Organic Broadcaster

Book blends latest science on climate change with farmers’ experience

By Audrey Arner, Moonstone Farm

Resilient Ag

Available for purchase:

Here on the western Minnesota prairie at Moonstone, our perennial polyculture farm, the season is winding down. We’re moving cattle through the paddocks for the last rounds, have finished the fruit and nut harvest, and are beginning to batten down the hatches for whatever the winter brings.

Our landscape, still photosynthesizing with smatterings of gold and red, is a biological island amid the chemical and tillage-intensive agricultural lands that surround us. Somewhere in the mid-1990s we quit growing annual cash crops and, applying the lessons of the Great Prairies, chose to perennialize and diversify. We did so based on a long-range vision that included an intent to protect these miraculous soils from the elements of wind and rain, to be able to farm more intensively at home without renting other land, to dramatically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to become generally more resilient in the face of our changing climate.

Since being asked to talk about sustainable agriculture and climate change a few times in the last year, I’d been reading source materials with plenty of substantiation for making adaptation in agriculture. Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture includes respectable up-to-date science, compelling testimonies, and cites the changing circumstances that ought to be affecting our decision-making as solar cell operators here on the planetary surface.

In some corners, the debate labors on whether climate change is sourced by human activities. Meanwhile, Lengnick has worked way down the row in considering how we agriculturalists can position ourselves, our thinking, our cropping patterns, varietal selections and livestock management to foster our adaptive capacities. All this will be necessary to not only more effectively sequester carbon in soils, but also to withstand the onslaughts of extreme weather episodes we will encounter with greater frequency.

In digging deeper, I probe for what big shifts in thought and action might carry us through the changing climate and all its related erratic precipitation, temperature fluctuations and violent storm events. There have been some great sources of inspiration, particularly among the permaculture community. Still, I find myself yearning for more substantiation for advocating for the kind of agriculture that I love. I knew I was going to eat up this new publication from New Society Publishers.

Drawing deeply from recent research and historical records, Lengnick explores five categories of agricultural endeavor: vegetables, fruits and nuts, grains and livestock from the perspectives of award-winning farmers throughout all regions of the agricultural United States. Most cite more extreme weather events as being more pronounced in the last decade or so; a few maintain that the weather has always fluctuated.

I appreciate her explanation of the earliest forms of agriculture: pastoralism, horticulture and sedentary agriculture and how each adapted to ecological resource limits. We are reminded that more food energy was produced than energy invested in production, and each resulted in an energy profit. I loved Lengnick’s succinct history of climate change, which was responsible for the last great ice melt 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. This led to changes in the ranges of plants and animals, changing the mix of available food species and causing plants and animals that could not adjust to the new climate conditions to disappear. Sedentary agriculture then reduced the profit in half for the labor calorie invested and made possible the human population explosion we continue to experience.

Her concise history of the rise of industrial agriculture and the U.S. food supply is rich in data. This serves as an important basis for laying out how we can better understand the situation at hand and what needs to be considered in making adaptations. In understanding agricultural exposure and how we might reduce it, I especially appreciated the need to understand the sensitivities of species, production systems, natural resources, management challenges, threats to built infrastructures and production costs.

Resilience is the adaptive capacity of the way we humans manage the ecosystem. The section on ecosystem processes (energy flow, the water cycle, the nutrient cycle, and community dynamics) draws right out of holistic management. As a devotee of Allan Savory, who clarified these processes for me and thousands of other land managers, I immediately flicked to the citations and appendix checking for an attribution to Savory or Holistic Management. I was disappointed that there was none and the adaptive management strategy involving goal setting, resource assessment, planning and implementation, monitoring progress towards goals and re-planning fell under the often-used terminology of “Whole Farm Planning.” Why not give credit where credit is due since other citations were so source specific?

Some historical mention is made of indigenous agriculture in the Americas, but I did not find any suggestion of how the practical knowledge of indigenous cultures can help us all adjust and survive in the face of major climate change. Let’s also remember that there will be psychological and spiritual needs ahead.

Lengnick interviewed a wide range of large- and small-scale farmers across production specialties and geography, including some often-quoted farm stars from the Upper Midwest like Gabe Brown from North Dakota, Richard DeWilde from Wisconsin, and Ron Rossman from Iowa. Long-time MOSES Organic Farming Conference presenter Elizabeth Henderson from Peacework Organic CSA in New York is quoted thusly: “You have to be so nimble these days.”

Lengnick gets down to bedrock in her wrap-up section, “New Times, New Tools: Managing for Resilience.” Her key qualities and considerations of resilient systems—some of which are more familiar to sustainable farmers than others—are worth deeply examining as we together move through the uncertain, disturbing and unexpected effects on food production.

As the leaves fall, and the cover crops are seeded, the livestock preparations for freeze-up are in place, Resilient Agriculture will make for provocative early winter brain food. Give it a read before you begin farm planning for the next growing season so that it can nourish your decision making.

Audrey Arner and her husband, Richard Handeen, own and operate Moonstone Farm near Montevideo, Minn.

From the November | December 2015 Issue

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