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USDA creates research units to help farmers respond to climate change

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the creation of the research hubs, saying farmers need to be proactive in mitigating the effects of climate change. (File: Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the creation of the research hubs, saying farmers need to be proactive in mitigating the effects of climate change. (File: Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)

Looking to help farmers adapt to climate change, the U.S Department of Agriculture is setting up seven new research hubs, including a handful that will cover the Midwest.

The new research centers, anchored in different regions, are tasked with charting how climate change poses risks to farming, ranching and forestry. Then they are to devise strategies to adapt.

Existing USDA facilities in Fort Collins, Colo., El Reno, Okla., and Ames, Iowa, will focus on the Midwest. The other centers will be in California, New Hampshire, North Carolina and New Mexico.

The Midwest in the past few years has have grappled with epic drought, mega-blizzards and crippling heat. While it’s still a controversial task to hang climate change on any one extreme weather event, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack says he’s seen enough.

“When you take a look at the intensity of the storms that we have seen recently, and the frequency of them, the length of drought, combined with these snowstorms and the subzero weather that we’ve experienced – the combination of all those factors convinces me that the climate is changing and it will have its impact,” Vilsack said in a White House press conference.

The move to create these research hubs has been grouped in with other climate-related initiatives taken by the White House in the absence of Congressional action.

“If we are not proactive, as the president has directed, we will find ourselves five, ten, 15, 20 years down the road wishing we had done what we’re doing today,” Vilsack said.

The Fort Collins office will work with farmers throughout the northern plains in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. The region is home to a variety of land types, high alpine to grassland, and a diversity of agricultural activity.

Livestock and grain crops dominate the Great Plains. Climate models show the plains, like the rest of the country, could see weather extremes and longer, hotter growing seasons as climate change progresses.

Adaptations to climate change tested and rolled out by the hubs could include more drought-tolerant seeds, super efficient irrigation systems and soil management techniques, according to the USDA.

North Plains hub leader Justin Derner says his office will spend much of 2014 surveying farmers and ranchers to find out which climate-related resources would be the most helpful, and plans to roll out new tools in 2015.