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Agricultural Extension and Climate Change Communication

Summary and Keywords

Agricultural extension has evolved over the last 200 years from a system of top-down dissemination of information from experts to farmers to a more complex system, in which a diversity of knowledge producers and farmers work together to co-produce information. Following a detailed history of the evolution of extension in the United States, this article describes an example from the southeastern United States that illustrates how innovative institutional arrangements enable land-grant universities to actively engage farmers and extension agents as key partners in the knowledge generation process. A second U.S. example shows that private retailers are more influential than extension in influencing large-scale farmers’ farm management decisions in the midwestern United States. However, these private retailers trust extension as a source of climate change information and thus partnerships are important for extension. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been an important source of extension services for smallholder farmers across the world, and examples from the NGO CARE indicate that a participatory and facilitative approach works well for climate change communication. Collectively, these examples emphasize that the role of agricultural extension in climate change communication is essential in the context of both developed and developing countries and with both smallholder farmers and large-scale farmers. These case studies illustrate the effectiveness of a co-production approach, the importance of partners and donors, and the changing landscape of agricultural extension delivery.

Keywords: agriculture, outreach, stakeholders, climate change, communication, extension, agricultural advisory services


Since the 19th century, agricultural extension has helped farmers improve their profitability, minimize their environmental footprint, and feed their families and the world. While agriculture has always been a challenging profession, with farmers at the whim of government regulations, trade agreements, uncooperative weather, and changing consumer preferences, climate change arguably poses the greatest challenge yet. Agricultural extension has a critical role to play in helping farmers adapt to climate change. Consistent with other work in this arena, extension is broadly defined in this article and can be initiated by universities, government agencies, nongovernment or nonprofit agencies and the private sector. It is increasingly recognized that extension is pluralistic and extension services are often provided by numerous entities working cooperatively (Birner et al., 2006). This has led to some calls to rename agricultural extension as “agricultural advisory services” to be more inclusive than extension has been in the past (Birner et al., 2006, p. 11).

The basic purpose of extension is to relay “relevant and useful information” to adult populations (Jones & Garforth, 1997). Historically, this largely one-way dissemination of information from elite experts to the largely uneducated populace fulfilled important needs. However, as societies and issues evolved, it is now recognized that co-production between extension and farmers is a more effective means of producing actionable information (Jones & Garforth, 1997).

This article first explores the history and functions of agricultural extension in the United States as this has historically been regarded as the model extension program for the rest of the world. It then provides two examples of climate change communication through extension in the United States. It then briefly reviews the history of agricultural extension in the developing world, followed by an example of how a prominent international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that is fighting global poverty is communicating about climate change. The article concludes with general lessons learned through the provided examples about extension and climate change communication.

Extension Approaches for Climate Change in the United States

In this section, we examine the U.S. model of agricultural extension and its potential to assist farmers in adapting to climate change. We review the history of American agricultural extension and share two case studies focusing on row crop agricultural systems in the southeastern and midwestern United States.

History of American Agricultural Extension

The U.S. model of extension has had remarkable success in serving farmers and the agricultural industries during its first century. With the help of land-grant universities and extension, American agriculture has faced and met many challenges—two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl era, as well as adaptation to industrialized farming. Three primary characteristics of the U.S. extension system have shaped its ability to engage farmers and other stakeholders in efforts to maintain ecosystem services in the face of climate change. First, U.S. agricultural extension has cultural roots in the European Enlightenment belief that science, agriculture, and education are cornerstones of a vibrant democracy. Second, extension was formed, and still exists today, as a boundary organization, with many groups vying for ownership over its agenda. Finally, U.S. agricultural extension maintains an ongoing creative tension between its university research and public service missions.

Roots in the Enlightenment

Leaders in the movement for American independence from Great Britain, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, were students of the European Age of Enlightenment. All three placed high value on scientific agriculture as the primary means for growing a prosperous democracy. After the American Revolutionary War, agricultural societies and clubs similar to those already established in Europe were founded to test, improve, and teach farming methods. The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (still in existence today) and the South Carolina Society for Promoting and Improving Agricultural and Other Rural Concerns were both organized in 1785. These societies, and agricultural education efforts in general, were bolstered by robust patriotism and renewed energy after the United States gained its independence from Great Britain (Fletcher, 1959).

For over 100 years, agriculture remained the dominant industry and social reality for most U.S. citizens. In 1850, as the country was sliding toward civil war, 64% of the U.S. labor force worked on farms and 80% of total exports were farm products (Rasmussen, 1989). Although new fertile lands were being settled, lands that had been under cultivation for decades were wearing out. A combined interest in the economy and concern for the rural working class in the United States1 led to the passage of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which granted federal land2 for states to establish the first and second wave of land-grant universities in the country. The accompanying Hatch Act of 1887 created agricultural experiment stations to conduct and promote agricultural research. These laws generated a robust public university system that is well positioned to support and advise farmers. However, for universities to be the primary extender of agricultural research to farmers, they needed to prove their worth.

The Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, organized in 1792, was one of the first to reach beyond aristocratic farmers in order to increase adoption of best practices of the day. The first agricultural fairs were promoted in Massachusetts by the Berkshire Agricultural Society and its founder, Elkanah Watson (Rasmussen, 1989). Events in the form of county fairs, farm progress/technology events, and trade shows are still widely used today to spread the word about the latest in agricultural methods and technologies.

The idea of “farmer institutes,” where professors and farmers would travel to meet with farm families was proposed by Edmund Hitchcock of Amherst College in the early 1850s and sponsored by the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture in the early 1860s (Rasmussen, 1989). Another important early innovation in democratizing education was realized by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver’s 1899 development of a demonstration wagon that brought new equipment, seeds, and methods right to farmers’ fields (Campbell, 1936).

In keeping with the U.S. extension system’s roots in supporting a vibrant democracy, President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1908 Country Life Commission proposed a unified national extension system that educated people on agriculture and conservation issues, but also for the purpose of “sanitation, education, home making, and all interests of country life” (p. 19, Country Life Commission, 1909). While some historians are critical of the commission’s analysis and conclusions as being overly technocratic and condescending to rural residents, others convincingly argue that the commission laid the groundwork for sustainable agricultural systems and rural communities (Peters & Morgan, 2004).

Extension as a Boundary Organization

Extension has evolved over time into a boundary organization with many competing interests (Cash, 2001; Guston, 2001). A boundary organization is generally defined as a space where scientists and stakeholders can exchange information and engage in co-production of knowledge. The diversity of interests claiming ownership of extension has been both an opportunity and a challenge during extension’s history.

The national codification of university extension through the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 helped organize the diversity of outreach efforts to farmers and rural families. Smith-Lever was the first federal law requiring equivalent matching funds from states, universities, counties, or private-sector sources before federal funds would be appropriated. The bulk of initial appropriations funded county agents across the country. This extension work was often prompted by the advocacy of farmers, businessmen, local farm organizations, and with the start of women’s associations, as well as boys and girls clubs (which evolved into today’s 4-H clubs) (Rasmussen, 1989). The Smith-Lever Act was arguably the final component of a knowledge-generation system of research, student training, and extension education that has become a model for extension programs globally. It paved the way for the tripartite American cooperative extension model that dominated most of the 20th century, with a federal agency partner, a land-grant university partner, and county government partner.3

During World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, extension agents were called upon to share the latest agricultural research coming out of universities. They also became a patriotic national workforce implementing government policy. These missions were often aligned, such as when home demonstration agents helped ensure food security through home gardens and safe food preservation. However, extension is often caught in the middle when science conflicts with politics. During World War I, and leading up to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years, extension assisted farmers in expanding the amount of wheat-producing acres from just over 45 million to nearly 75 million acres in less than a decade (Rasmussen, 1989). What some historians have labeled “The Great Plow-Up” supported American economic growth, fed people in a war-torn Europe, and led to one of the worst ecological and social disasters of American history. Agricultural extension in most cases mitigated the impacts of intensive plowing and crop production on Great Plains soils and the consequences of purchasing new equipment and other production inputs for the debt load of farm families (Phillips, 1999). However, in some cases, social pressures meant that the pursuit of wheat production took precedence over the climatic and agronomic science of the day (Egan, 2006).

Institutional Home in Public Universities

A third characteristic of the U.S. extension system that shapes the way it addresses agriculture and climate change is its institutional home in public universities. Within the land-grant university system, extension serves as a translator between community need and university expertise. However, there is no escaping that research, in the words of George McDowell, is the “dominant coin of the academic realm,” resulting in a creative tension between university research and extension education (McDowell, 2001, p. 28). As the world has entered the information age and knowledge economy, land-grant universities have grown into premier research institutions, benefiting from public- and private-sector investment. The currencies of the research enterprise in the United States are funding for said research, peer-reviewed publications, and growing the next generation of scientists. The currency of the extension agent is public service through educational programs for farmers, farm advisors, and other agricultural stakeholders, as well as the political and financial support that those stakeholders provide in return (McDowell, 2001). In a healthy system, research and extension work with agriculture to drive innovation and foster adaptation to change.

Three trends seem to be straining the collaboration between land-grant university researchers and extension educators beyond the different reward systems inherent in their job responsibilities. First, while federal investment in extension has remained relatively steady, state investment in public colleges and universities has fallen 37% between 2000 and 2012 (Pew Research Center, 2015), leaving less extension capacity to translate between scientists, farmers, and community decision-makers. Second, over the past 35 years, there has been a decline in trust in science and institutionalized education that universities typify, particularly among American conservatives4 (Gauchat, 2012). Finally, American society is increasingly polarized across a wide range of issues, including climate change (McCright & Dunlap, 2011; Pew Research Center, 2014). These trends have increased the science-to-stakeholder translational challenge while decreasing the resources to address it.

Southeastern U.S. Partnerships: Case Study of the Tri-State Climate Learning Network for Row Crop Stakeholders

In light of these translational challenges, land-grant universities are under significant pressure to develop innovative institutional arrangements that favor continued high-quality service. In this section, we provide an example from the southeastern (SE) United States that illustrates a pathway toward enhancing research partnerships among university scientists and agricultural stakeholders during a time of continued public skepticism about climate change. The case study demonstrates how three land-grant universities are actively engaging producers and extension agents as key partners in the knowledge generation process (Bartels & Furman, 2016).

Despite global and national climate reports that illustrate a consensus about the gravity of climate change and its causes and likely impacts (Edenhofer et al., 2014; Melillo et al., 2014), social studies indicate persistent skepticism among certain segments of the American public (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Howe, 2013; Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2009). The “Six America” audience typologies that have been identified in national surveys are reproduced in the southeastern United States among SE extension agents who are categorized as having the same range of alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive audience segments (Bowers, Monroe, & Adams, 2016; Wojcik, Monroe, & Adams, 2014). A pattern of increased skepticism expands from east to west, with a greater proportion of disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive extension agents in Mississippi and the least in Florida. Furthermore, agriculture agents (crop and livestock systems) are more doubtful and dismissive than other types of extension agents.

Such perceptions are germane to land-grant universities, especially considering the role that extension agents are expected to play as messengers of science-based information. Although it might be tempting to encourage new training programs that teach skeptical extension agents more facts about climate science, studies show that cultural and ideological lenses are more powerful than climate literacy in shaping action (Hoffman, 2015) and that people are inclined to choose positions that are reinforced by others within their groups who share similar values (Kahan, 2010). These tendencies evoke the homophily principle, by which people’s similarity enhances their connection with one another and shapes the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001). Such scholarship calls attention to the need for cultivating trust among extension agents, researchers, and producers through mechanisms that harness homophily.

In the southeastern United States, climate and crop researchers have made significant advances in developing climate modeling and forecasting information, as well as associated tools, that are packaged and available online in a sophisticated decision support system called AgroClimate ( (Asseng et al., 2013; Cammarano et al., 2015; Fraisse et al., 2006; Jones et al., 2003, 2010). However, social scientists have long pointed to the need for situating decision support systems within sociohistorical contexts and involving producers and extension agents in ongoing engagements to maximize the likelihood that tools serve the needs of target audiences (Breuer, Cabrera, Ingram, Broad, & Hildebrand, 2008; Crane, Roncoli, & Hoogenboom, 2011). Social assessments of how priorities and interests vary across diverse agricultural audiences (Bartels et al., 2012; Diehl et al., 2015; Furman et al., 2014) call for expanding dialogue with stakeholders toward the co-production of climate-related knowledge and tailored decision support.

In an effort to build the social infrastructure for such knowledge co-production around climate risk management, the Tri-state Climate Learning Network for Row Crop Stakeholders was initiated in 2009 (Bartels et al., 2012). This regional network convenes extension agents, row crop producers, and researchers from land-grant institutions in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama to discuss climate impacts on peanuts, corn, cotton, and sorghum. Biannual meetings are held prior to planting and harvesting. Meeting agendas are designed to purposively maximize participant interactions through hands-on field experiences, classroom-based presentations, and discussions that link climate science to plant pathology, crop physiology, and hydrology. Over five years and 13 meetings, 183 row crop stakeholders have been involved in the tri-state network, with a core group of about 35 repeat attendees (Bartels & Furman, 2016). As the group has evolved, it has also attracted interest from new types of stakeholder groups, such as farmers’ associations (Farm Bureau), water management districts, peanut industry professionals, and even state representatives.

The tri-state climate learning network has benefitted from a portfolio of funding sources5 that support activities and coordination by a University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) anthropologist, Wendy-Lin Bartels. Currently, the network provides a venue for continued collaborative learning about climate adaptation and agricultural resilience. Agenda topics are planned to resonate with immediate audience concerns, including a focus on seasonal variability, such as the El Niño events. Key themes that have emerged repeatedly include water management and coping with extreme events (heavy rainfalls and extended dry spells). Innovative row crop producers are experimenting with management strategies, including cover crops to prevent erosion and reduce soil and nutrient loss. Participants have also assessed a range of potential adaptation options, such as drip irrigation, pond water harvesting, and planting new drought-tolerant crops, like sesame (Bartels, 2013).

In an effort to stay connected between meetings, the network created an online blog site that aims to filter (i.e., sift through) successful adaptation strategies and document experiences. Here, producers and agents post examples of reducing climate risks, as well as questions and challenges. More recently, participants have begun to push the frontiers of adaptation science, as illustrated by the following “success” story:

We expect a 4-inch rain. What we don’t expect is a 9.8-inch rain!” exclaimed a row crop farmer from Jefferson County, FL during a climate workshop held in Monticello during the spring of 2013. Murmurs swept across the room as another producer nodded in agreement and added that although he gets enough rain annually, it seems to fall in one or two intense events followed by longer dry spells. The discussion meandered back and forth among participants in a debate stimulated by the old adage “When it rains it pours.” Producers and extension agents wondered out loud whether it really does pour more than it used to in the southeastern U.S. And if so, what might be done about it? Inevitably the Florida State Climatologist was drawn into the fray and producers suggested that someone should take a closer look at the historical data. Participants began discussing new ways to scientifically analyze rainfall intensity as it became evident that scientists, extension agents, and producers have differing perceptions about what constitutes an extreme precipitation event. Two years later, a young UF post-doc published an article in the journal Climate Risk Management entitled, Exploring changes in rainfall intensity and seasonal variability in the Southeastern U.S.: Stakeholder engagement, observations, and adaptation (Dourte et al., 2015). His findings were shaped directly by workshop discussions among participants of the Tri-state climate learning network.

The 2015 publication emerging from the tri-state climate learning network ushers in a new research approach in which agricultural stakeholders become active participants in the generation of the scientific knowledge from which they will directly benefit (Bartels & Furman, 2016). The dialectical process that gave rise to this article is a novel method for closing the gap between science and society in an effort to address one of the greatest challenges of our time: adapting to climate change.

The tri-state network has created a space for researchers to learn from and with stakeholders, resulting in a repository of knowledge and partnerships that can be harnessed into the future. By creating a two-way feedback loop between farmers and scientists, the network offers an opportunity to reduce the gap between research and practice. The evolution of this network demonstrates how scientist-stakeholder interactions can move iteratively through three distinct stages in a long-term purposeful engagement process—from stage 1, fact finding and relationship building, to stage 2, incubation and collaborative learning, and, finally to stage 3, informed engagement and broad dissemination (Furman, Bartels, & Bolson, 2016).

Instead of addressing the challenge of global warming skepticism by teaching more climate science, this SE U.S. extension initiative invites stakeholders as critical partners into the scientific process to co-produce new knowledge and to co-evaluate adaptive strategies using a place-based, long-term approach. Importantly, it positions UF/IFAS as a leader among land-grant institutions in generating actionable science in response to an urgent call for greater academic relevance and innovation for climate-smart agriculture.

Midwestern United States: Co-Production of Climate Change Information for Corn Producers

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) funded a multiuniversity initiative to provide climate change information via decision support tools to corn producers across the 12-state Corn Belt of the United States, where a majority of the country’s and world’s corn (maize) is produced. The interdisciplinary team involved in this work followed a co-production approach and engaged with users of information from the very beginning of the project, but in a very different way than the SE U.S. example described previously. Multiple approaches were used to gather information from users, including surveys of farmers and different types of agricultural advisors, focus groups with both farmers and agricultural advisors, and ongoing dialogue at outreach events as decision support tools were being developed. This project culminated in five decision support tools that met the needs of farmers, their advisors, or both.

Numerous lessons were learned about communicating climate change information through extension in this project. First, as in the SE U.S. case study, extension field staff did not believe the same things about climate change as their university colleagues (Prokopy, Morton, et al., 2015). However, climate change beliefs were highly correlated with farmers’ willingness to consider adapting to climate change (Arbuckle et al., 2013) indicating that there is a role for climate change communication in the agricultural sector. The farmer survey was taken by a random sample of large-scale corn producers in the region; 40% of these farmers responded that they either had no contact with extension or they were not at all influenced by it. These farmers reported that (after family) the most influential groups were private sector input suppliers and crop consultants (Davidson, Suddick, & Rice, 2015). However, surveys of different farm advisor groups indicate that extension is trusted as a source of climate change information and that these advisor groups are possibly receptive to climate information (Prokopy, Carlton et al., 2015; Prokopy et al., 2013). Combined, this evidence suggests an emerging role for extension in the United States, working in partnership with other advisory groups who are already trusted by farmers (Prokopy & Power, 2015).

Extension Approaches for Climate Change in Developing Countries

In this section, we hypothesize that climate change extension delivery builds upon an evolution of extension approaches over a span of decades. We first provide an historical summary of extension approaches in developing countries, and then illustrate those approaches by sharing examples of agricultural extension work through CARE, a nonprofit international development institution. The promotion of best practices that assist smallholder communities in developing countries to be resilient and cope with the risk of weather extremities caused by climate change have their roots in participatory extension approaches. NGOs have been at the forefront of farmer-centered extension that incorporates problem analysis, prioritizing needs, and deciding upon technologies that are socially, culturally, and economically viable for any given community.

Historical Perspective

While Australia, Japan, and European countries did not have the same formal structure of extension that the United States developed with the Cooperative Extension Service, extension activities were prominent in these countries from the 19th century on, with France establishing the first entirely state-funded agricultural extension program in 1879 (Jones & Garforth, 1997). European colonies in South Asia, the Caribbean, and West Africa also saw the early establishment of extension programs, especially in the form of demonstration gardens (Jones & Garforth, 1997).

With the initiation of international development after World War II, the delivery of agricultural technology utilized the models from the United States, where the outside experts possessed knowledge and the farmers were the recipients. Practices that worked in developed countries were often directly transferred to environments that were very different and did not deliver the expected results (Rajasekaran, 1993). With the advent of the Green Revolution, where improved varieties of basic grains performed well with the associated agricultural inputs: seed, fertilizer, and pesticides. Smallholders could not afford or did not have access to inputs, were cultivating marginal land, leaving them vulnerable to crop failure, or both (Baiphethi & Jacobs, 2009).

Modern-day extension approaches to climate change employed by NGOs have evolved from a movement that places smallholder farmers in the center of decision-making. Beginning in the 1970s and taking hold in the 1980s and beyond, enlightened development practitioners with a social as well as technical understanding of the topic initiated a holistic approach to it. They recognized that agriculture and food production was not carried out in isolation of other challenges, such as access to water, sanitation, adequate housing, roads, bridges, health clinics, schools, and more. They also recognized the environmental limits to modern agriculture and began to look at integrated production systems that were more ecologically sound.

In the 1980s, Rural Rapid Appraisals (RRAs) initiated a more participatory approach to top-down development expert analysis (Proceedings 1985 Conference on RRA, 1987). RRAs soon transformed into Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRAs), which were espoused by a development scholar Robert Chambers, who emphasized a new paradigm to rural development through a decentralized approach that empowered smallholder communities. Chambers emphasized placing the farmers in the center of research and innovating their capabilities so as to adapt technologies to their own particular circumstances. Chambers and his colleagues reasoned that smallholder families are experts in survival in challenging environments (Chambers, 1992).

A wide range of international development policy bodies provided credibility to participatory approaches such as the Overseas Development Institute, International Institute for Environment and Development, and the World Resources Institute. Bilateral donors such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID); Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA); Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA); U.K. Department for International Development (DfID), formerly known as the Overseas Development Administration; and the Dutch Foreign Ministry were among the donors that recognized the changing development paradigm.

Concurrently, the limitations of the Green Revolution entered the debate. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth a decade later spurred new thinking about the limitations of industrial agriculture. Multidisciplinary teams that included agriculturalists, sociologists, anthropologists, and development practitioners began to examine indigenous knowledge and traditional farming systems. Miguel Altieri’s work on agroecology during the 1980s and beyond provided the scientific basis for integrated farming systems that adopted local farmer knowledge (e.g., Altieri, 1986), and served as an important guide for technologies promoted by international NGOs.

Despite the strengths of these participatory and co-production approaches, extension programs in developing countries were quite short-lived in many locations. By the 1980s and 1990s, funding and political support was limited. In the 21st century, however, agricultural extension is finding new prominence with emerging recognition of its ability to help address agricultural challenges such as climate change. A consortium led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) conducted a comprehensive survey of the state of extension between 2009 and 2013 and found that extension is currently funded by numerous mechanisms around the world—the public sector, the private sector, and the NGO sector (Swanson & Davis, 2014).

Farmers are beginning to understand that practices that worked in the past are no longer viable in light of changing weather patterns, and therefore new solutions are needed. For example, shifting cultivation in extensive tropical ecosystems with low population density traditionally sustained low external input agriculture on marginal soils (Scoones & Toulmin, 1993). However, as populations increased and fallow periods between cultivation shortened, soil fertility was not adequately replenished between cycles, making shifting agriculture a less viable option (Pope et al., 2015). In addition, farmers are acknowledging the impact of agricultural practices on local climates, as well as recognizing an increasing frequency of extreme weather events driven from outside their regions (Kamruzzaman, 2015). This recognition provides fertile ground for agricultural extension to assist with climate change adaptation now and in the future.

The Case of CARE

Technology Transfer

CARE, a nonprofit international development institution, has been on the forefront of applying participatory approaches to rural communities. Rural innovators were identified and drafted into extension efforts, where they spoke in the local jargon/dialect and understood cultural norms. This facilitated two-way communications, resulting in a greater awareness and understanding of community problems and priorities by program designers. In the 1980s, CARE organized a Technical Assistance Group to help country offices with technology transfer utilizing a decentralized model. Four regional offices (Latin America, Asia, West Africa, and East Africa) were set up in a major regional hub with three Regional Technical Advisors (RTAs) in one of three sectors: agriculture and natural resources, primary health care, and small enterprise development. The RTAs provided technical help in their respective sectors to the CARE country offices while engaging in cross-sectoral programs, with a major role being played by program design. This provided the foundation for cross-fertilization for effective communication approaches between sectors and between countries. CARE RTAs organized global and regional workshops on participatory approaches for engaging local communities in all sectors, inviting experts and practitioners to debate the merits of different extension approaches. The RTAs in agriculture and natural resources also engaged regional educational and research institutions of excellence, such as the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi and Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE, or Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center) in Costa Rica, to evaluate the effectiveness of participatory research extension approaches.

CARE’s community-driven climate resiliency approach is being applied by other NGOs. For example, the African Climate Change Resiliency Alliance (ACCRA) is a program designed to engage governments and development stakeholders to use evidence from adaptation in designing interventions for vulnerable communities. The alliance is composed of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), CARE, Oxfam GB, Save the Children, and World Vision, and initial program support is provided by DfID. ACCRA shares information on climate vulnerability and related topics through monthly newsletters, reports drawing on science for informing decision-making, and pilot projects. This is just one example of how international NGOs are working together to address the challenges that poor communities face in light of a changing climate.

Guatemala—Transforming Extension Approaches

CARE invested considerable effort in soil conservation and agroforestry. For example, the Guatemalan Soil Conservation and Forest Management program, under a tripartite agreement between the Guatemalan National Forestry Institute (INAFOR), CARE, and the Peace Corps (ICCP) began pioneering climate-smart agricultural practices in 1974 (FAO, 2013) by encompassing agroforestry and soil conservation on smallholder land throughout Guatemala (Nations, Burwell, & Burniske, 1987). The program was initiated with centralized municipal forest nurseries run by INAFOR promoters trained by Peace Corps volunteers. These nurseries distributed tree seedlings to smallholder farmers in the highlands of Guatemala to help them establish small forest plantations. However, the farmers resisted planting trees as woodlots and began to use the seedlings to establish fence rows, as well as intercropping them on a short rotation with their maize and beans. The program shifted from reforestation and forest management to agroforestry, while municipal nurseries were phased out and smaller community nurseries were established in the outlaying “aldeas.” Communities took possession of the nurseries, collected their own seeds, produced the species they preferred, and planted trees in their own agroforestry configurations. The successful communities were able to form their own committees that provided leadership for making decisions and managing the nurseries and other program assets. Peace Corps volunteers and INAFOR promoters and coordinators used cross-visits as a means for sharing experiences and best practices. Volunteers noted the uptake of agroforestry and soil conservation practices by neighboring communities not associated with the project.

Soil conservation practices were integrated with the agroforestry plantings on steep hillsides. Some of the techniques that were introduced to farmers were meant to prevent soil erosion on slopes while retaining the topsoil, soil organic matter, and soil nutrients. During 1986, a severe drought affected much of Guatemala. CARE conducted applied research on farmers cultivating steep hillsides in the Altiplano and Oriente regions of the country. Farmer participants worked with CARE to set up the trial plots on farms with and without soil conservation interventions to measure the yields of maize and common beans. The results showed that yields on bench terraces and conservation ditches were greater than plots cultivated without soil conservation measures, primarily due to a greater retention of soil moisture in a year of drought (Burniske & Solorzano, 1987).

Changes in Monitoring and Evaluation

Evaluating the successes and failures of agriculture programs has traditionally fallen to the experts to accomplish. NGOs and donors alike hired highly paid consultants to evaluate the achievement of agricultural program goals—invariably, increases of yields and income from on farm production brought on the adoption of improved farming practices. Although evaluations can and do furnish valuable information on project performance, participants were more often subjects of the evaluation process instead of the drivers of it. Thus, their views did not take priority in future project designs.

As with the SE U.S. example, CARE brought farmers into the center of the evaluation of sustainable agriculture and agroforestry practices promoted in its projects. The organization adopted participatory monitoring and evaluation of agriculture and natural resources programs in the late 1980s. CARE organized a global workshop in Kisumu, Kenya, bringing in project managers and RTAs from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The workshop, which was in part facilitated by ICRAF, helped CARE institutionalize farmer feedback on the effectiveness of extension approaches and technologies designed to boost food security and income on small farmer holdings. The RTAs in turn were responsible for helping CARE country offices in the uptake of participatory monitoring and evaluation, thereby decentralizing processes and giving communities and participants a greater say in program outcomes. This two-way communication became institutionalized within CARE such that community problems and their potential solutions were based on shared values, setting the table for identifying newly evolving climate challenges.

Climate Change and Community-Based Adaptation

Fast-forward 20 years, to a point where CARE advanced a community-based adaptation (CBA) framework that combines climate-resilient livelihoods, disaster risk reduction, capacity development, and a focus on addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability (CARE International, 2014). It also encompasses specific actions to be taken at the household, local/community, and national levels. The framework recognizes the importance of mainstreaming gender and marginalized (or particularly vulnerable) groups in building capacity to respond to disasters and build resiliency to adapt to climate change. Support is provided by local governmental and civic organizations for planning and training through decentralized extension. The national government provides an enabling environment by integrating climate change in sectoral policies to facilitate access to climate information for decision-making. With this approach, CARE functions more as a facilitator than a driver.

CBA Case Studies: Mozambique

In Mozambique, 80% of the farmers practice subsistence agriculture, with little access to modern agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, and seeds. Smallholders are facing irregular rainfall, high temperatures, and risk of extreme weather events such as cyclones. These circumstances place communities in a vulnerable situation. In the Angoche District of Nampula, CARE applied the CBA framework by strengthening the National Association of Rural Extension to build the capacity of farmers through the Farmer Field Schools (FFS). This program provides a place for farmers to meet and practice conservation agriculture, with an aim of increasing soil fertility through mulching, green manures, and crop rotations that incorporate leguminous species. Farmers are encouraged to experiment and share outcomes, leading to innovations that they in turn share with extension workers. The success of the FFS depends upon the ability of farmers to communicate the impact of conservation agriculture in addressing risks associated with weather variations attributed to a changing climate. The FFS also strengthened farmer organizations, which helped women’s participation such that women gain access to inputs, including credit and markets.

Farmers are taking action to gain and share access of weather information through text messages containing warnings of cyclones, seasonal forecasts, and rainfall probability. This helps farmers make informed decisions on the types of crops to plant and agronomic practices. Farmers are keeping records of the yields of the various cropping systems, along with weather data, so as to inform future decisions. The FFS partnership between communities and the National Association of Rural Extension has helped the communities understand the impact of climate change and take measures to adapt to risk and build resilient livelihoods.


CARE joined a consortium of NGOs to undertake a global project entitled Partners for Resilience, which also included the Red Cross Climate Center, Cordaid, and Wetlands International. The consortium’s objectives are to address climate change adaptation with disaster risk reduction through sustainable natural resources management of local ecosystems. In Nicaragua, the consortium strives to enhance the resilience of communities by integrating traditional knowledge of biodiversity and local disaster risk reduction practices. The traditional practices included the conservation of local seeds, interpreting signs from nature, oral transmission of traditional knowledge, alternative food sources/traditional medicine, soil and water conservation, and indigenous agroecology practices.

One of the communities, Rio Arriba Inali, established its own seed bank. Over an 18-year period, the farmers selected and conserved seeds from local bean varieties that were most resilient to changing weather. CARE helped create a local FFS to test the yields of various local varieties in comparison to commercial varieties. The results showed that local varieties adapted better to weather variability and the region’s infertile soils, thereby needing fewer inputs. Thus, farmers were able to plan their own strategies for climate-resilient livelihoods.

Building upon its work in climate change, in 2009, CARE published the Climate Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis (CVCA) Handbook, which carries a foreword by Robert Chambers (CARE International, 2009). The CVCA has two objectives:

  • Analyze vulnerability to climate change and adaptive capacity at the community level.

  • Combine community knowledge and scientific data to yield greater understanding about local impacts of climate change.

The CVCA focuses on climate change and utilizes participatory tools previously developed by CARE, such as the CBA and Participatory Learning for Action. The CVCA also utilizes analysis that examines information gathered by assessing both poverty and vulnerability as related to climate change. The CVCA promotes dialogue among multiple stakeholders to learning and understanding on adaptation strategies. Finally, while actions and activities leading to adaptation focuses on local conditions and the needs of vulnerable groups—particularly women, minorities, and youth—CVCA also informs policies on climate adaptation and enhanced institutional roles for an enabling environment for citizens. Concepts related to climate change are frequently difficult to communicate, so the CVCA recognizes the need to express them in everyday terms using simple examples.

Discussion and Conclusions

American land-grant universities and the U.S. extension continue to be well positioned to assist agriculture with the challenges posed by climate change. Extension in the United States is still a trusted source of information and guidance for the agricultural sector, even on the polarizing topic of climate change (Prokopy, Carlton et al., 2015). It has largely maintained its mission of promoting lifelong learning for both individual and public benefit. Extension educators continue to effectively serve constituencies interested in agriculture, community development, family and consumer science, and youth development. Beyond technical expertise in crops, livestock, nutrient management, and agricultural engineering, U.S. extension has built expertise in community planning and change processes, positioning itself to support systems-oriented approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation in the agricultural sector.

However, U.S. extension can learn from international rural development, which offers methods to bring practitioners and researchers together that are often not employed in the United States, such as PRA, which has been demonstrated to be successful in the CARE projects described in this article. As seen in the SE U.S. example, these methods can help to facilitate the co-production of new knowledge and workable application of best practices. Farmers have valuable knowledge to contribute to climate change solutions, as demonstrated in both the U.S. and international examples shared here. It is not easy to do co-production, but it is essential to tackling the complex issue of climate change.

Today’s climate change extension approaches utilized by CARE, its NGO partners, and international donors have evolved from the principles of participation, empowering communities in decision-making, and building analytical skills of smallholder families to compare traditional practices to practices introduced from the outside. These principles have been refined to address differences in gender and reaching those segments of the community that are more vulnerable to risks associated with climate change. Furthermore, strengthening national and local institutions that provide information and support to local communities is now an integral component of development strategies for climate change.

Development practitioners are better prepared with tools such as the CVCA Handbook, and at the same time, they continue to strive for improvements in community-driven climate change adaptation. While many of the lessons learned can be transferred among the diverse contexts explored in this article, there is one notable difference between working with large-scale farmers in the United States and doing so with smallholder farmers internationally—the smallholder farmers do not need to be convinced of the importance and relevance of climate change to their livelihood. Smallholder farmers may not be familiar with the causes of climate change or the theories behind adaptation and mitigation, but they are very aware of, and accept, that climate is changing and bringing new risks and challenges to their own lives. Therefore, the climate change conversation is easier and less fraught with politics in these settings than in many locations in the United States and other industrialized nations (Prokopy et al., 2015).

In the CARE examples, multiple organizations work together to provide information to farmers, usually in a participatory, co-production manner (Birner et al., 2006). Evidence from the midwestern United States indicates that this approach is also needed for large-scale farming, and extension cannot succeed without working with farmers’ trusted advisors. It is possible to generalize from these different examples that partnerships are critical for the future of agriculture extension. Furthermore, while this article paints a rosy picture of the possibilities of extension and climate change communication, as noted earlier, resources for extension work through traditional channels (such as universities in the United States) are dwindling. This provides even further evidence of the importance of partnerships in the future and raises questions about whether increased NGO involvement in the United States might emerge to fill some of the gaps that may appear as university resources shrink.

Donors have an extremely important role to play in the future of extension and climate change communication. The success documented in all the examples here was only possible because of incentives provided by donors (the USDA-NIFA in the United States, and bilateral donors internationally). This funding must be continuous, and donors need to have long-term visions and make long-term commitments. The type of engagement employed in the SE U.S. example and the CARE examples works only when both extension personnel and stakeholders have confidence that engagement will not suddenly end when the money runs out.

In all locations, capacity building for extension services is essential. Moving extension from a top-down program to a program that uses a co-production approach will necessitate new roles for universities and extension in the United States. An approach that puts farmers at the center, as in all the examples included in this article, requires facilitation skills, listening skills, and an ability to be flexible and responsive. These are frequently not skills taught in agricultural training programs, nor is this the traditional role for extension. This type of approach also challenges the currencies discussed earlier as highly valued by universities. Employing a co-production approach, for example, often will not lead to fast results that can be reported to donors, published in journal articles, and used as evidence for future funding.

In conclusion, extension has an important role to play in climate change communication across the globe, and different models are informative and lessons can be learned across diverse contexts.


A five-year grant from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funded a SE Climate and Extension project that supported the tri-state network. A two-year grant from the Bipartisan Policy Center was employed for the purpose of a study called “Iconic Agricultural Crops: Climate Change Impacts on Peanut, Cotton, and Corn in Georgia and Florida.” The Midwestern case study, Useful to Usable (U2U), was also funded by NIFA; grant number 2011-68002-30220.


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                                                                                                                          (1.) Passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 was also made possible by the onset of the U.S. Civil War and the removal of Southern anti–land grant votes as a result.

                                                                                                                          (2.) The substantial land base used as a funding source was arguably a necessary condition for the establishment of the new universities. It is worth noting that this land base was not unoccupied at the time, but rather was transferred or taken from indigenous peoples.

                                                                                                                          (3.) The word extension, when used in the U.S. context to refer to the Cooperative Extension Service, is often treated as a proper noun with a capital E (Extension). However, earlier forms of extension in the U.S. and extension systems in other countries are not accorded this same distinction. As we move back and forth between types of extension in this article, we use extension throughout, for consistency.

                                                                                                                          (4.) Federal Elections Commission (FEC) data on contributions to political party by profession, a 2016 Agri-Pulse Farm and Rural Poll, and personal communications with agricultural educators all indicate that a substantial majority of farmers now lean conservative.

                                                                                                                          (5.) For over a decade, the Southeast Climate Consortium (SECC) has been funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) Climate Program Office’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program. RISAs aim to support research teams that help expand and build the nation’s capacity to prepare for and adapt to climate variability and change.