Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate

review by Elizabeth Henderson

How are we going to manage to farm in the increasingly chancy conditions of global warming and advanced imperialist capitalism? We are bombarded by products, causes, marketing schemes and advice. How to choose? Here are two books that will help you design or redesign your farm to make it more resilient in these parlous times. Lengnick’s book suggests a method for resilience planning based on climate change predictions and the experience of sustainable farmers. Van der Ploeg provides principles and values from the lives of peasant farmers to ground your decisions.

Laura Lengnick based Resilient Agriculture on interviews with 25 farmers who have been at it for 25 years or more. She emphasizes that these farmers have succeeded in changing their local food systems despite significant barriers, without government support, crop insurance, tax breaks or subsidies and minimal research. Her book takes us around the country, providing data on how experts predict climate change will happen in each region, and case studies of the 25 farms that specialize in vegetables, fruit and nuts, grains and livestock, skillfully teasing out lessons for greater adaptability – ecological, economic and social.

These case study farms (including my own CSA) model the kinds of choices about people, land, crops, livestock, infrastructure and finances that build resilience based on high adaptive capacity.

Lengnick defines resilience as “the ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity for self-organization, and the capacity to adapt to stress and change.”

Using examples from the case study farms, Lengnick derives a set of resilience design criteria and pairs them with the sustainable agriculture practices that bring them to life. She also suggests indicators drawn from basic ecological processes – “energy flow, water and nutrient cycling and community dynamics” – that a farmer can use to measure progress. (See her chart on pp. 286-7). By carefully managing the biological resources on our farms and working with nature, Lengnick demonstrates that farmers can adopt strategies “that focus on conserving, restoring and using the climate protection services of ecosystems to reduce climate change vulnerability of natural and human-dominated communities. An ecosystems approach to adaptation can fulfill objectives for both mitigation and adaptation to climate change, as well as build the foundation for long-term community sustainability and resilience.”

Her analysis of the most promising practices is truly affirming for NOFA farmers and homesteaders: she writes that “the adaptive capacity of sustainable models of production arises from the management of smaller land holdings (typically owned), production inputs produced by healthy soils and agrobiodiversity (e.g., natural precipitation, crop nutrients released by decomposition, pest suppression by beneficial insects) and social capital (e.g., direct markets, community-based research and education) to produce high-value food products that are well adapted to local resource conditions.” Lengnick also offers a shrewd observation, backed up by examples, that pursuit of ever greater efficiency, that bugaboo of industrial farming, degrades resilience.

In cool, scientific terms Resilient Agriculture makes a passionate case for family-scale organic farming over industrial farming as the path for the future. Lengnick’s assessment that it will take more than changes on individual farms to make our food system sustainable is irrefutable. Her hopeful conclusion is that as a society we are ready for the first steps. But she does not venture into speculating on the political and social upheaval that will make this transformation happen.