U2U makes data more accessible to farmers

Researchers at nine universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are celebrating the completion of a six-year, $5 million program that reinvented the way climate scientists connect with farmers.

The Useful to Usable (U2U) project aimed to mold existing climate data into relevant products for the agricultural community. Project participants first learned about the type of climate data that farmers employ when making growing decisions on their farms and how they employ that data. The team used those insights to develop products that would help farmers determine what, when and where to plant, as well as how to manage crops to maximize yields with eyes on limiting negative effects on the environment.

Purdue University’s Linda Prokopy, a professor of natural resource social science and U2U lead project director, and Melissa Widhalm, U2U project manager, led a team of nearly four dozen faculty, staff and students from partnering universities. Many of the team’s findings were published early online in a special issue of the journal Climate Risk Management slated for March release.

Researchers started by building relationships with farmers and those they work with to understand how they go about making strategic business decisions. The team found that the best way to reach those farmers was through people who already have their ear — and their respect — such as crop advisors.

“It’s really important to listen,” Prokopy said. “We started at the other end and asked what people want and how to deliver that with scientific credibility. We were able to develop tools that were actually useful to them and usable by them.”

Those tools cover a wide range of climate issues with which farmers deal. Examples include AgClimate ViewDST, which offers users access to historical climate and crop yield data for the Corn Belt, including monthly temperature and precipitation, and plots corn and soybean yield trends; Corn GDDDST, which gives growers current and historical measurements of heat accumulation that help predict plant development rates and maturity dates; the Corn Split NDST tool, which helps farmers and advisors manage application of in-field nitrogen to maximize crop yields with the least environmental damage; the Irrigation InvestmentDST, which uses historical weather and crop model data along with farm-specific economic data to explore the profitability of installing irrigation equipment across the Corn Belt; and Climate Patterns ViewerDST, which helps growers make more informed farm management decisions during different phases of the El Niño Southern Oscillation and Arctic Oscillation.

The team was able to take the tools on the road, showcasing them at more than 150 Extension and other events across the Corn Belt, to present them to potential users and listen to feedback to improve those and future tools.

“We wanted to make sure we weren’t creating tools that were just ignored,” Widhalm said. “Just because the information is out there doesn’t mean people are using it.”

Many papers were published in a wide range of scientific journals over the course of the project in fields from biophysical and climate sciences to social sciences and economics, but the special issue of Climate Risk Management will give the team an opportunity pull together some of the key elements of U2U.

“This was our chance to really put a lot of the findings from all of the different disciplines in one space so we could show the breadth of the accomplishments of the U2U project,” Prokopy said.

The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture funded the U2U project. Team members came from: Purdue University, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, South Dakota State University, University of Illinois, University of Michigan, University of Missouri, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Wisconsin, the High Plains Regional Climate Center, the Midwestern Regional Climate Center and the National Drought Mitigation Center.

This project was supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Competitive Grant no. 2011-68002-30220 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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