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Randi Johnson – Director of the Climate Change Division of the USDA NIFA and former leader of the USDA Climate Hubs

Jan 7, 2020

Randi is a 24 year USDA veteran with experience ranging from research genetics to managing director in the domains of forestry and climate change. Randi chats with us about the most pressing challenges at the intersection of climate and agriculture.

This week in Agriculture Adapts:

The practical barriers that complicate climate solutions in agriculture What are the big climate-ag questions the USDA has set out to tackle Why climate change is more widely accepted in the agriculture community than people think

00:00 / 00:00

Borna (ClimateAi) 0:03
This is Agriculture Adapts by ClimateAi. Every week we speak with industry leading executives, farmers and academics to get a 360 view of how the agriculture sector is innovating to stay ahead of a changing climate. I’m your host Borna Poursheikhani. And I am your co-host Himanshu Gupta. We’re a team of climate scientists and agriculture entrepreneurs trying to make farming more resilient, profitable and equitable as we transition to a new age of agriculture. This podcast is our journey as we explore the hurdles and opportunities that lie ahead for the industry that feed the world. Just one clarifying point before we dive in here this interview was recorded a while back and is now being released after Randi retired from his role. Without further ado, please enjoy the episode.

Hello and welcome. We have another exciting episode here for you today with us we have Randi Johnson, the director of the global climate change division of the USDA National Institute of Food and Ag or the USDA nifa Also the former leader of the USDA climate house. Before that she was a national program lead of genetics and climate change. And she has a PhD in forest genetics. Randi, how are you?

Randi Johnson 1:10
I’m good. Thanks, and you?

Borna (ClimateAi) 1:12
doing well. Thank you so much for joining us here on this podcast today. Good to be here. Awesome. So we have a lot to talk about today. But I was thinking we can sort of start with your backstory and then go into some, some high level stuff about your work and then kind of dig into the more niche and the more specific problems that we’re seeing in the agriculture industry today.

Randi Johnson 1:30
So I got into climate change in a roundabout way. I mean, like you said, I have a PhD in forest genetics, and I was a research geneticists for most of my career. And I came to Washington, DC to be the national program leader, of course, genetics, at the Forest Service in their r&d part. When the climate change person left I was asked to step in until they hired somebody and that was in 2009. And by the time we hired somebody that had already been well established in the climate change field, I helped start the US Da climate hubs with colleagues at hrs the Agricultural Research Service and NRCS Natural Resource Conservation Service, and ended up being the first national leader of the USDA climate hubs. When my rotation ended there, the job came up in here at Nipa as the director for the climate change division, and I thought it was a good fit for me. So three years ago, I moved over to nifa. So that’s kind of how I went from being a tree breeder to managing a climate change program. Very cool.

Borna (ClimateAi) 2:29
And would you mind telling us a little bit more about what the climate hubs do and what nifa does?

Randi Johnson 2:34
All right, well, the climate hubs were put together under the previous administration. And their goal was to translate science into something usable, that farmers, ranchers and forest land managers can use. And so the idea was we’re going to take all this science and help land managers use it and we’re going to get that to the land managers, not ourselves but to their trusted networks being you know, Cooperative Extension or the US Ca service centers that way because with limited staff, there’s no way. For example, a regional climate hub now has between two to four people maximum. And you don’t get to see a lot of people when you’re doing your day job. You don’t talk to farmers. So it’s important that we work through extension, we work through the service centers, to get the information to land managers that in a way that which they will use them. And that’s the really challenging part because translating science into something usable, takes more than just science. It takes understanding people, what motivates them, what kind of information they need. So now what’s the climate hopes here at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture nifa. Our job is to help solve the crucial questions in agriculture and forestry, by funding extramural research meaning we have a budget. Some of that is called formula funds that go straight out to land grant universities and help determine what those crucial questions are puts together requests For applications, when we ask people to write proposals to help answer these questions, we get a whole boatload of proposals in. And then our goal is to find the best ones. And we do that by bringing in panel experts to help us rank them. And then given the amount of money, we go down the ranking and fund these things. And so our goal was to identify the questions and then find the best research we can find, answer those hard questions in agriculture.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 4:25
So a quick follow up question there. Andy, what are the kind of questions that are being explored now when it comes to agriculture and climate change since a lot now, since the last two years?

Randi Johnson 4:35
How do we increase productivity so we can feed a growing population? And at the same time, instead of having a detrimental effect on the environment, how do we improve the environment and increase productivity and allow the farmer to remain profitable, which is a very difficult combination to go to. So we’re looking at a lot of those questions. A lot of them deal with like soil Help, you know understanding the processes that happened in the soil. That way as we look at projected changes in climate, if we understand the processes, we can better predict how the land is going to respond. And if we understand the processes, we can also come up with management procedures to help improve soil health, improve water quality, reduce erosion. So those types of things we’re looking at. I mean, we also look on the animal side, a lot of our projects in the past have been looking for variation so we can put like heat tolerance and chickens. My program kind of works from molecules, meaning genes to landscapes that try to get the big picture what’s happening. So while our research is also good for for land managers to help them manage because of the scale, hopefully it helps policymakers understand the impacts of their policy on the landscape. Not that we dictate policy, but we can provide information to help policymakers

Borna (ClimateAi) 6:00
I guess just a follow up there. Like there’s so many different types of problems, when you consider the ag sector, like ag as a whole is a very general term. How do you go about prioritizing something that might be apples to oranges, you know, and giving something a little bit more money than the other given that there’s regional differences across the US, but then there’s also like, some of these issues are very different from one another. So how do you go about thinking about that problem?

Randi Johnson 6:25
You know, like I said, we get a lot of input. Keep in mind, our budget for the National Institute nag we have 50 line items in Congress. And usually with some of these budget numbers, they give us guidance. So we have certain ditches we have to stay within and within those ditches. We identify the priorities. We try to get input from stakeholders. Nipa has listening sessions we we listen to extension, we talk closely with the researchers we find. We try to listen to what comes out of commodity groups. In our national program leaders are saying Scientists that you know, know their field. And then of course, you’ve got different scientists. And that’s where it comes is, you know, what is the priority? So there is no one way that it’s done. It’s just the group, we have to make priorities, which means we have to work closely across our specialty fields.

Borna (ClimateAi) 7:18
So I was looking through your guys’s website, and there’s a lot of talk about how using historical practices and things that people may have been doing in the last 50 years may not be applicable for the next 50. And you see things across the website, like, you got to throw the old calendar out the window, you know, throw out intuition as well. We got to use all the data that we got, in terms of that, how receptive are people to that if someone’s been, you know, using the same practices for the last 50 years? Are people open to that change? Do they see it as something that needs to happen or is is there a little bit of pushback there?

Randi Johnson 7:54
The thing with climate change, the real pushback, is it changing because most land mines Just will tell you that if you walk out into your field and the conditions they deal with, are not the same as what their parents dealt with. So they recognize changes, the real issue is, whose fault is it? Or is it anybody’s fault? And really question is not important because what’s fortunate in agriculture and forestry is as we adapt and get more healthy and more productive practices in germ plasm out there are actually mitigating as well. So, you know, by wanting to keep your nutrients in your field, you’re watering your field, reduce erosion, I mean, all this increases productivity and it reduces environmental impacts. So So the issue isn’t, is it recognized because I think most land managers who have been around for a while will tell you that spring starting earlier, now they’re seeing more extreme weather events. I mean, it’s like the Midwest. It might get warmer sooner, but when your fields saturated It doesn’t give you any more growing season because you can’t get the tractor in there. And those things aren’t deniable. So the pushback isn’t because they don’t see the changes. It’s because we’re using the wrong word. Sometimes. It’s hard to change. I mean, it’s one thing farmers are really good about adapting to weather variability, it’s what they’ve had to do for centuries. But the variability is getting greater and greater in the averages are actually going up or with terms of precipitation down and up. And so they understand something has to change. And a lot of what we’re finding Now here is the social science. What do we have to provide people in order for them to make the positive change? We want to see, there are realities in life that farmers have to deal with. It’s, you know, making sure you pay off your loan. Something one of my regional directors told me what the humps was, I said, Isn’t this a great idea how they can spread this out and she looked at me said, Randy, you don’t understand? Well, the most valuable resources a farmer has is time. And if you’re asking them to go out in their field three more times a year, it’s probably not going to happen. Because they want to watch their kid play baseball, a lot of them have second jobs. So these are practical things that are going to limit what we can and cannot do.

Borna (ClimateAi) 10:21
Wanted to dig a little bit deeper into this data question. So it’s about how are we getting this information out? How are we getting more data? So is the USDA currently pointing growers towards private and public sector tools to be using and and what are some of the platforms through which people can be finding these tools?

Randi Johnson 10:38
The climate hubs are trying to provide tools, universities, an extension or providing tools of their own whether it’s through grants we gave or their own funds, there are a lot of commodity groups recognizing there needs to be changes. Fortunately, there’s more money going out than just from the USDA. NOAA has their resources out there. which provide a lot of good climate information for people in a usable form. We point people to them, if you really want data for research, honestly, most of that lies in the private sector. JOHN DEERE can probably tell you more about the impact of climate and weather on crops because their equipment collects a lot of data. And it’s proprietary. And talk at Napa and FFA are about how can we utilize some of this proprietary data to make better decisions and develop better tools. The climate Corporation has their suite of tools that’s private. So there’s a lot out there. And I mean, what we struggle with here is, you know, when developing a tool, you need to do it with the landowner. So you’re making sure you’re answering their question and not the geeky researcher question. In that you provide them something which actually, they find usable. And we funded a program out of Purdue called useful to usable which was so we got our stuff, how do we give somebody something they can use? And so I’m not sure what the certified crop advisor use. Like I said, I’ve been high level, I manage broad areas. I don’t get out in the field much to get out, but I mean and live out there.

Borna (ClimateAi) 12:16
So you’ve seen a lot of projects come through during your time, and never as well, the climate hubs, what do you think are like the top three problems facing? And again, very broad to consider the agriculture sector, but what are the top three problems that you see that we’ve been dealing with over the past few years and coming down the pipeline here?

Randi Johnson 12:37
If you fly over the Great Plains, you see these green circles, okay. The reason you have green versus Brown is water in water is an issue, which is really, I think, becoming more and more severe. As we see increased floods, increased droughts, as we see many of these ographers you know, the water tables are dropping Central Valley accounts. fornia I mean, when you’re hurt, the water table dropped 35 feet, they’ll walk okorafor might be another 35 years, you’d have to check the numbers. So water is not only short term, but long term issues. Look in Nebraska this year. I mean, if you can’t get you know, the field is flooded, you’re out of luck. And it’s not only too much it’s too little, we’ll see we’re seeing more intense and prolonged droughts. If you look at the risk management agency, reasons for giving out insurance in the same field, it can be flood and drought almost because in the springtime, you got too much water. By the time you’re getting to the end of your growing season you’ve run out. So to me water is probably the most crucial thing but that’s not to say the others aren’t important temperatures in there as well. I mean that impacts drought, especially when it comes to pest. I mean in forestry. If you look at the mountain pine beetle, the warmer summer longer growing season, the warmer winters has led to a massive outbreak. And I mean, that’s because the beetle turns an extra generation every summer because it stays warmer water. And then you don’t have the severe cost to knock down the population. And we’ve had this terrible mountain beetle problem in the West. For years now, in agriculture, we’re finding the same thing new pests and diseases are moving north, because they’re now adapted to a warmer moisture climate. So in water is part of all that. Those are the things which which come to my mind right away. It depends on your your sector. I mean, if you’re dealing with livestock, I mean, he becomes a real problem. Dairy, milk production goes down if the key gets too great. So I mean, there’s pick your sector and it’ll be a little bit different each time but to me, I mean, water impacts other things. I mean, with these extreme events, we’re getting much more erosion, meaning we’re losing the top soil, more runoff into the strain. So as you get into Trouble with EPA if you’re not careful. So it’s just, to me, that’s what I would focus on if I was a researcher, but I’m just a high level, whatever. So

Borna (ClimateAi) 15:08
I want to go back to this issue of water that you’re talking about. It seems like a pretty good sell for cover crops. And it seems like something that’s pretty useful across the board. Anywhere from I think research has shown that you can get 100 times less runoff going into your rivers, which is solving a lot of these eutrophication issues, which is, you know, causing these dead zones like in the Gulf right now. And then you also can see more drought and flood resilience in these fields that use cover crops. So it seems like it’s something that’s kind of useful across the board, I guess, how widespread are these practices today? And what do we need to do to push them further?

Randi Johnson 15:44
I don’t have the data at my fingertips, economic research, service, national ag stats, and NRCS perhaps better data on that, and they’re increasing. I mean, not a great race from what I can guess the real issue is going back to what we talked about earlier. I have to make a profit this year, or I’m not farming next year. That’s just the facts of life. If I’m planting cover crops, and it comes at a cost, in cover crops, take it, take a while before you really start seeing soil health impacts them, if you’re leaving them there, there, they’re providing cover on the top of soil is no tell I mean, that will help reduce erosion. But you know, in my quick look at some of the studies, I mean, you don’t get an instant return necessarily. And once again, it is very dependent upon where you’re doing it. So you’ve got to overcome that. Prove to me that it’s worth my while. And I’m not gonna lose money because unless you have something to do with that cover crop, meaning you’re going to graze it, or you can get some biomass off of it for whatever you’re doing. It’s not always the profit right away could be a cost and I mean, some of the research we’re talking about now is less than Developing cover crops that actually have a product that comes out of it. So that, you know, it’s just that I’m planting this mix of seed, I could find it a good price just to build soil organic matter, and hold down the soil, but I actually make a little money on it.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 17:18
When you started the interview, Randy, you talked about how there’s a lot of research being happening, you know, geeky research as you as you used, which doesn’t find its way to the growers, for obvious reasons. And we see a lot of in our company as well, when we look at the research journals 10s of papers being produced every day, you know, coming up with conclusions on climate change and impacts of climate change on agriculture or by the seed selection. So walk us through like, what did you do when you set up those climate change hubs and set up the climate change hub? And what are you doing now, in order to ensure that the new research that has been done is communicated to the relevant agencies

Randi Johnson 18:00
What we did do is first do an inventory of what was out there, just so we could see what was useful and usable and work from there. And with the resources we have we we’ve only developed a handful of new tools which were helpful useful, the hubs. But our goal is really like I said, we’re working with providing the next level down, meaning extension, the reason chrome certified crop accountant, advisors, our service center people with information to help them move on and develop things. So we’re more of a catalyst with the hubs, we realized we didn’t have enough resources to be the end all for everybody. But how could we take the groups out there help them work better together. And for example, in many of our regions, we’ve actually brought extension together from different states and across their regions and they’ve been able to work better together. We’ve been a real good convener. It’s the hubs, bringing people together so that they could work more efficiently and we We’ve actually been able to connect USDA researchers, with researchers from other agencies better connect them with, with university researchers. So that’s kind of how the hubs have had to operate because we’re not running off a big budget here at NASA. Because we write the request for applications they rfas. We’ve been working hard to make sure that these proposals come in with advisory groups that include users, so that there’s actually user input and the research up front. We want integrated programs, which means not only is it research, but it has to include extension and or education. So in writing our request for proposals, I mean, don’t get me wrong, we still fund much of the basic research, but we made a concerted effort to say, hey, you’ve got to work with extension, you’ve got to provide educational products, we have to see something that somebody can use relatively soon. Because I mean, the basic research is crucial. But the impacts come decades later off, we wanted to make sure that some of the work we’re funding would give us quicker impacts. So that’s kind of how we’re doing it. nifa. And, you know, when we identify the right problems, it could be a problem, which we think we can get quicker turnaround on and make a bigger impact, so that we see results of appeals quicker.

Borna (ClimateAi) 20:27
What is the budget in terms of funding these projects? Like, how much money do you guys have to work with? And do you feel that it’s enough for now?

Randi Johnson 20:36
It’s never enough. But I mean, if you look at the NASA budget, Congress has been good to us. I mean, we’re like $1.6 billion, and probably about 900 million of that is competitive. Now, if you’re asking how much goes to climate, I mean, that gets really tricky because we have to do cross cuts every year, and I wasn’t able to find them. But climate can be everything because climate packs everything, or it can be a specific thing, or Undersecretary has made it clear that climate adaptation is important. And we’re going to continue in that area. And like I said, we do that. Under sustainable agriculture, we do that under soil health. So instead of talking about it in the broad sense, we might talk about things that it impacts because honestly, everything we fund, weather slash climate is probably going to impact it. But what’s fortunate is, if I’m funding mitigation, meaning carbon, I’m actually coming up with adaptive practices that will help my field or force be more productive, be more healthy, and keep more of the resources on the site. So when I come up with what makes agriculture more adaptive to a changing climate, it’s also going to sequester more carbon so

Borna (ClimateAi) 21:55
awesome. Thanks so much. We learned a lot today. Appreciate it, man.

Randi Johnson 21:58
Thanks so much, guys.

Borna (ClimateAi) 22:02
Hey everybody, thanks for listening if you have any feedback or you’d like to add your own two cents on the topic discussed today, or if you’ve just got your own ideas about something that we should discuss in the future, please feel free to shoot me an email at At its core, this podcast is just a way for us to learn and we want to share our learnings as we go. So we’re always open to building on these conversations and hearing new perspectives. Thanks for your support and see you next time.


Randi Johnson

Former Director of the Global Climate Change Division of USDA-NIFA



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