‘Climate hubs’ may be key to fighting climate change. But, what are they?

The World

Terry Jones' father switched from raising dairy cows to growing Christmas trees on the family's Connecticut farm for economic reasons. Future generations here will likely have to switch practices to adapt to a changing climate.

Jason Margolis

The Jones family has been farming their land in Connecticut, 71 miles northeast of Times Square, since the 1850s. The Joneses are still there, in large part, because they’ve adapted with the times.  

“The dairy cows left in the 1960s, my dad started the Christmas tree business. He never liked the cows as much as he liked the trees,” said Terry Jones, the fifth generation to farm this land. “And I came along and started growing vegetables and strawberries and blueberries.”

His son has since added wine grapes. Changes at Jones Family Farms have mostly been driven by the marketplace. But Jones says future changes will also surely be dictated by the increasingly erratic weather.

“For instance, I’ve been growing and harvesting strawberries for 50 years, this is the first season that we have not had a single frost.”

That’s actually been a benefit, but Jones has also seen more invasive plants and pests, as well as unpredictably warmer and wetter weather.

“These downpours, like last week we had an inch of rain in about 10 or 15 minutes. It was just obnoxious,” Jones said.

Jones is experimenting with new soils and mulch to help absorb these downpours. He and his son, an Ivy League grad, are pretty savvy, modern farmers, plugged into the latest technologies. But when it comes to dealing with climate change, Jones says they’re kind of making things up as they go. He said when local farmers, like him, learned that the federal government was opening a "climate hub" in New England they said, great idea! Then, what’s a climate hub?

“I realize that people may not immediately understand what a hub is,” said Bill Hohenstein, director of the Climate Change Program Office at the US Department of Agriculture.  Under his guidance, the USDA is setting up seven regional hubs, and three additional sub hubs, affiliated with state land grant colleges. The regional hub system allows the USDA, and farmers, to address issues specific to different areas. 

The hubs were announced in February and are still getting their footing. The idea is to get the latest science on this global problem out to USDA workers, and farmers, at the most local level.

“We’ve got staff all over the country, we’ve got offices in 3000 counties,” said Hohenstein.“Our research professionals are great at understanding agriculture and forests and range management and livestock. Many of them don’t know a whole lot about climate change, other than what they’re reading either in the paper or in the news.

“The hubs are going to try and give them the systematic, scientific, our best understanding of climate change — options they have to manage risks and also agriculture as a source of greenhouse gas emissions.” 

“I think they have the potential to be a great idea,” said Joe Casola, a staff scientist with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a think tank in Washington.

Casola said the climate hubs are based on a tried and true model to help farmers — 100 years ago, Congress created a partnership between the USDA and land grant colleges across the nation called the “Cooperative Extension” service.

“And if we can create through these hubs something that looks like the Extension Service, but that is supplying climate information, I think there is a potential to really get folks ahead of some of the impacts, as opposed to responding to them after the fact,” Casola said.

Some farm groups have expressed concern that the hubs will just amount to more government intrusion in how they run their farms. But, the USDA says it’s only providing another service, not forcing farmers to do anything new.

Back on his farm, Terry Jones welcomes the government’s effort. He says farmers need all the help they can get dealing with a changing climate.  

“It’s almost a matter of national security that we stay ahead of the curve,” Jones said. “We can overcome it, but it’s going to take research, sharing information, and willingness to not only use common sense, but also think outside the box.”

A seventh generation of Joneses is now playing on the farm. Terry Jones hopes the climate hubs will help keep them and future generations working this land. And who knows — maybe his grandchildren will marvel at what he was once able to grow here.