The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada's agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.
Episode 015 - Citizen Science
Researchers cannot be everywhere at once. Laura Richard manages the Agroclimate Impact Reporter (AIR). This citizen science projects relies on producers all across the country to help our scientists and decision-makers to know how the weather impacts agriculture at a local scale. Trevor Atchinson is a fourth generation rancher from Pipestone MB and a second generation contributor to AIR.
Laura: Agriculture was developed by folks communicating what's happening, communicating management practices. It goes back thousands of years. And what we're doing now is tapping into that resource that's always been there, that vast knowledge base that is all of our producers and all of our support services. Citizen science is 10,000 years old, and we're just tapping into it.
Sara: That's the voice of Laura Richard. She's an agro climate analyst with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. And she works with a national network of citizen scientists to collect weather observation data.
Kirk: The network is called the Agro Climate Impact Reporter. The citizen scientists who contribute to the reporter are mostly current or retired agricultural producers. It's one of the few successful citizen science projects worldwide that collects volunteer reports about weather impacts on agriculture.
Sara: And what they contribute to and produce has important economic and policy ramifications.
Kirk: It's where a true collaboration of scientists and producers is giving our sector rich data sets and maps that drive decisions made at the farm, corporation and government levels.
Sara: For this episode, I spoke with Laura Richard to get the science perspective.
Kirk: And I spoke with Trevor Atchison, a cattle rancher from Manitoba who is one of the contributing citizen scientists. His family has been ranching since 1900 and they have a long history of contributing as citizen scientists. You'll learn why it is so important to him and to our sector.
Sara: And we will introduce you to one of my new favourite terms — ground truth, more on that in a little bit.
Kirk: I love it. Ground truth. Let's hear first from Laura.
Sara: Before we dive in can you explain the term citizen science?
Laura: Citizen science is a collaboration between the general public and professional scientist to collect information to help improve the state of scientific knowledge as a whole. It's the act of democratizing our information and data collection.
Sara: So, tell me about the Agro Climate Impact Reporter (aka AIR).
Laura: So once a month, producers are invited to participate in a short survey to inform us here at AAFC about what kind of impacts weather has had on their farms and what kind of issues they're dealing with. We gather these reports into a big database, and then we use some interpolation and create impact maps and really, we have access to so much data, we have got sensory data from satellite observations, we've got stream flow data, we've got weather station data.
Sara: And that tells you a lot but you need more to understand the impacts? Is that correct?
Laura: We can make inferences about what the impacts are going to be on production based on that data. But the only way to really know how whether that rain helped or hindered is to hear it directly from the producer. And so getting those impact reports help fill the gaps in our data sets by letting us know what's going on in the ground.
Scientists call this "ground truthing." And that's really what the Agro climate impact reporter does for us, is to ground truths, our understanding of what's happening in terms of weather and climate impacts.
Sara: Are all of your reporters agricultural producers?
Laura: Well, our reporters are very diverse. They range from local producers, just, you know, letting us know what's happening on their farm to industry personnel. We've got a lot of participants that work for our RM offices, that work for provincial governments, that understand the conditions in their area and report on behalf of the folks in their in their region. Their motivations for reporting is as varied as the groups that we have reporting for us.
Sara: So it sounds like your reporters might also be the people who use your maps and data sets.
Laura: Well, reporters that participate can use the maps and the products that we output for planning and understanding the conditions around them. So, for example, in a year like this one where feed availability is a big concern, it's of significant value for producers. And they're able to see a map that shows in their area where our feed supply is available, and where are those supplies strained. Similarly, this year, we've been dealing with a lot of grasshopper and pest issues. It can be very useful for producers to be able to see a map of where those pest infestations are and how they're migrating across the landscape.
Sara: And how is AAFC using the data from the reporters?
Laura: We use it in a lot of internal reporting. So when we're reporting up to our ministers, when we're providing reports on Agro climate risk, we use the impacts and the and the quotes and the information that we get from our reporters to help inform our senior management. One of the programs that we do that that we contribute to with our AIR information is Agri-Recovery, which is a business risk management program that's part of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership between federal, provincial and territory territorial governments for disaster relief. And the focus there is really on extraordinary costs. So the agro climate impact reporter helps us identify those areas of extreme impacts and extreme cost to producers so that we can appropriately consider that in our risk management strategies.
Sara: And are other governmental agency or a non-governmental organization using the data?
Laura: Yes, absolutely. We participate in drought for air and provincial drought meetings. In the summer, we've been very integrated in in the drought meetings in in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, because drought has been such a big concern.
Sara: The reporting site where you have all the maps used to be called Drought Watch, right? Now it is the Agro-Climate Impact Reporter.
Laura: We've got all of our precipitation and temperature maps. We've got drought forecasts. We've got satellite data, satellite soil, moisture data, veg dry, so like a vegetation health index, that's that censed remotely. We've got all of that information. So we have updated our website to include Agro climate so that it doesn't sound so focused on just drought.
Sara: So, what's the strength and value of this network?
Laura: Again, the strength and value is the ability to ground truth. So what if it rained? So what if it was hot? The benefit and the reward of being part of this program is that you get to help answer that question. And describe to you know, to governments and to the people that are making decisions and putting in supports exactly what's happening in your area.
Sara: We are talking about major weather events and drought. But what about the good growing years?
Laura: That's a very good question. That speaks to the value of having a long term database of known impacts. So it's not so much that, you know, that there's a lot of value in knowing that things are good. They're like, it's good to know where things where things are good. But like we were saying earlier, it's about being able to say, you know, this region out of the last five years has reported pest issues. Four out of those five years.
Sara: What about the recovery or transition periods as well? You know the time between bad and good years?
Laura: Absolutely. That's another one of the key features that we're able to pick out is if we know in June there, you know, everybody in Saskatchewan say was reporting, you know, very, very, very low soil moisture. And then we get and then we get a rain we can see in the next month. Sometimes you can you can actually see exactly where the rain fell that month, because you can see the changes in in soil conditions as reported by the producers. And, you know, we've heard this in the media, the idea that in some parts of Canada, climate change could actually improve conditions there, you know, it can extend what would be the growing season. It could extend the limits of where we can grow certain crops. So in that context, being able to track where things are going really well is just as important as tracking where things are being impacted, because we need to understand both ends of that, that climate change impact equation. And we need to know where it's causing damage and how it's hampering production.
Sara: I'm just wondering about for you, personally. How has this changed your view of your particular field of science?
Laura: I think what I've learned over the last number of years is that especially historically, science has been somewhat extractive. You know, the way that we approach citizens, the way that we approach industry and ask for information and ask for input has typically been an extractive process where we give you a list, we give you a survey, we ask you to fill it out, and then it just disappears into the void. It might be part of something that informs a policy somewhere, but all of that is happening in a black box. And the AIR program and this move towards citizen science, I think is reframing that entire conversation from one of extraction to one of relationship. Where we are invested in each other's success and the way that that information is being is being moved, is being done in a in a more transparent way. And I think that just in terms of my career, if there's one thing that you know, that I could help move the stick on a little bit, it would be building that relationship and making that investment in in farmers and producers in the things that they need. Because without citizen science, we don't have the answer to that, so "what question?" In science and technology branch, we like I said, we model temperature, we can model precipitation, we can track harvest progress. We can't you know, we've got all of these lever. The one lever that we do not have and cannot have as a federal agency is what is happening on the ground. And this program is how AAFC addresses that gap in in our understanding.
Kirk: You know, Sara, hearing what Laura had to say, I looked at the maps and data on the AIR web pages and I really view them quite differently now.
Sara: And I imagine your conversation with Trevor Atchison changed your way to see them, too. Kirk: It did. And for different reasons. Have a listen…
Kirk: Trevor, to start with can you tell us a bit about your farm operation?
Trevor: We are in southwest Manitoba. We are about 40 miles north of the U.S. border and 40 miles east of the Saskatchewan border near Pipestone. We run, we have just under 800 cows this spring. And so we run over about 5500. You should call it deeded or acres. And then we rent about another 4000 almost to pasture and hay and different things to make up our total farm. It's my myself, my wife. I have two children, nine and seven, my parents are still involved and I have a nephew that's quite involved in our operation. And my niece comes to help when she can sort of thing. And then we have a couple on and off, usually a full time employees. So yeah, we put up a lot of feed for those cows and we grain farm and we'll crop about six to eight hundred acres of those of that feed into cash crops and whatnot.
Kirk: How many generations of your family have been farming there?
Trevor: I am the fourth generation and the fifth generation is now involved. We've been here since nineteen hundred.
Kirk: So, how did you get started in the air network?
Trevor: Well, it was. My father was involved with it prior to me. One of my dad's brothers was a he was a weather forecaster for Environment Canada. And I think that's how they got started. I'm not exactly sure my father was involved in boards and lots of different things in those days, and I think that's where it came from. And then it kind of got passed off to me.
Kirk: So, can you describe for us exactly what you do as a citizen scientist, as part of the AIR network?
Trevor: So we are we, I guess, have a phone conversation or a phone call fill out sort of a short survey monthly on the, you know, I guess I just felt more climate conditions more or less, you know, the moisture or whether what issues are going on, as are pests in your crops, you know, the growing season or is there growing season advanced or behind have frosts that have hampered crop growth.
Moisture, of course, is always the, you know, main topic when you're a farmer or growing anything. So that's all part of it. So you we do that once a month with a staff member from AAFC, and then they compile that up. So we kind of try to keep tabs on what's going on in our, you know, sort of local immediate area. So we can report on that and give a, you know, a pretty accurate description of what it's like here in the landscape.
Kirk: You look at your local conditions, conditions on your farm. I get the impression that your radar is wider? What other conditions are on your radar that affect your operation?
Trevor: I mean, the drought went from B.C. to Ontario to Mexico, you know, to northern prairies. You know, that tells a person like me that, you know, we're it's a it's a bit of a, you know, firestorm where everything can go wrong at once. And it is, and it's going to create a lack of food shortages. And you know, most of the acres, a lot of the agriculture area of North America, which affects our entire business. So like you said, our radar is huge because it's you're not affected by what happens local anymore. It's the global marketplace that we that farms operate in.
So, you know, as far as that, I mean, if there's major like at one time, those major crops are going to come off in Australia now we're talking all things rodent damage and whatnot over there. Little things like that. So all those things that are worldwide marketplace affect us. So you kind of got to be, you know, you can't sit around, worry about them all day, but you need to be cognizant that those things are happening because they do affect your operation and you know how you're going to market, you know, you know, if it feeds really expensive, should it be, you should. You should we be selling some around animals will.
Feed are so expensive, but cattle are going down in value because everybody else is short of feed, so you're right, it's a big the scope today of, you know, analyzing what's going on in your life and what affects our business and our family. Life is a lot bigger than it used to be.
In fact, we've had, you know, retired farmers that have helped us over the years. And, you know, more than one has made the comment that they sure wouldn't want to be, you know, put themselves back in that my age and my place in an operation because it's a lot different world with so many things are coming out yet once nowadays versus, you know, in their time 30, 40, 50 years ago, it's a different world for most business owners of any facet. But it's it gets complicated some days, for sure.
Those people that are setting policy can't deny what's happened on the landscape because it's reported by those on the ground that are living it, that see it every day. When I looked out my door and the grasshoppers were flying by and the grass was brown and the end of June. And then when you had, you know, those producer groups go to meet with government — they need that kind of information. Governments and producer groups are using the data and maps, yes. I take it you do, too. And you're connecting it to other climate and market impacts. Why do you find the Agro-Climate Impact Reporter website useful? And if we, you know, I can go to the website and pull up, you know what happened? How big is the drought map? You know where the flood, whatever they are, it can go on and it takes. It's quick, I mean, you just click on, select what you want and it's there. You're not looking through 40 things, and there isn't 18 ads that show up prior to offering the one screen you want. It just gives you what you want.
Kirk: Why do you think other producers or others in our sector should get involved in this form of citizen science?
Trevor: I don't think it takes 10 minutes to do the phone call, pretty quick thing. So it's a it's a great tool that producers and agriculture and, you know, other weather related industries need this kind of stuff recorded.
Kirk: You get satisfaction from being part of the network?
Trevor: You know, you feel like it's a little bit of your duty to report that because some day I'm going to need those reports for more than just looking at what's happening in the last month. It's for, you know, situations like we ran into this year. So it gives you that sense of contribution, I guess, to a bigger, you know, a bigger entity that can in the long term help you out when the time comes.
Sara: Nice. So much of our work in this sector comes back to that sense of duty. It's duty to our community, duty to the environment, duty to the sector.
Kirk: In your interview with Laura Richard, there is a similar sentiment. I got the feeling that her work means a lot to her.
Sara: It does. In fact, at the end of our interview she talked about it.
Laura: The act of helping the public to communicate with science and helping science to better communicate to the public. I can't think of a higher calling or a more fun job than getting to be the connector in that in that equation, to be able to help both groups understand each other better. Well, it's ok. So we do phone calls every month. So those conversations are the highlight of my month every month with some of these producers. When you get on the phone with them and you say, you know, how is your soil moisture compared to normal? When you ask a scientist that you get a map that compares the amount of precipitation in that area to the amount of precipitation on that day for the last 30 years. But when you ask a producer, you access this this well of information where you don't just hear about what's happening now, you hear about the way it was when they were children and it was their parents farm or their grandparents farm. Some of these producers have been on this land managing it for generations. And to be able to bring that kind of understanding and that that kind of engagement to our science is incredibly valuable because they know what's normal in their area. They know the way that their landscape reacts to these different kinds of weather conditions in a way that that we just can't see. Looking at the data, understanding the types of management practices that have been employed in the past. Understanding the kinds of decisions that producers are making. I mean, these phone calls and going through the report is an opportunity to really get that that historical context and that personal story that exists on every one of the farms that, you know, that we're that we're trying to support across the country.
Kirk: Wonderful stuff! So, now our listeners may be wondering how they can get involved in the Agro Climate Impact Reporter.
Sara: Pretty simple. Just go to your computer, use your search engine to look up Agro climate Impact Reporter. It will bring you right to the web page where you can learn more, you can check out the maps and data… and sign up.
Kirk: That's sounds like the new thing to try. And you know our old adage?
Sara: Can you have an old adage that always tells you to try something new?
Kirk: Oh. Okay. I guess, uh, let's call it the evergreen adage: Try something new.
Sara: Try something new. One day we'll have to try a new adage.
Kirk: Next episode. We'll do that.
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