Date of Award

Spring 5-7-2021

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Ecology and Environmental Sciences


Eric Gallandt

Second Committee Member

Adam Daigneault

Third Committee Member

Sonja Birthisel


Climate change poses a challenge to farming systems worldwide. Effective adaptation and mitigation may be facilitated by outreach that is locally tailored and framed in terms of farmers’ perceptions and values. However, existing research suggests that farmers and those providing outreach may have different climate change perspectives, and there is little understanding of how farmers consider and prioritize climate change in relation to other aspects of their farming system. Furthermore, the diverse agricultural, economic, social, and environmental challenges farmers face require agricultural research and engagement efforts that can identify and adapt to farmers’ dynamic priorities and perceptions. Mental modeling is one tool that can capture how stakeholders perceive such interconnecting factors and relationships within a given system. This thesis presents two studies aimed at addressing the question of how mental modeling may be utilized to identify farmer perceptions of their whole-farming systems in order to inform farmer engagement efforts, particularly in the context of climate change resilience. First, to compare how farmers and outreach professionals in northern New England considered climate change within the context of whole-farming systems, mental modeling interviews with 33 farmers and 16 outreach professionals were conducted in 2019. Mental models were elicited in real-time with individual interview participants, and aggregated for analysis between farmer and outreach professional groups. Second, an online survey of northern New England farmers was conducted in 2020 to elicit whole-farming system mental models indirectly. The objectives of this survey were to analyze similarities and differences with the directly elicited interview-based mental models, identify whole-farming system priorities across a diverse group of farmers, and to understand whether the COVID-19 pandemic impacted how farmers perceived the functional components and processes of their farming systems. Both studies reveal opportunities for farmer engagement and future mental modeling research. Namely, only one-quarter of participants in the farmer and outreach professional interviews included a concept related to climate or climate change in their mental models, suggesting that climate change concerns are not at the forefront of either group’s farming system decision-making. Further, the directly elicited mental models indicated that farmers perceived human and social dimensions, such as quality of life and community well-being, as significantly more important to their farming systems than outreach professionals perceived. However, different farmer priorities were found through the survey-based mental models, which also revealed differences in model structure between the two elicitation methods. Overall, this work identifies opportunities for improving farmer engagement efforts through embedding climate change outreach within its broader relationship to other farming system aspects, addressing gaps in farmer and outreach professional perceptions of farming systems, and understanding how mental model elicitation effects model outcomes in order to inform outreach efforts that can identify and adapt to farmers’ dynamic priorities and perceptions.