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A New Book From Glynwood’s Director of Agriculture

by Laura Lengnick, Director of Agriculture

My first big step into the world of climate action came in 2011. In April of that year, I was invited to join the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) leadership team responsible for producing the very first national report exploring adaptation to climate change in U.S. agriculture. As a member of the lead author team and the lead scientist on adaptation, I worked with more than 60 researchers all across the U.S. to gather, review, discuss, and report on the state of scientific knowledge about the effects of climate change on U.S. agriculture. We also reported on what we knew about how best to maintain agricultural production in a changing climate.

It was in the process of doing this work that I discovered – much to my surprise – that the voices of American farmers and ranchers were completely missing in adaptation research and planning. Our USDA team was able to draw on adaptation research carried out with farmers throughout Europe, Australia and Canada, but none from the U.S. I resolved to change this. Over the next two years, working at night and on weekends, I listened as longtime sustainable farmers and ranchers from all over the United States shared their experiences of producing crops and livestock at the frontlines of climate change.

Why longtime? Because I knew that climate change effects began to accelerate in the U.S. around the year 2000. I thought that farmers and ranchers who had been farming in the same location since at least 1990 would be the most likely to have noticed this increase in weather variability and extremes.

Why sustainable? Because I thought that these producers offered at least three valuable real-world tests of resilience principles. First, their sustainability goals required these producers to use a kind of “ecological logic” to create a healthy farm ecosystem that produces crops and livestock while limiting the import of resources or the export of wastes. Second, sustainable producers had been largely left to figure out how to do sustainable agriculture on their own without the help of “the experts,” so they offer an interesting test of the principle that local innovation – designing within the limits of place - promotes agricultural resilience. Finally, I knew that their choice to manage healthy farm ecosystems left these producers ineligible for most of the support programs available to other farmers. This meant that they had no choice but to design and manage for resilience just to stay in business — they were farming without a safety net.

Why all over the U.S? Because the changes in seasonal weather patterns associated with climate change were not the same everywhere. The Midwest and Northeast were getting wetter, while the Southwest was getting drier. Average temperatures were rising in most of the U.S., but parts of the Southeast were getting cooler. These different patterns of change meant that farm location was an important factor in how a producer experienced climate change.

Last year, a decade after my original research, I checked back in with these producers to hear how they were doing and what they had learned in the ensuing ten years. To round out my research, I also listened to other longtime farmers not included in the original survey, along with some less experienced farmers, as well.

The second edition of Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate is the cumulative result of this work. The book and a companion website share what I have learned from listening to these farmers and ranchers about real-world resilience over the last decade, and how their stories can help us bounce forward to a sustainable and resilient food future.

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