Farming Fit for a New Climate Reality

As Laura Lengnick makes clear, “resiliency” is all the rage these days. It seems the term is being tossed
around by everyone from Wall Street investment bankers to wildlife biologists. That the term is in such vogue is a good thing. It’s an acknowledgement that whatever system we’re talking about—economic, Imageecological or sociological—it often lacks the ability to bounce back from the hard knocks life inevitably dishes out. That’s why another term in common use now is “collapse,” as in, “colony collapse disorder is decimating the honeybee industry,” or “the market has experienced a financial collapse.” When something collapses, it’s a very public indicator that the building blocks making up its foundation were not as solid, as “resilient,” as we thought. The bird flu epidemic that swept through the Midwestern poultry industry in 2015 highlighted the vulnerability of a system reliant on closed confinement and narrow genetics. When nature threw it a curve ball, it collapsed on a local scale, impacting everyone from farmers to truckers to feed suppliers.

Our highly efficient industrial farming system hums along nicely when the sun is shining and the markets cooperate. But a system is only truly resilient when something wicked this way comes—bad times separate the fair weather thoroughbreds from the mudders, to borrow a horse racing term.

That’s why Lengnick’s book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, is so important. Lengnick is a sustainable agriculture researcher and policy maker who has done extensive work in the area of climate change and agriculture. This puts her in a good position to lay out the argument that an increasingly volatile climate system poses one of the biggest threats to our ability to feed ourselves that we’ve ever faced. After providing a history of production agriculture, she brings us up to the current situation, where our industrialized, narrowly focused way of cranking out a handful of commodities has greatly reduced farming’s “adaptive capacity”— the ability to adjust to climate effects and even take advantage of opportunities created by these changes.

Lengnick tallies example after example of how modern industrial agriculture lacks the adaptive capacity to roll with the punches of our current climate situation: drought putting Texas cattle producers out of business, weather related plant diseases wiping out crops that had thrived the previous year, swamped fields making a mockery of trying to farm rich bottomland soils.

It could be argued that agriculture has always had to deal with nasty weather events. Drought-induced famine is nothing new and has brought entire civilizations to their knees, for example. But Lengnick argues that this recent wave of climate-caused problems, which seem to be only getting worse, come at a particularly bad time for society. Never have so many people been so dependent on being fed by an agricultural system that is so lacking in adaptive capacity.

But Resilient Agriculture also reveals how not every farmer lacks that adaptive capacity—there are those who have integrated ecological principles, innovative marketing and just plain creativity into their operations to make them about as resilient as possible. These farmers may not always be thriving in the face of inclement weather, but they are able to survive and come out at the other end strong enough to take advantage of better times. This brings us to the meat of Lengnick’s book: 25 profiles of farms and ranches from across the U.S. that are developing true resilience. The profiles are categorized by region, as well as enterprise type (vegetables, fruits and nuts, grains and livestock). Lengnick has a formula for each profile: describe what makes each farm or ranch different from its industrial neighbors, and then let the farmers themselves tell the story of how they are continuing to adapt to a changing climate.

Diverse rotations, use of cover crops, integrating natural habitats with cultivated fields, managed rotational grazing systems—these and other innovative methods are being used by a variety of farmers to deal with climate bugaboos that range from too little water in the West and South to too much at the wrong time in the Midwest and East. Some of the most inspiring profiles feature producers who have been able to survive and thrive in the midst of disaster. For example, Gary and Linda Price of 77 Ranch in Texas not only toughed out the devastating drought that hit the southern Great Plains in 2011 and 2012, they were able to maintain their cowherd without supplemental feed or water, putting them in a situation where they are “pretty upbeat about the future.” This was a time when many ranchers in the region had to call it quits for good.

What was the difference? The Prices have taken steps to build the health of their soil and closely manage their water cycle. The basis of their managed rotational grazing system is restored native prairies, which may not produce the most forage per acre, but because of their adaptability, serve as the most consistent source of cattle feed over the long term. The Prices, along with the other producers profiled in this book, have learned that one of the keys to resilience is not going for the grand slams, but to consistently get the base hits year-end and year-out, no matter what the conditions. That takes patience, monitoring and the willingness to let nature call the shots.

As Colorado beef producer Mark Frasier tells Lengnick: “If in everything that we do, we can create an environment that is receptive to precipitation, so that whenever it does come we can take advantage of if, we will just be that much more efficient and more effective.”

Lengnick knows that in order for real systemic change to occur, we must go beyond lauding the accomplishments of these individual resilient farmers. What lesson can our entire agricultural system take from these examples?

The author tackles that question in the last part of the book. For one thing, she argues, we need policies and educational outreach opportunities that promote a type of farming that puts an area of land under direct management of the producer. Monitoring the micro-workings of the land and making adjustments cannot be accomplished by placing our landscape in the hands of large-scale corporate entities. Unfortunately, we have a ways to go in that department. Lengnick documents how federally subsidized crop insurance as well as land grant university research and outreach serve as deterrents, rather than promoters, of resiliency.

Big changes are needed, changes that go beyond protecting the existing food system from disturbance. In the wake of the bird flu epidemic of 2015, the focus has been to develop vaccines and increase biosecurity on factory farms. For the most part, conventional agribusiness has not dealt with the question of whether raising tens of thousands of birds in closed quarters is a good idea in the first place. In the midst of the outbreak, I mentioned to two agricultural journalists that I had not heard of any bird flu problems on pastured poultry operations. “Just wait,” one of them scoffed. I’m still waiting.

People like that are too narrowly focused on the stamping-out-fires approach to dealing with agriculture’s problems. Climate change has made such thinking a luxury we can no longer afford.

A new holistic approach is needed. That means putting up with elements of a farming ecosystem that at first glance might not seem to belong in a long-term resilience strategy. Every species in a 12-way cover crop mix may not do well under all weather conditions. But when the rains stop or when they are too plentiful, some species will outshine others, giving that entire field more resiliency over the course of the season, and beyond. The farmers and ranchers Lengnick interviews share a common trait: they have the kind of long-term intimacy with the land that allows them to observe changes over time. They know that some years certain practices or varieties thrive—other years different ones get a chance to pull their weight. Over the long term, this gives the whole operation the adaptive capacity it needs. Such a management strategy means rethinking our view of “efficiency.”

Lengnick writes: “Management strategies that cultivate response diversity do so at the expense of efficiency, because resources are invested in components that do not directly contribute to production under all conditions.”

Or, as Aldo Leopold put it so many years ago: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.