critical components in a scientist’s work. But how should researchers share that data with other people? In a recent paper led by doctoral candidate Ada Smith, a team of UM researchers examine the best ways scientists can share climate data with agricultural producers to aid them in decision-making.

Summer cattle move in the Blackfoot Valley, Montana

This research focuses on understanding why climate information is underutilized by agricultural producers in decision making and how information providers, such as the Montana Climate Office, can better meet the needs of Montana producers,” Smith said. “Through talking directly with Montana farmers and ranchers, we highlight some of the fundamental scalar issues – both spatial and temporal – that make climate information challenging for producers to use.”

Social science researchers in the Department of Society and Conservation teamed up with climatologists in the Montana Climate Office to conduct five focus groups with farmers and ranchers across Montana. The conversations revealed problems with how climate information is presented and offered ways scientists can provide information in more useful formats for agricultural producers.

For example, climate information is generally presented at large scales, encompassing regional, national or global level trends or covering long-term time scales, like mid-century climate projections. But agricultural producers felt that climate information provided at shorter time scales – like short-term weather data and seasonal climate forecasts – and given at key decision-making moments was more useful, Smith said.

Producers also described other drivers of decision-making that had little to do with climate information itself, such as a lack of trust in the accuracy and credibility of information sources, the political dimensions of climate change, and a reliance on past experience and day-to-day observations to predict future weather and climate. 

“Given the predicted increase in drought and climate variability in the West, there is a critical need to understand how to provide information at the right scale that can help producers adapt to these challenges,” Smith said. “The meaningful engagement between our team of scientists and Montana farmers and ranchers in this project has shown us the potential for collaborations like this to harness what we know about climate change and make it more actionable for end users.”

The researchers note in the paper, “Science does not speak for itself.”

“I think this research highlights the need and opportunity for scientists and science communicators to get better at interpreting and translating complex climate information,” Smith said. “Here in Montana, where agriculture is such a key industry that supports livelihoods and a wide range of ecosystem services, this kind of research is particularly important in a time of rapid change.”

The paper, “Scalar Mismatches and Underlying Factors for Underutilization of Climate Information: Perspectives From Farmers and Ranchers,” was published in the journal Frontiers in Climate on April 21.

Authors include Ada Smith, Laurie Yung, Adam Snitker, Kyle Bocinsky, Elizabeth Metcalf and Kelsey Jensco.

(Photo: Summer cattle move in the Blackfoot Valley, Montana)