Agriculture is now inextricably linked to climate change. The evidence is incontrovertible; the damage is already taking place. As Laura Lengnick observes in the opening pages of her updated and expanded second edition of Resilient Agriculture, (New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, 2022). “Climate change is happening now. Climate change is changing everything.”
The first version of her book was written seven years ago, which turns out to be an eternity where climate effects are concerned. She profiled over two dozen farms in the U.S. that were coping not only with climate change but also with the transition of corporate agriculture to a style that’s more environmentally sound. In the new book you’ll find the stories of even more farmers and ranchers pursuing sustainable practices.
Even before she began researching the book, Lengnick worked on a USDA report recommending ways to cope with the new challenges of agriculture. It sounded an alarm many were unhappy to hear. But dramatic changes in the recent past persuaded her to re-interview original subjects, talk to even more farmers, and add more climate-specific information.
As she puts it, “It is difficult to grasp the reality of these times. That the weather changes we’ve experienced in the last decade are going to continue to grow more damaging. That the weather is not going to settle down into some new normal. It isn’t easy to fully understand the fact that spring and fall weather will continue to grow more variable, that both flooding rains and drought will grow more intense and will happen more often, and that record-breaking weather will become common. It’s even harder to realize what this means for the people who feed us.”
We’ve been living through an unprecedented number of high-wind weather events during the past few years, but Lengnick lays them out in a chronology that lines up a sobering amount of devastation. And it’s not just the weather itself: she shares the stories of individual farmers who were adversely affected by these events.
“Mark Shepard lost seventy-five percent of his chestnut crop at New Forest Farm in Wisconsin in one of the wettest years on record in 2019.” As Mark put it, “‘The real challenge is to go from a spring day at 85 degrees, beautiful weather, leaves are emerging, and then have it instantly turn into freezing rain, then 18 inches of snow, and then the temperature drops to 10 below zero. That’s brutal.’”
Thus begins the first part of the book, “Why Think Resilience?,” looking at weather challenges through the eyes of farmers and examining adaptation concepts. Dividing the country into seven distinct areas, we’re given the charts of recent weather changes alongside expected changes. It’s daunting. The southwest alone, this country’s largest supplier of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and rice, has already shown increased temperatures and more variable precipitation. But the area is predicted to have higher temperatures still in the coming years, more droughts, and hot days (where the thermometer hits 95 degrees F or higher) increasing by five to 20 days even as cold days (under 10 degrees F) decrease.
To cope with such changes requires an understanding of the ways in which crops and livestock and their attendant pests and diseases are affected and then recognition of the adaptive capacity of such elements to cope with it. A farm is its own ecosystem, so the more it is treated as such, the better the results.
Ron Rosmann has operated an organic crop and livestock farm in Iowa for thirty years, with good, stable yields from the beginning. “‘Resilience shows itself in our system,’” he says. “‘Our soil quality shines here. It really does. And we work to enhance those ecosystem services, as they’re called, by continually planting more trees, more shrubs, more crops for pollinators, more windbreaks and more wildlife habitat. The diversity is what will continue to play a big role for us.’”
In the northeast, “Jim and Adele Hayes have raised beef, lamb, pork and poultry on 160 acres of pasture at Sap Bush Hollow Farm west of Albany, New York, for more than 40 years. More dry periods and drought, more frequent and stronger winds and extreme weather have required the addition of new infrastructure such as drainage systems, farm ponds, a raised barn, reinforced pasture shelters and solar power.”
“Over the last 50 years or so,” writes Lengnick, “industrial agriculturalists … have emphasized technological and financial assets to enhance the adaptive capacity of their farms and ranches both to weather and to market disturbances and shocks, while sustainable agriculturalists … have emphasized natural, human and social assets to do the same.”
Her recommendation is to expand the tools in both camps. Industrial ag promotes solutions through money and technology, while sustainable ag looks to biodiversity, ecological management and local food. Thus, she wonders, “if climate change is the challenge that finally begins to erode the longstanding political divide about the ‘right’ way to grow our food? Will climate change be the crucible that forces us all to question long-held beliefs about the purpose of agriculture as we forge a new way to think about our foodways?”
One of the first steps we as consumers can take is by taking stock of our food and its sources. “The question is not whether we change, but how we will change the way we eat. Although it may be comforting to imagine, it is pretty clear that simply changing the brand we buy is not going to get the job done. The soil will not save us, we do not live on a vegan planet and many selling the regenerative ag solution seem to have forgotten that the people who feed us and the communities they call home are in as much need of healing as the soil.”
There is a science to resilience, although it plays out in different ways depending upon what you’re confronting. Resilience, writes Lengnick, “has origins in a diverse set of disciplines, including engineering, ecology, psychology, human health and disaster management. Each of these disciplines brings a different approach to resilience that has bearing on the way I think about resilient agriculture.” Most relevant to food and farming is the resilience science that has come out of ecology, psychology and disaster management, “because these disciplines have developed methods to assess, monitor and manage resilience as a dynamic quality of complex living systems with the ability to respond and adapt to change.”
Central to resilience is a diversity of resources, meaning the natural, human, social, financial, and physical assets available to offset the unexpected. Lengnick found three behaviors “that promote the resilience of social-ecological systems: cultivate diverse networks of reciprocal relationships, cultivate regional self-reliance, and cultivate the accumulation of community-based wealth (emphasis added).”
But she notes that they aren’t easy to live by. “These rules are not kind to sloppy thinking or the kind of thinking that fails to keep the whole in mind. They are not gentle with thinking that refuses to acknowledge our dependence on nature and the very real suffering that makes our good life possible.”
Here’s where the core of the book’s purpose comes into play: to compare the very real changes in coming weather conditions with the tools and techniques a wide variety of farmers already are using. Future strategies therefore can be reckoned against past and current success.
Take the case of dairy farmer Tom Trantham, whose Happy Cow Creamery has been operating in South Carolina since 2002. Before that, he was barely making any money through conventional farming. He lowered his costs by shifting from feed-based to forage-based, and he improved the health of his cows, their milk, and his soil in the process. He also shifted his sales approach into a more specialized model, including farm-store sales. His was a resilience of economics, but it has put into place tools that also will be useful against climate vicissitudes. This also allies him with the many community food movements across the country.
“What Path to Resilience?” is the title of part three of this book, examining ways in which resilient thinking can bring sustainable (and thereby healthier) food to consumers. Lacking the shipping infrastructure of major food suppliers, smaller farms can turn to a network of hubs and distributors specializing in their product. The Community Food Security Coalition, founded in 1998, was a consortium of over 500 U.S. organizations working to get regional, nutritious food to receptive people. But the CFSC changed its mission ten years ago, and what’s left of its website is now hawking unproven diet supplements.
However, there are localized distribution systems emerging in its wake, as charted in Lengnick’s book. Where there are farms, food hubs are following. In planning a way forward, she offers eight behaviors that, taken together, will promote resilience.
We should cultivate diversity, ranging from the ecological to the societal; promote mutual benefits, again crossing categories; cultivate self-reliance in matters of plant, animal, and human health and community well-being; and cultivate human capacity. We should learn from disturbance, which is a standard good-management practice; honor legacy, especially when it comes to heirloom plants and heritage livestock; learn as a community, a fancy way of terming research and development; and cultivate the commonweal, which covers everything from running the farm to sharing the wealth.
Beyond that, there are personal behaviors we should adopt. If you encountered them at the front of the book, Lengnick would seem like a nag. By page 206, however, they only make sense, and include exhortations to stop wasting food, stop buying silver-bullet brands, stop thinking about resilience as bouncing back, stop believing that somebody else will save us, learn more about the land, people and communities that feed you, and learn more about climate risk, resilience planning and climate justice in the place you call home.
The final chapters are devoted to detailed stories of farmers who have found resilient ways to succeed. Although these farmers, along with many others featured in the first edition of Resilient Agriculture, are quoted throughout the book, here is where we learn at more length about them and their practices. If you don’t have a copy of the first edition on hand, you can find a collection of all the farmer, grower and rancher stories featured in both editions of Resilient Agriculture, plus links to many other reader resources, at www.realworldresilience.com.
Likewise with the sections on fruit and nuts, grain, and livestock. All of them compelling stories both for farmers looking to improve their ways and for consumers wishing to know more about the provenance of their food.
Lengnick wrote this new edition so soon after the first because the bad effects of climate change are presenting themselves sooner than expected, and, as the newspaper headlines suggest, change is needed now. She presents her arguments in a reasoned, non-apocalyptic way, but her message is clear: we need to change everything about the way we farm and the way we eat if we plan to survive with any degree of comfort.
[Laura Lengnick is an award-winning soil scientist with 30 years of experience working as a researcher, policymaker, educator, activist and farmer to put sustainability values into action in U.S. food and farming. You can learn more about Laura and her work to promote resilience thinking in organizations of all kinds at www.cultivatingresilience.
(B. A. Nilsson, 7/22/22)