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Drought workshops focus on agriculture in Alaska

December 15, 2022

In Palmer, Alaska, participants of an NDMC co-hosted workshop on agriculture and drought play an interactive climate-scenario game to get participants to think about agricultural decision-making. Photo by NDMC

When outsiders think of Alaska, they probably imagine snow, mountains and cold weather. But the 49th state not only has a thriving agricultural industry but is also prone to drought, heat and fierce wildfires. It’s not unheard of for portions of the state to be in severe or extreme drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and in August 2013, over 27% of the state was designated as in drought. Though that may not sound like much, 27% of Alaska is equivalent to over 180,000 square miles—more area than the entire state of California.

“We’re seeing changes happening exponentially faster than the Lower 48 is seeing it. Things are drying out. Water is coming at weird times,” said Jodie Anderson, director of the Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center. Despite these challenges, though, she says there is insufficient information out there relevant to Alaska agricultural producers on how to deal with drought and changing conditions.

To help fill that gap, researchers from the National Drought Mitigation Center co-hosted two workshops in Alaska last month to facilitate peer-to-peer learning on drought monitoring and planning for agriculture. The two events were co-organized by University of Alaska-Fairbanks Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Northwest Climate Hub. Participants included representatives from the USDA and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, as well as farmers from across the state producing everything from fruits, vegetables and cut flowers to hay, grain and livestock.

The workshops—held in-person Nov. 14 in Delta Junction and in a hybrid model Nov. 16 in Palmer, Alaska—included overviews of the Drought Monitor and Farm Service Agency disaster declaration processes, as well as discussions about the state’s drought challenges and a hands-on climate scenario game around agricultural decision making.

“These workshops were important to have focused conversation on drought and agriculture in Alaska to better understand drought challenges in the state and share information on disaster assistance programs,” said Holly Prendeville, the coordinator for the Northwest Climate Hub.

Phil Kaspari, an agricultural extension agent based in Delta Junction, attended the first workshop and described several of the unique drought and climate challenges Alaskan producers are facing. For example, while water has historically been easy to get, he explains, most of their groundwater supplies come from glaciers that are rapidly melting. They’re also seeing more rain-on-snow events, causing thick layers of ice to form over the grasses that livestock and wildlife rely on. The isolated nature of the state, and the high prices for things like fuel and fertilizer (even without recent inflation), leave Alaskan farmers extremely vulnerable.

Kaspari adds that there also isn’t as much understanding about the ways that drought manifests in the Alaska context. “We’re struggling with defining drought here,” he said. That is in part because many of the metrics used in the U.S. Drought Monitor are ill-suited for climates outside of the contiguous U.S.

Prendeville from the Climate Hub agrees. “One note that really struck me was that the USDM uses fewer indicators to assess drought in Alaska compared to the lower 48,” she said. In addition, a recent map produced by the NDMC and the Northwest Climate Hub of weather stations, stream gauges, groundwater monitoring stations and reservoirs across the West shows just how sparse data coverage is in Alaska. “It’s clear that drought in Alaska isn’t as well monitored or understood,” said Prendeville.

The climate scenario game was a particular hit at both workshops. The rules were simple. Teams of four, each representing a hypothetical agricultural operation, started with a set amount of money and water. Moving month by month through two years of simulated climate forecasts (with each forecast affecting their water supply), teams had to make decisions about how to spend money on various potential resources. Options included everything from building a new well to consulting with the USDA. Some months, players also had to grapple with ‘chance’ events, which could be anything from getting grant money to losing one’s crops to a fungus or wildfire. At the Palmer workshop, there was some friendly disagreement at the end about whether the winner was the team with the most money or the most water.

Developing a game based around a climate scenario was a great learning experience,” said Caily Schwartz, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who helped develop the climate game. “I really enjoyed thinking about how to communicate drought in an interactive way while learning how the producers make decisions and think about drought planning.”

Grace Campbell, another graduate student involved in creating and facilitating the game, agreed that it was a great way to break up a workshop and raise interesting questions. At the end of the trip, she says, they were actually asked to leave the game materials in Palmer so local groups could use it to facilitate their own decision-making workshops.

As hoped, the game sparked conversation around the unique challenges, opportunities and needs of Alaskan producers. One of the big questions was about timing of USDA resources. To qualify for certain relief programs, an area needs to be in drought for eight weeks. In Delta Junction, though, the total growing season is barely 20 weeks, meaning that producers need to be in drought for 40% of the season—a much higher proportion than required of lower 48 producers—to be eligible for those programs.

Another big question was about creating resources tailored to the variety of different operations found in the state. Both Kaspari and Anderson highlighted the sheer size and geographic diversity of Alaska as a major barrier for serving producers.

“The size is our biggest struggle,” said Anderson, joking about how many states Alaska would touch if one superimposed it over the lower 48. “It’s like engaging producers in Jacksonville, Florida, in the same conversation as those in Duluth, Minnesota.”

Anderson adds that capacity is another major issue. There are only three cooperative agricultural agents for the entire state, she explains. No one in the Extension office there has a background in hydrology or irrigation, and, before the workshops, none of the staff fully understood the Farm Service Agency disaster declaration process. “One of the things I have to say I’m really stoked about after this meeting is a feeling as if we actually have a path forward in terms of drought designation,” she said.

For all the participants, the workshop was a great opportunity to create new partnerships and start a conversation about drought and agriculture in Alaska. It was also an important opportunity to get some recognition for the state’s agricultural industry. “With these workshops, our producers were, shocked is probably the right word, that climatologists were talking to them about things they’re researching and finding in Alaska with regards to climate change and putting it into an agricultural framework,” said Anderson. “We haven’t had that opportunity before.”

-- Leah Campbell, NDMC Communications