Timing the Bounce

Timing the Bounce: Resilient Agriculture Meets Climate Change

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

Maybe it’s just the recent election season, but there are hints and intimations of end-times all around, with some folks behaving as if the dark days were upon us. There is the phenomenon of “rolling coal,” which has nothing to do with coal itself, except as a sullen metaphor. A few truckers (all white and male, and mostly not young) disconnect the emissions controls from their trucks’ diesel engines, then put the hammer down, throwing up a raging black thundercloud a hundred feet high, that can be seen for miles. Open angry defiance disguised as a juvenile prank, this “rolling coal” is a finger in the eye of anyone trying to limit fossil fuel consumption, anyone trying to adjust to the problems of climate change before it’s too late.

But maybe the time for shouting and heated argument is over, and high time we find farmers whose sense and steadiness will be enough to sustain us, who will pitch in and do what can be done to help feed us. In her new book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate (New Society Publishers, 2015, $19.95), Laura Lengnick assumes a dispassionate, businesslike tone and sets about exploring the farming strategies of twenty-seven award-winning farmers in six regions of the continental United States. Her approach gets well past denial and business-as-usual, to see what can be done, which strategies are being tried, and how well they are working. Rather than prolonging a frustrating head-to-head debate over climate change, she examines concrete examples and suggests how to quantify and qualify the disruptions, face problems as they surface in various regions in the near term, and begin to share our successes.

So far so good. I have to say that the book reads in part like an academic textbook, refining and honing its terms to fit changing perceptions and realities. It also has the feel of an interim progress report, a compendium of what is working in small-scale (as contrasted with industrial scale) agriculture, what best practices and real-world success might look like in regions around the country with widely varying challenges. These reports from the field contain valuable information, often best guesses and informed adjustments to changing conditions.

Timing the Bounce

The term of the title — resilience — is carefully chosen to move the discussion along, since it offers a measurable if moving target for small farmers, ranchers and orchardists. Plus we can feel its underlying connotation of buoyancy, “bounce.” 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 (p. 275).” Each of us can study conditions we have met, ask how our plants and animals are faring, and which of our responses might make our operations more resilient. For her “resilient” largely replaces “sustainable,” which has been overused and co-opted by industrial agriculture to mistakenly describe an economic model propped up by crop insurance available through the Department of Agriculture, offered only to big growers of the big four commodity crops — corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton.

Given her efforts at a new terminology, there are still stretches in the book where the sledding gets tough, that make me wonder who the book was written for. Is it meant as a college text? Laura Lengnick is a systems analyst with 30 years’ experience working as a federal researcher, policy maker, college educator and farmer. If she has one flaw it is a propensity for the jargon of those who routinely critique complicated ways of doing things — which is not entirely a failing, and may provide needed balance, since farming, especially as practiced on an industrial scale, has until recently been oversimplified. A monocrop dosed with several expensive synthetic inputs, planted and harvested with massive expensive equipment, may not seem complicated, but is highly technical and yet unsustainable in the long term. Small-scale sustainable farmers have recently come to see that the closer farming can come to mimicking the diversity and complexity of nature, the healthier and more resilient its plants and animals will be. Nature with or without man has always proven a complicated dance.

But just consider the following sentence, picked at random:

“Although the application of vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning to US agriculture and food systems is only just now getting underway, sustainable agriculture has been widely recognized as a promising strategy for the development of integrated solutions to the climate change challenges ahead (p. 21).”

This is the kind of pileup of abstract terms and use of the passive voice which makes the reader wonder who is doing what, and why everything has to be such a mouthful. I understand that designing systems implies an added level of abstraction which some thinkers (and doers) are more or less comfortable with. But for some this is management jargon, organizing as a way of controlling. A hammer and nails can be called a fastening system, but doesn’t need to be. Often a “systems” construct implies a large and important scale, with a power source beyond the arm of the builder.

Is the book unreadable? It is occasionally unwieldy and unnecessarily cryptic, so it takes work. She saves the climate change agenda till the end, and nails it. Though some of her terms are weighty constructs hard to parse, the author clearly wants to convince the reader that the task is serious, and is being met with a persistent and focused intelligence. So while it is work to read, she offers new ways to conceptualize problems and solutions, new ways of seeing, thinking and doing. Farming needs its cages rattled, and Lengnick does that subtly, without offering insult. Changing peoples’ minds requires calm and patience.

But enough of style. Let’s dig into one of her examples, and taste the quality of what lies at the heart of the book, which are its twenty-seven farms and ranches. At his Happy Cow Creamery in Pelzer, South Carolina, Tom Trantham was in financial trouble, that he turned around on what amounts to a happy accident, that he paid close attention to. One April morning a few years back his cows broke through a fence to graze a mix of ryegrass, clover and fescue that he had left standing because he couldn’t afford the seed and fertilizer to plant a corn crop there. It was basically ground cover. That evening’s milking yielded a two-pound increase of milk per cow, which Tom noticed, and which got him thinking about the advantages of fresh grazing. He soon changed his 90-cow dairy from a feed-based to a pasture-based operation. That decision lowered his costs while fostering herd health and milk quality. Using no-till methods he now plants seasonally adapted annual forage crops to provide the cows fresh grazing year-round.

Which is pretty cheery, and should make us want to taste the milk he sells. But it’s even cheerier to hear what Tom Trantham sounds like when he’s thinking close to home. He says:

“In the 1980s, the CEO of Dean Foods made a hundred-and-fifty-something million dollars in eight or ten years and then retired. That was my milk money. That’s why I was bankrupt. When there is that kind of money on the top end of the product and the guy who produced it couldn’t even get enough to pay his bills, that’s where this country has really messed up (p. 261).”

As with many of the other successful farmers interviewed in Lengnick’s book, Trantham wears his politics on his sleeve. His success is understated, and harbors a mystery at its core — how he came to see that opportunity, gathered himself to take the plunge and act on it. With all twenty-seven farmers and ranchers we are offered the thinking and conclusions of those who are adapting to changing conditions, finding ways to be successful while rejecting the model of industrial agriculture.

Lengnick offers the reader these twenty-seven farmers and ranchers — their stories, challenges, ups and downs — within the context of her notions of resilience, which sharpen and refine what earlier thinkers have gathered under the rubric of sustainability. From their perspective the six continental regions where they farm — Northwest, Southwest, Great Plains, Midwest, Southeast and Northeast — offer distinctly different weather effects, soil conditions, plant and animal challenges. For example, the drought and heat conditions of the west have meant a mounting tension between farmers needing water for irrigation, and growing urban populations and municipalities dependent upon that same water. Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California notes how his farm’s irrigation has moved to more water-efficient systems such as drip and microsprinklers, which have involved significant investment and management because the smaller systems require filtered water, that former irrigation did not need. Muller is aware that the fight over water is not going to go away. Speaking of trends among his neighbors he notes:

“…Many are investing in deeper wells, even though that reduces water available to other farmers. There is a collision of interests that farmers are starting to pay attention to (p. 134).”

Without his needing to say it, we know that Muller’s success has come not from litigation over water rights, but from subtle refinements and adjustments to save water so there is more to go around.

There are similar gems of insight and action here on every one of the twenty-seven operations. So in spite of initial misgivings, I found myself liking this book and how the author and her farmers made me look close for answers. I found myself, in the context of this work aimed at thinkers and practitioners of small-scale sustainable farming, asking what kinds of books we need anyhow. Resilient Agriculture is clearly more what I have called an interim progress report than a definitive text for the ages. It might also be seen as an attempt to influence the discussion by modestly offering case histories of recent success in the major regions around the country.

Even without climate-change deniers weighing in, debates over what to do about global climate change could easily be seen as a “big-picture” issue, and remain stalled forever. But Lengnick has been having success in framing the terms of the discussion, and doesn’t waste time refighting old battles. She begins with the facts of disruption and what the “new normal” is for farmers, realizing that weather conditions and events may vary widely across the country, and that climate change is more usefully seen as regional in its effects. Several of the featured farmers she interviewed said they had observed no appreciable climate changes where they lived, though they are observant, their methods flexible and resilient. And the format of the book is easily able to include those personal views among its offerings.

For all her virtues and clarity, there are a few shortcomings, mostly due to the limited sample Lengnick offers, with answers that can’t help but feel anecdotal rather than statistically meaningful. For instance, there is no featured farmer of the twenty-seven who farms independent of outside energy sources — electricity, gas and diesel fuel. What about animal power for tillage or orchard work? And what about wind and solar power to supplement, offset or replace the farm’s reliance on fossil fuels? Scale in farming has also not been convincingly identified as at least a diversion and at worst as a squandering of resources and attention aimed at simplistic solutions that leave both farmers and the fed more vulnerable and unprepared for the challenges to come.

That said, she does point to trends such as increasing use of hoop houses to extend the growing season and protect against unpredictable weather events, unseasonable frosts and high winds. And in some regions farmers interviewed have shared a common concern with the uncertainty of being able to work fields with spring and fall flooding, and find they have to keep flexible and respond quickly to conditions that will let them plow and cultivate. And some have moved to no-till operations wherever they can.

What is quietly offered here are revolutionary matters with far-reaching implications. Once the problems of feeding ourselves in a changing and less predictable environment are seen clearly, there will be no more business-as-usual, and no going back in any case. Some of the players in the food game, large and small, will have to change or fade away.

And one more inescapable thought from the recent political season, watching angry disappointed folks being told what to think and feel, what they should want to hear, rather than what they deeply need to know—how to protect themselves, grow their livelihoods, and move forward into the sunlight. In a changing world, what will changing successes look like? I am reminded of a poem by Kansas farm boy and Oregon poet William Stafford. Back in the late 60s, he wrote:

We live in an occupied country, misunderstood.
Peace will take millions of intricate moves.

Laura Lengnick’s book may not be an easy or fun read. But no matter where you farm and live, her book offers a study guide and references for the near future of small farming. It deserves a place on your shelf. Much of it will take us right where we need to go, to visit with farmers and ranchers who are well-grounded and versatile, fighting the good fight, with hard-won strategies and answers to share.

Following is an excerpt from Resilient Agriculture, Chapter 5 — Vegetables

Paul Muller, Full Belly Farm, Guinda, California

Full Belly Farm, in the Capay Valley of Northern California, is a 400-acre diversified organic farm raising more than eighty different crops, including vegetables, herbs, nuts, flowers, fruits, grains and livestock. The farm landscape is home to a diverse interweaving of perennial orchards, annual crops and pastures, plus hedgerows and riparian areas managed as habitat for beneficial insects, native pollinators and wildlife. First established by Paul Muller and Dru Rivers in 1984, Full Belly Farm has involved an active partnership since 1989 among four owners who live in three households on or close to the farm: Paul Muller, his wife Dru Rivers, Judith Redmond and Andrew Brait.

Timing the Bounce

Full Belly Farm was designed to be ecologically diverse to foster sustainability on all levels, from healthy soil to content consumers; a stable, fairly compensated workforce; year-round cash flow and an engaging workplace that renews and inspires everyone working on the farm. The productivity of the diversified organic system is based on the use of cover crops and the integration of sheep and poultry to capture and cycle crop nutrients and water, maintain soil health and prevent losses from pests and disease. Virtually all of the production on the farm is irrigated, mostly with water from Cache Creek, which runs along one side of the property.

The farm sells to a diverse mix of direct and wholesale markets in the San Francisco Bay area that includes restaurants, grocers, farmers’ markets and a 1,500-member CSA. Full Belly also supports a number of outreach programs to help create awareness of the importance of farms to all communities.

According to Paul Muller, three years of extreme drought coupled with dryer and warmer winters, longer and more variable spring and fall seasons and greater weather extremes have created both opportunity and challenge on Full Belly Farm. “The last couple of years we have had the driest January and February on record. That’s the time of year we normally get the moisture that goes deep in the ground, the moisture that serves as the reservoir for our crops that come in the spring. They get their roots down deep and draw on that water. The last couple of years, it just hasn’t been there.”

Declining water supplies have made growing the cover crops so crucial to building soil quality and providing nutrients for crops more challenging. Increased weather variability has made planning and conducting fieldwork more difficult by reducing the periods when work can be done without damaging soils and crops. Paul explains, “Normally we can’t prepare ground for planting in February, but it is so dry now that we can. The challenge is that you’ve got to get your ground-work done as early as possible and when the time is right. We used to get light rains in fall that moistened things up and made large windows to prepare ground, but now variability has narrowed windows and made them less predictable.”

The longer, more variable springs and falls have complicated crop management, but also created opportunities by increasing the length of time the farm can produce valuable spring and fall crops. “The way I look at it is, we are gambling more on the edges. Summer temperatures have been relatively stable, so we can hit our main summer season, but now our main season shifts a couple of weeks forward or backward, but those summer crops — melons, tomatoes, beans, peppers — remain the same. If spring weather is unseasonably hot, our spring will end sooner than we thought. If our summer is unseasonably long, then tomatoes will go longer, but the fall crops won’t do quite so well because we did not get them planted early enough. And maybe in mid-winter, the January-February crop mix, if it’s unseasonably warm, we’ll harvest more crops in those months than we normally do. Our crop mix is not changing a lot, but we’re more conscious of how we plan for the edges.” Paul goes on to say that increased weather variability means the edges can have “bigger bounces” and more extreme swings, but that the farmers can push the edges, and sometimes they do really well.

Although water conservation has always been a management focus at Full Belly Farm, heavier rainfall, longer dry periods and continuing drought have encouraged even more thinking about sustainable water management. Paul says that the management team is considering changing up their crop mix to include more drought-tolerant cover crops and is exploring potential cover crops that do better on less water or produce more with the same amount of water than their current cover crops. They are also looking at ways to use cover crop mulches to conserve soil moisture and are weighing the costs and benefits of more water-efficient irrigation systems such as drip and microsprinklers; these involve significant initial investment and add management challenges because they require filtered water, which the farm does not need now.

The managers are also working on landscape-scale improvements in water management. The main water source, Cache Creek, drains a large watershed above the farm. The low fields near the creek are kept in winter cover crops to reduce soil loss in the event of a flood, which would be most likely to occur during heavy winter rains. The farm also actively manages riparian zones along the creek so that when it overflows its banks, flood waters will move over the lower parts of the farm without damaging production areas.

Looking to the future, Paul expressed a number of concerns about the lack of coordinated planning for agricultural adaptation to climate change in his region and elsewhere. He also believes that the recent spike in farmland prices in Northern California is related to climate change. “Investors and growers are moving into more water-secure areas if they can. Other growers are trying to secure water access in other ways. For example, many are investing in deeper wells, even though that reduces water available to other farmers. There is a collision of interests that farmers are starting to pay attention to.”

Paul goes on to wonder if all this planning and investment by the farming community will be for nought if other water users — urban and industrial — take control of water supplies. He suggests that Northern California could reap huge dividends from an investment in a coherent rangeland management strategy designed to improve the health of the regional water cycle.

According to Paul, the new FDA food safety rule conflicts with current water recycling programs and could further restrict water availability in his region. “A lot of the FDA food safety rules are predicated on the assumption of an abundant resource, a stable water supply and a stable climate.” Paul would like to see more programs with NRCS to look at climate threats and develop strategies to create a balance of ecological health and farm protection. “There was a study from Stanford a number of years ago that said that agriculture is being overlooked as a sector that, one, has the largest impact on land use in the country, but two, doesn’t have a coherent strategy as to how they address rising CO2 levels. So maybe under that corn in the Midwest, there could be clover growing, so that as that corn’s done, the clover’s there. And it’s sequestering carbon all fall, and into the spring it starts again. And maybe we invest in other equipment that will allow that to happen, rather than just using herbicides. Let’s take a serious look at polycultural systems and other multilayered systems that provide greater ecological services in terms of sequestering carbon and enhancing climate resilience, and let’s pay farmers for using those practices.”

The farm’s co-owners have collected numerous awards over the years for their success in creating an exemplary model of sustainable agriculture. In 1999, Paul and Dru were named Outstanding Farmers of the Year by the University of California Small Farm Program. Full Belly Farm also won a Steward of Sustainable Agriculture or “Sustie” award from the Ecological Farming Association in 2005, the Patrick Madden Award from the USDA in 2006 and a Growing Green Award from the NRCD in 2009.