Growing Food and Climate Resilience on Our Farms

Caption GRACE

Beans growing at Ayers Creek Farm, an organic farm in Oregon.

The climate is changing. The US system of industrial agricultural has so far endured major climate disruptions. But as weather is expected to become even more unpredictable and extreme from climate change, the ability for our complex food system to manage and adapt to major disturbances becomes increasingly important. In other words, US agriculture must become more resilient.

What is resilience and why does it matter? Ask Laura Lengnick, soil scientist, deep food-systems thinker and author of Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate. As she points out in our discussions with her:

Resilience is the underlying quality responsible for sustaining the integrity of a system in the face of high uncertainty and dynamic change--exactly the kinds of conditions created by climate change and other 21st century challenges. Embracing resilience as a goal changes the way we solve problems and the way we define success. For example, resilience challenges some widely held 20th century economic assumptions underlying much of our current decision-making: the myth of unlimited growth, the focus on land and labor efficiency, the utility of externalizing costs and a disregard for the dangers of concentrated wealth and complex global networks.

Can US Agriculture Meet the Climate Challenge?

Lengnick explains that industrial agriculture has succeeded because it's highly efficient and produces large yields of commodity crops through its sheer size and economies of scale. This is only achieved with a heavy reliance on monocropping, mechanization and inputs such as irrigation water and fossil fuels, like those used to produce fertilizers. As Lengnick details in Resilient Agriculture:

The resource degradation associated with industrial production practices coupled with the geographic specialization and concentration of American agriculture degrade the nation's adaptive capacity while the interactions between energy, water and land use in the US will likely amplify climate change effects and significantly increase the vulnerability of the US industrial food system to climate change.

The brittleness of industrial agriculture as it confronts climate uncertainty is real. Agriculture suffers from the depredations of climate change, and it also has a role in causing it--emissions from agriculture total about 9 percent of all greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the US. There are many activities that contribute to the GHG total, such as fossil fuels used in tractors and other heavy equipment, methane and nitrous oxide from soil tillage and synthetic fertilizers and methane from livestock and manure lagoons, to name a few.

A more variable climate is also expected to increase weather-related problems for farmers, like wilting heat waves, heavier rainfall (and runoff) and a probable drift towards dry areas drying out further and damp areas getting damper. These and other climate impacts can disrupt food security from the global down to the local level, by shifting the amount of food available, lowering access to food, spiking food prices and even through food spoilage because of higher temperatures.

The Framework for a More Resilient Agriculture

In Resilient Agriculture, Lengnick offers a useful framework in which resilience, or adaptive capacity, can be integrated into the food system. Through a series of case studies, Lengnick identified commonalities that successful farmers and ranchers employed to increase resilience. The ability to adapt to and overcome variable weather and better manage pests came down to three common features: soil health, crop diversity and value-added products. These three key features allowed farmers to achieve success regardless of their region, the type of crops grown, the types animals raised or the specific resilient or sustainable systems they followed. From organic farming to regenerative agriculture to permaculture, resilience is integrated into this approach because the farm is thought of as a whole system with each feature a building block. For instance, both crop production and animal agriculture can coexist in one mutually beneficial operation where animal manure can be used to fertilize crops while crop and crop residues can be fed to animals. If well managed, each of these production systems can combine to reinforce one another as the soil is constantly being restored.

The goals of resilient and sustainable agriculture are based on ecosystems where nature is part of the business and operations plan, which carries multiple benefits, like adapting to climate change while also lowering GHG emissions.

The goals of resilient and sustainable agriculture are based on ecosystems where nature is part of the business and operations plan, which carries multiple benefits, like adapting to climate change while also lowering GHG emissions. This approach of "adaptive management" includes many practices that offer farmers and ranchers a "flexible, cost-effective and broadly applicable strategy for climate change adaptation." 

By tracing the paths of effective farmers in conjunction with her own research, Lengnick charts a path forward for agriculture in an uncertain climate future. Take Montana grain and pulse farmer, Bob Quinn, who transitioned his farm with thousands of acres from conventional to organic methods. Lengnick writes that he incorporated resilience and sustainability into his farm by starting with healthy soils, which are of the utmost importance because he is a dryland farmer who doesn't use irrigation. To improve soil health so that it can store more water, nutrients and carbon while producing good yields, Quinn is constantly fine-tuning his rotation and mix of cover crops and cash crops.

A wide diversity of crops help to create agrecosystems that mimic natural ecosystems and can provide benefits like better soil quality and natural weed management. This also enables more robust crop production on the farm even in the face of worsening drought and the more extreme temperatures that Quinn has witnessed. And just as certain practices are critical to a farmer's sustainability, so is economic sustainability, which is often accomplished by diverse marketing avenues and by adding value to products, such as USDA Organic certification.

All in all, Quinn's constant tweaking and refining of his farming practices is a prime example of adaptive management that makes resiliency tangible. As much as adaptive management is a toolkit towards resilience, it's also a pattern of practices and thinking applied by a farmer that can extend to all food producers and companies, as well as to build local and regional food systemsResiliency in the larger food system must be examined in terms of disruption not only to farming, but to such activities as supply chain management and food waste reduction from the farm to the kitchen. It's notable that the risk to food companies is also becoming more important to investors that must now factor in threats from climate, fossil fuels, water, nutrient pollution and more as their companies' capacity to deliver products that could be vulnerable to disruption by supply chains that wrap around the globe.

In an uncertain world, making resilience central to our food system is more important than ever.