The team's model, coupling radio-delivered seasonal climate forecasts with participatory workshops for subsistence farmers, is the first to show that communication with farmers at a grassroots level helps them better understand and apply forecast information to their farming decisions. And better decisions on what to plant and when to plant and harvest means better yields, even in difficult years. The team's research is reported in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"The findings show that the farmers made good decisions in response to good information," says Patt, interpreting the data on improved crop yields for farmers who participated in the workshops. "The workshops offered a communication system that allowed the farmers to take maximum advantage of forecast information being presented in radio broadcasts."
According to Patt, director of undergraduate studies and an assistant professor in BU's Department of Geography and Environment, the data showing better decision making and better crop yields also can help support decisions by developing nations, such as Zimbabwe, on whether to incur the additional expense that an annual workshops program would demand.
"It's a worthwhile communications strategy," says Patt. "It makes a difference in the lives of these subsistence farmers, many of whom often must still depend on some level of food aid."
When launching their study, the team sought answers to two questions: 1) do farmers who use forecast information to make decisions that change their usual approach to farming actually benefit from having done so?; and 2) are subsistence farmers with access to a sustained participatory communications process more likely to use the information than farmers who hear about the forecasts through less interactive channels, such as radio reports alone?
For the study, the team selected four villages in Zimbabwe, both because the villages represented a cross-section of growing conditions for this sub-Saharan Africa nation and because Zimbabwe's climate is strongly influenced by the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. Research has shown that climate variations caused by the ENSO cycle can explain more than 60 percent of the variance in maize yields for farmers in this country.
Farmers in each village -- Tiya, Mhakwe, Mafa, and Mkoka -- had access to seasonal weather forecasts that were developed by the Southern African Regional Climate Outlook Forum and repackaged and disseminated by radio by the Zimbabwe Department of Meteorological Services. The forecasts contained rainfall probabilities for early (October - December) and late (January - March) parts of the growing season.
To augment the information received in the radio weather broadcasts, the team held a series of annual participatory workshops in each village. Participants were randomly selected from each village's population of subsistence farmers. At the workshops, the farmers heard explanations of the rainfall forecasts and were able to ask questions of the agricultural service officers attending the sessions. After four years of workshops, the team surveyed participants and non-participants in each village about farming decisions, crop yields, and other demographic factors.
During a two-year period, the team collected surveys from 367 individuals who had received information through a workshops or other medium, such as radio. For those respondents who had received information through workshops, two-thirds had changed their decisions concerning what and when to plant and when to harvest. For those respondents who had not participated in a workshop, none had changed their planting or harvesting decisions.
When the researchers compared crop yields for the two groups of respondents, they found that even in "bad" growing years, farmers who had participated in workshops reported better crop yields than did farmers who had not participated in the workshops -- a 9.4 percent increase over two years with an 18.7 percent increase in a particularly "good" growing year.
The researchers conclude that, given the opportunity to participate in workshops that allow them to learn more about broadcast weather forecasts, subsistence farmers are both more likely to use the forecast information and to use it to make decisions that improve their crop yields.
In addition to Patt, the team includes Pablo Suarez, a visiting scholar in BU's Department of Geography and Environment, and Chiedza Gwata, a lecturer in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.
Boston University's Department of Geography and Environment emphasizes traditional geographic theory, quantitative techniques, and environmental and policy studies. Boston University, with an enrollment of more than 30,000 in its 17 schools and colleges, is the fourth-largest independent university in the United States.