Corn field in sunset

A complexity-aware understanding of climate-smart agricultural programming at Extension

A team of Extension personnel across the Midwest, in partnership with the USDA Midwest Climate Hub, aims to increase the adoption of regionally scalable climate-smart agriculture. The project, originally titled “Accelerating the transition to climate-smart strategies by bolstering the extension to Midwest Climate Hub connection,” has been nicknamed Climate Ready Midwest

The team is working to understand the conditions surrounding the topic. This effort is being undertaken by the team via an evaluative thinking process – creating a Theory of Change, or ToC. A ToC is a participatory approach to understanding the context around an identified topic and the change through time. In this project, the team will create a ToC for how Extension across the Midwest – including staff from 1862, 1890, and 1994 land-grant institutions – can develop climate-smart programming that enhances capacity for producers to adopt practices that are climate-informed. The ToC helps the project team – and importantly, stakeholders – identify what desired change they want to see and how to get there. Originally intending to identify pockets of success and scaling those up, some fundamental assumptions quickly gave the team pause.

Purdue Extension educators talking and holding up a poster about a Hemp Growth and Development project to producers.
Purdue Extension educators conducting climate-smart programming.

In those first interviews, the project team realized that there is little shared understanding of the term “climate-smart agriculture.” Many interviewees went right to thinking about climate mitigation, focusing on the topics of carbon sequestration and carbon credits. Many others pointed out that while they do programming that overlaps with recommendations for “climate-smart agriculture,” they do it for soil health and/or water quality purposes. Still others pointed out the nuances of the science underpinning “climate-smart” practices. 

At this time, the project team took a step back to reevaluate their own assumptions. What arose was that going into this, they assumed that scientifically-valid, fully-supported, “successful” climate-smart agricultural programming was occurring at Extension. However, maybe that is not the case – or more precisely perhaps our understanding of what climate-smart agricultural programming is differs among individuals. While this wasn’t exactly what the team was expecting, it does reflect the complexity of climate communication that has been highlighted through social science work throughout the region. 

Instead, the team has since transitioned to thinking about – how does Extension prepare to meet the demands of the agricultural community as we consider climate change? What changes need to happen at Extension to meet those needs? What critical things are happening at Extension that will need to be carried through? 

These efforts are happening concurrently while the team refines tools, like the Climate Ready Farm Assessment, an online assessment tool for farmers to better understand their farms’ preparedness for weather and climate related issues and provide stories from other producers on how they are implementing climate-smart practices. The team will develop additional recommendations and tools informed by the results of the ToC.

While still in the early stages of this process, the team is excited to be having these conversations with Extension personnel at all levels throughout the Midwest. More information will be available through the North Central Region Water Network and the North Central Climate Collaborative.

If you are interested in learning more or finding ways to participate, please contact the project manager, Alli Parrish, at

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