Laura Lengnick is, among many other pursuits, a soil scientist who has put in over 30 years of work as a researcher and policy maker, a teacher and, most especially, a farmer, whose focus is on sustainability in agriculture and, therefore, food systems. Research for her book Resilient Agriculture took her throughout the country to see how other farmers were coping with problems of climate and economics; now she’ll be taking this experience to New York’s Hudson Valley as she becomes the Director of Agriculture at Glynwood, Center for Regional Food and Farming in September.
Glynwood, based in Cold Spring (Putnam County), New York, is a farm with a mission to help small- and mid-sized farms put down strong roots in the Hudson Valley and beyond by strengthening agricultural communities and regional food systems – including the re-regionalization of the U.S. food system as a whole.
Lengnick is based in Asheville, North Carolina, “so the plan is that I’ll be living and working at Glynwood for about 18 months to learn the farm and feel it through all the seasons,” she said, speaking from her home. “I’ll get to build relationships with both the staff and in the agriculture community. Then at some point I’ll head back to Asheville and do the job from there.”
Although there would seem to be a great deal of difference between the two areas, Lengnick finds a great deal of commonality where food and agriculture are concerned. “Asheville has a very active local food movement, with local farming and lots of organizations promoting healthy eating and connecting from the farm to the plate. But then in some ways they’re really different. Each of them has its own culture and landscape.”
And, while the Hudson Valley has seen an increase in the number of New York City transplants, Asheville has had its own influx of transplants from cities like Atlanta and Charlotte. The small city in the Blue Ridge Mountains appeals to former big city dwellers with its walkable downtown and River Arts District, former factory buildings filled with galleries and artists’ studios.
“One very big difference, however,” says Lengnick, “is that there’s great public transportation in the Hudson Valley, but we have none of that here. Otherwise, there’s a very similar feeling in terms of having a good mixture of residents and visitors and people who live here part time, all of them people who appreciate the landscape and traditions and want to live well.”
At Glynwood, she explained, “I’ll be working with Dave Llewellyn, who’s the director of the farmer training program. And I’ll also be working with the farm and garden manager and the intern program there to create a successful, sustainable farm to use as a living laboratory, a living educational destination for the public and other farmers.
“I spent a lot of years at Warren Wilson College here in Asheville, which is well known because it has a very successful farm and market garden on campus. So I’m very comfortable with and enjoy working in a setting where we’re managing agricultural land with a business-like approach.”
An important component of this pursuit is to demonstrate leading-edge practices in sustainable agriculture. “I’m particularly excited about . . . working with the food team to look at the conditions that farmers face and think creatively about how we can create an environment that will give farmers more freedom to make choices that are better for land, people, and community.”
Lengwick also points to hopeful signs that the regenerative ag movement is expanding. She already sees increasing interest in conservation practices like no-till and the use of cover crops. “It’s not that the conventional ag community didn’t know those were good practices, but the policy environment that was created for conventional lag also created barriers to such practices.”
An example she gives is that of Gail Fuller, as described in Resilient Agriculture. He’s a third-generation Kansas-based farmer who, thanks to hotter and wetter weather, faced an increase in soil erosion. “He had to choose between adopting cover crops or keeping his crop insurance. But that’s changing now. There’s a lot of policy that’s going to promote and encourage conventional farmers to adopt climate-specific practices.
“Since I published that book, I’ve worked to understand how we make decisions that cultivate resilience of communities. And I’ve distilled the more complex discussion in the book down to three simple rules. The first is that a resilient action or a resilient decision should cultivate diverse and mutually beneficial relationships. The second: decisions that are resilient should enhance community self-reliance. And the third is that the decisions should allow for the accumulation of community-based wealth. And what I have learned in my work is that if you engage with those rules with integrity, they’ll lead you to good decisions.”
But she is quick to point out that, even with those rules in mind, it won’t be easy. “Community to me means a diversity of mutually beneficial relationships. That’s the simplest way that I can think of to describe it. And that’s what has been fractured in the last 20 years. Our ability to communicate relies on our ability to look past differences and see the common needs. It all sounds simple, and maybe it even sounds clichéd, but the idea of civil discourse right now is unfortunately a challenge.”
Lengnick’s interest in this subject began, she explained, as she grew interested in the environmental issues being raised when she was in college in the late 1970s. “I began studying environmental subjects and eventually landed in a soils course, and was totally fascinated by the soil as a place where all the basic sciences meet – physics, chemistry, and biology. And the other aspect that appealed to me was that you could do this noble thing called feeding the world. So I got a degree in soil science, and never looked back.”
And she hopes to inspire more future scientists. “One of the aspects of Glynwood position that is exciting is a chance to work with young people. When I was at Warren Wilson, I was working mostly with undergrads, and that’s a wonderful time to be a part of a young person’s life, because they’re figuring all this stuff out. They’re trying to find meaning and purpose. It’s a real privilege to be a part of that process.”
You can’t look at the future of farming without considering climate change, but she maintains an admirable optimism. “I think that the challenges ahead are not trivial, but I do I find hope in that we know how we can fix this. We don’t need any new research. We don’t need any new technology. We can do this. Now. I think for me, the real question is, will people come together and make it happen? And I’m not sure about that. But my attitude is, what’s the point of not acting as if we could make change happen? And I also find a lot of hope in the idea that no one knows what the future will bring, and in that not-knowing, there is the possibility for the future.”
(B.A. Nilsson, 8/13/21)