Two men looking away from the camera standing in an agricultural field. One is pointing to the left, and the other is looking to where the first is pointing. There is a tractor in the background of the image.

Navigating the Climate Challenge: Insights from Extension on Climate in Agricultural Programming

Extension educators and specialists have important roles in the community, where they work directly with producers on concerns they have about business and production. What happens then, when new challenges arise? How do educators and specialists respond to address new concerns, how quickly, what are their motives, and how does Extension support their response? 

Chris Lee (left), Indiana NRCS tech team leader, Patrick Bittner, a farmer in Evansville Indiana, and Keith Williams, Indiana NRCS planning team leader, talk to Bittner prior to planting corn. Bittner is a no-till farmer and directly plants his corn seed into his cover crops, in a move towards climate-smart agriculture. The cover crops are made of a diverse 12 seed mix including Cereal rye, triticale, annual rye, rape, black oats, Balansa Fixation clover, Kentucky Pride Crimson, Hairy Vetch, Australian winter peas, Red clover, turnips and winter barley. (Indiana NRCS photos by Brandon O’Connor)

Now, imagine that the issue that arises is a “wicked problem,” a social or cultural problem that’s difficult to solve because of its complex and interconnected nature. Can you think of any problems like this? The issue of climate change may have come to mind…at least, it did for our team! 

Climate change is considered a wicked problem because the causes, impacts, and solutions are all highly interconnected. The latest national climate assessment says we have little time to act to avoid the worst impacts, and many bright minds have put thought into global and national theories for how we can meet the recommended deadlines. 

But our project isn’t interested in that. We are asking – what does this really look like in Extension communities here in the Midwest? We sought to make it real. 

We, the Climate Ready Midwest team, started by listening. We conducted semi-formal and formal interviews with agricultural Extension colleagues at 1862 Extension institutions across the Midwest, working in different cropping systems, different programming, and different levels of integration into communities. We asked questions about what issues arise in programming, if and how they think about climate change, and what would need to change if they were to talk about climate more? 

Here are a few themes we heard: 

Individuals are Struggling to Make Sense of Uncertainty

A global framework for climate change action, by nature, requires simplification of the issue at hand. If you are an Extension educator, wondering exactly what to tell the farmers you work with, you don’t have the luxury of oversimplifying anything. And when it comes to making really concrete recommendations, the science becomes complex. One educator illustrated this point when they said, “I was hoping to learn more about, you know, what sorts of practices were climate smart more than others….I learned it’s really complicated. And there are trade-offs no matter what you do.” 

Not only are there trade offs, but it’s colloquially known that it’s incredibly complex, and that different practices work better based on different conditions (e.g., soil type, existing nutrient levels, and crop rotation, to name a few). “The reason that it’s tricky is that there’s always way more variables than we could possibly manage. And so then that makes our messaging really hard, because we can’t just say like, yes, do this practice, and we’ll be in good shape. It just looks different on every farm.” 

How are Extension educators supposed to stay on top of best practice recommendations? Can we really expect them to navigate all this uncertainty? Many interviewees voiced that there’s simply too much complexity and new information to keep up with. Maybe you’ve asked these questions yourself?

Educators and Specialists Want More Training on the Issues

One option for navigating the uncertainty is to invest more time into training those facilitating the conversations. But training needs to cover more than just the basic and evolving science of climate change, it also needs to cover how to start these conversations. Imagine the know-it-all who comes to tell a room of farmers how to farm…(some of you probably don’t have to imagine, because you’ve seen it!) It never goes over well. 

In our interviews, educators and specialists shared a need for more training in order to feel comfortable talking about climate change. It’s a topic that raises disputes among certain audiences and navigating this successfully requires finesse and humility. This goes beyond the hard skills and the science, where the soft skills are incredibly important. From one educator, we heard: “I need more training so I feel comfortable doing that [facilitating a conversation about climate]. But I think that we need to see both sides of the story sometimes to like, be able to discuss that in a non-threatening environment.” 

What these folks were expressing was that it’s not just about the facts or information. Even if they understand the science and know what practices to recommend, there’s still a skill to entering into and facilitating these conversations and educators and specialists are asking for support to do this. 

Two men looking away from the camera standing in an agricultural field. One is pointing to the left, and the other is looking to where the first is pointing. There is a tractor in the background of the image.
Patrick Bittner (left), a farmer in Evansville Indiana, talks with Keith Williams, Indiana NRCS planning team leader, prior to planting corn. (Indiana NRCS photos by Brandon O’Connor)

So, what do we do with this information? Our team spent a lot of time analyzing these interviews, and ended up with many more questions. Is it possible to achieve conditions where Extension educators and specialists are able to navigate the scientific uncertainty and tailoring recommendations to the farm-level that is necessary to address climate-informed agricultural practices? Are there ways Extension has already navigated similar uncertainties in the past? What types of training would be needed to meet these needs? Is Extension ready and committed to support this training? We are starting to look at these questions, to integrate them into our understanding of ‘where are we going and how do we get there?’ (Objective 1, the Theory of Change). Follow along with our blogs here as we post informal answers to these questions and more as the project progresses!

What is coming up next for the project?

In the next quarter, team members will:

  • Host winter ‘23-’24 ToC workshops with 1890 institutions
  • Pilot the Climate Ready Farm Assessments for fruit, swine, livestock, specialty, and row cropping systems
  • Draft a “train-the-trainer” curriculum for the carbon management and sequestration training for Extension educators to be piloted at OSU Extension

How can I stay updated?

We will post regular blog posts on this website to share progress and project deliverables, just like this one. Sign up to be notified about future blog posts! 

If you are interested in learning more or collaborating on any of this work, please reach out to Alli Parrish, project manager, at or Aaron Wilson, project director, at