Here’s How Climate Information Can Guide Farmers’ Decisions

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Syed Sayeed, C+S ’16

When most people think of a weather forecast, they usually think of a forecast 1-10 days in advance. While these forecasts are the most familiar, they are only one end of a spectrum.

On the other end are forecasts that range up to months in advance. Farmers in the developing world are increasingly using these types of forecasts to make decisions that directly impact their livelihoods.


Jamaica’s Drought outlook from the Farmer’s Bulletin, May 2016. Credit: Jamaica Climate

Accurate forecasts at both the short term and long term could help farmers decide when and what to plant and how to attend to their crops. If farmers had a good way of telling when the rainy season would start, they could decide when to plant so that their seeds would get enough moisture. If they knew the conditions a week or more in advance, farmers could decide whether to apply fertilizers (if the chance of a washout is low) or pesticides (if the conditions will be right for pests). If they knew how wet the year’s rainy season was going to be, farmers could make decisions about what crops to plant to take advantage of the rain.

Meteorological agencies in the developing world are increasing their capabilities to provide longer term forecasts in a form tailored for farmers. Many are producing farmer bulletins that bring together agricultural and meteorological insights to advise farmers of the bigger picture of climate conditions in the country including recent rainfall and drought — and what to expect in the future.

Jamaica is one country that has begun to produce a monthly farmer’s bulletin. The food-producing regions are mainly dry so food production there is very sensitive to rainfall.

Several data inputs go into making these bulletins. Weather stations throughout the country are used to monitor which areas have been experiencing dry or wet conditions. Worldwide oceanic and atmospheric conditions — for example the state of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation — can be used to predict whether an upcoming season should be wetter or dryer than average.

Coconuts and sugar cane in Jamaica. Credit: Christina Xu/Flickr

Coconuts and sugar cane in Jamaica. Credit: Christina Xu/Flickr

In Jamaica, current climate models indicate a wet year. The main reason is because of the strong likelihood of La Niña forming later this year. That usually translates to wetter than normal conditions for Jamaica. That creates opportunity — strong rains are good after recent dry spells that hurt crops — but also risk because heavy rains could bring flooding.

Farmers must act under this uncertainty. In some cases, they also collect and act on data themselves. In India and Mali, farmers use rain gauges to monitor rainfall themselves. A certain amount of rain will indicate that the time is right for planting. The bulletins in these countries provide the threshold amounts for various crops.

In Jamaica, regularly-held trainings bring together farmers, agricultural specialists, and meteorologists to exchange knowledge. Information on both short term and long term weather expectations can be found on a centralized website for farmers.

By providing forecasts at the longer timescale and partnering with groups to bring the right knowledge to farmers, meteorological agencies are meeting farmers’ demand for more climate information and better decision making abilities.

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