Book Review, Resilient Agriculture by Laura Lengnick

Image-front-cover_coverbookpage_embedResilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate.

Laura Lengnick. New Society Publishers

ISBN 978-0-86571-774-9

I first heard Laura Lengnick speak at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference in 2012. Her solution-focused presentation was “Is Your Farm Climate Ready?”

 I wrote in April about her new book, Resilient Agriculture, which was launched by New Society at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC

EJ at New Society has reviewed this book on the New Society blog

Since April I have been reading the book and finding lots of practical tips as well as moral support and help with thinking clearly about what could otherwise be a paralyzing topic: producing food in the face of an increasingly erratic and unpredictable climate. This major transformation is so hard to consider that at times I’ve thought “thank goodness I’m already in my sixties – it’s the younger people who will have to bear the brunt of coping with this mess.” I know that is neither a constructive nor a realistic approach – we each need to make our best effort if our species is to survive the wild changes and unprecedented obstacles ahead.

Temperatures and rainfall outside of our experience are some of the challenges. There are also effects we have barely begun to think about: different bugs and plant diseases; weeds which can grow faster than before; times of desperate water shortage, times of flooding; hurricanes and other strong winds; colder winter and spring temperatures affecting bud burst of fruit and nut trees. But this is far from a doom-and-gloom book. Nor is it a “Blame Industry/Government” tome. It is a very practical and constructive aid to successful sustainable farming.

Fall broccoli last year. Credit Ezra Freeman

Fall broccoli.
Credit Ezra Freeman

In some cases we have already been practicing some of the skills we’ll need: growing a diversity of crops and livestock; learning from our experience (record-keeping!), paying attention to the weather and learning to forecast our local weather; making plans we are prepared to change as conditions change, and having enough workers, seeds and machines to take advantage of smaller windows.

Young blueberry bush in the snow. Credit Bridget Aleshire

Young blueberry bush in the snow.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

In the Southeast, farmers report more frequent summer droughts, more and hotter heat waves, increased intensity of hurricanes, and in general more frequent extreme weather events of all types, more often. This is what we need to be ready for, at the same time as we reduce our own carbon footprints and campaign for national changes. Starting around 1980, the length of the frost-free season increased across the US. In the SE, it became 6 days longer. Ours is the region with the smallest change. On the other hand, the Southeast has seen a 27% increase in the amount of rain and snow dropping down as very heavy precipitation. The East has become a bit warmer and has heavier rainfall/snowfall, while the West has become hotter and has a smaller percentage change in the amount of heavy precipitation.

In Resilient Agriculture, Laura Lengnick uses her own extensive knowledge of the science and politics of climate change and her personal experience of growing food, along with her interviews with award-winning sustainable farmers across the US to give us a both a basic framework for approaching the issue and many practical tips.

The framework

Climate change is yet another production risk to assess and prepare for – a big one. The vulnerability of a farm is the degree to which it is susceptible to adverse effects of climate change. It is a combination of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. Thinking about climate change using this framework helps us focus on the components we have most control over: sensitivity and adaptive capacity.

Exposure and sensitivity acting together decide the potential impact of climate change. Water issues (too much and too little) are the most immediate key exposures (changes in conditions). Rising air temperatures, including night temperatures, more extreme temperatures provide threats and some opportunities. Increasing CO2 levels will provide some positive effects such as faster crop growth. We can reduce exposure overall by reducing emissions and increasing carbon sequestration. These broad efforts are vital, but will have less immediate effects at a farm level.

Sensitivity is a measure of how much a given farm is affected by the conditions (exposures). For example, is the farm in a flood plain in a region that can expect more floods in future? What are the factors limiting the ability of the farm to adapt to climate change? Assessing the farm’s sensitivities provides a good starting point for planning adaptive strategies.

Adaptation is the method most successful in addressing the challenges of climate change at a local level. Adaptive capacity includes our individual capability, knowledge and options, and the operating context (your farm’s unique combination of economic, social and ecological conditions). As far as adaptive capacity, the main feature of that aspect is our personal capacity to respond and plan. Laura Lengnick says “Greater attention to climate as critical for decision-making is expected by future generations of producers.” We need to start with ourselves.

Keep clear plans and records

Keep clear plans and records

The interviews encompass farmers of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and livestock. Each production section includes five to ten farms in various parts of the country and ends with a summary of challenges to the adaptive capacity of farmers in that production area. Farmers report on changes they have observed in the past twenty years, whether those changes seem to be long term, and changes they have made to their farming practices as a way to improve their chance of harvesting good yields. Naturally I paid most attention to vegetable growing, and to farmers in the Southeast, to get some ideas on what changes I might wisely introduce.

Some vegetable growers noted the arrival of longer growing seasons, in particular, a longer fall season. Many refer to the need to improve irrigation systems and access to water supplies. Many also see a need to improve soil drainage and soil water-holding capacity. The diversity of vegetable crops many growers produce is a strength in that it spreads the risk. Whatever the weather, something will grow (surely?)

 

Wintry garden beds. Credit Ezra Freeman

Wintry garden beds.
Credit Ezra Freeman

I also found the sections on other types of farming useful, noting that fruit and nut tree growers were looking at diversifying into annual vegetables because of problems with late frosts or insufficient chilling hours that can lead to a complete crop failure in a perennial. Grain farmers had very interesting advice about mixtures of cover crop seed, cocktails of 10 – 20 different cover crops, to increase the chance of improving the soil and gaining longer-term benefits of resilience.

Laura Lengnick is one of the main authors of a USDA ARS report Climate Change and Agriculture: Effects and Adaptation. (USDA Technical Bulletin 1935) Feb 2013. She also participates in the Climate Listening Project, a “storytelling platform for conversations on climate change resilience”.  You can learn more about the Climate Listening Project in their introductory video.

Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy writes in his endorsement of the book, “we must keep climate from changing too much – because there’s nothing even the best farmer can do to cope with a truly overheated planet.”

Laura Lengnick, Carol Deppe, Growing for Market April issue

51qEC5xzBVLImage-contributor-s_avatarHere’s a new book I’m really looking forward to reading: Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate. $19.95 from New Society Publishers.

Like many farmers, I’ve been struggling not to get despondent about erratic and extreme weather, especially in the past few years. I worry about how and if we are going to be able to adapt to continue producing good food despite extreme heat, cold, drought and deluge. I don’t want to slide into catastrophic thinking about plagues of new pests and diseases. Obviously we’ll need to make changes to how and when we plant and harvest – old-timey calendars don’t work any more.

I’m already there with the need for good record-keeping (to figure out what works best); eating and supplying local food (to reduce transportation fuel use and to get the freshest food); and doing my personal best not to make climate change worse. And I need help in understanding how to be more resilient and use the options I have. And it’s definitely time to start this!

I went to a workshop given by Laura Lengnick at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference in 2012: Managing a Changing Climate:A Farm Vulnerability Assessment and I was encouraged by her grasp of both the science and of farming. Her book is one of three being launched by New Society at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC

Resilient Gardener_SmallResilience is a concept familiar to another author, Carol Deppe, whose new book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening will, sooner or later, get a review by me on this site. I enjoyed her earlier book, The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. That book focuses on staple crops for survival: potatoes, corn, dry beans, squash and eggs. Her new book includes other crops which make our lives richer and worth gardening for: tomatoes, peas, green beans, summer squash. I just read an interesting interview with Carol Deppe from Margaret Roach who blogs as A Way to Garden, and makes radio podcasts such as this interview.
GFM-April2015-cover-300pxAnd yet more reading! The April issue of Growing for Market is out. I’ve written the first of a pair of articles on hot weather greens. This one is about greens mostly cooked and eaten. next month my article will be about greens mostly eaten as salads. I know there is a lot of overlap, but I had to draw a line somewhere! This month’s article includes chard, Malabar spinach, New Zealand spinach, beet greens, Egyptian spinach, leaf amaranths, Aztec Spinach, Water Spinach, sweet potato leaves, squash leaves and shoots, crowder pea shoots and leaves and edible celosia. No need to go short of leafy greens, no matter how hot it gets!
Another article in this issue is about pesticide drift contamination, written by Joanna and Eric Reuter, whose fascinating blog I love to follow on their website Chert Hollow Farm. Their blog has a 3-part series of posts about their own experience of being contaminated by a neighbor. Their article tells their own story more briefly and also that of Terra Bella farm, an hour from them.
Jean-Martin Fortier has a great article on Six strategies to prevent weeds. We need them all! (Of course, we are already using some of them.) Raymond Cloyd from Kansas State University has written a timely article about the Spotted Wing Drosophila, a newly emerging pest of fruit, especially brambles. Gretel Adams, in her regular column on flower-growing, advises planting bulbs quickly and often. And Lynn Byczynski reports on what the ag census says about local food. Having the report read carefully and summarized for us is a great service.

Growing for Market February issue is out! So is USDA Climate Change Report!

GFM-February2013-cover-300px

The February 2013 issue of Growing for Market magazine is now available, including my new article  Making Good Decisions Under Pressure. This is the fourth article in my series about being resilient, understanding what’s going on with the plants and the weather, and knowing when to take action, is about tools to help busy farmers with complex decisions that have to be taken quickly. The middle of a hot field in mid-afternoon of the day you need to plant is not the best place to make a hard decision. It’s better to have a framework in place to lean on when the going gets tough. I talk about various decision-making techniques, clarifying whose job it is to make each decision, what resources are available, and what the impacts of the decision might be.

If that sounds abstract, I also include our sad chart “Can’t Do It All 2011”.  In early March that year, we realized we had nothing like enough experienced workers. We were looking at an overwhelming amount of work. We made a list of labor-intensive crops for possible cuts. The main point was to save us time, not just cut crops we personally disliked! We noted the decision date by each crop on the list. As each date approached we reviewed our situation. This method enabled us to make one decision at a time, in a straightforward way, and not go insane. Such a list is helpful for many types of calamity. It leaves the door open for possible upturns of fortune later in the year. It’s less distressing to take one bite at a time than to take a big decision when you already are struggling to cope with some big bad thing having happened.

This issue of GfM also has these articles:

• Lettuce varieties that tolerate heat and cold By Lynn Byczynski

• Book Reviews: The Organic Seed Grower (John Navazio) and The Art of Fermentation Sandor Katz) by Lynn Byczynski

• A new meal-planning service keeps CSA members happy by Lynn Byczynski

• Capturing information in the field to help with recordkeeping, by Chris Blanchard

• Plans for farm-built pallets that make it easy to move transplants, by Chip and Susan Planck

• What the proposed federal produce safety rules mean to you, by Lynn Byczynski

• An urban flower farmer builds a flourishing business in weddings, an interview with Jennie Love by Erin Benzakein.

Also newly arrived is the Report Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation (USDA Technical Bulletin 1935). I wrote about this in my post following the CFSA conference in October, where I attended a gripping workshop by Laura Lengnick, one of the authors of this report. It has 193 pages, and when I’ve read it, I’ll review it. Chapters include An Overview of U.S. Agriculture, An Overview of the Changing Climate, Climate Change Science and Agriculture, Climate Change Effects on U.S. Agricultural Production, Climate Change Effects on the Economics of U.S. Agriculture, Adapting to Climate Change, Conclusions and Research Needs, and various appendices.

Photo by Wren Vile

Photo by Wren Vile

Home from CFSA, Superstorm Sandy

Beauregard sweet potato
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Superstorm Sandy didn’t do us much damage, luckily. It’s been raining for 40 hours, but we’ve only got 2.8 inches so far and it looks like it’s going to clear up later today. Despite my worries about the broken hoophouse windows blowing in and us losing our newly re-plasticked hoophouse, it didn’t happen. We didn’t have any really high winds, and we didn’t even lose power, but of course we did all the prep work.

Georgia Jet
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Yesterday we re-stacked our sweet potatoes which had finished curing (the skins don’t rub off any more). We moved them into a wire rodent-proof cage, and close-stacked them, taking away all the sticks that spaced the boxes during curing. I haven’t got numbers for the total yield yet, but it comes to 96 boxes. The Georgia Jet produced 42 boxes and the Beauregard only 32 from the same length row. Our two heirloom varieties produced three boxes each. We don’t expect many of them, but we are keeping the varieties alive, because genetic diversity is important and who knows what secret virtues these varieties have?

We also bravely spent time in the rain, digging drainage ditches to reduce the impact of the hurricane. They seem to have worked quite well. And we draped the soggy rowcovers over the frost tender crops, in anticipation of freezing conditions.

While I was away at the CFSA Conference, the crew harvested the white potatoes. We got a good yield (also no numbers yet), but we got a disappointingly large number of greened potatoes. (Green from being exposed to the light.) I think the reason is that our new experimental tractor-mounted furrow-making disks don’t make furrows as deep as we need. The walk-behind BCS furrower on the rototiller made adequate furrows, but not as good as the old Troybilt furrower. This flags a need to research better gear before March.

I had a great time at the CFSA Conference. I think there were about 700 people there. About 70 came to my workshop Growing Great Garlic, on Saturday afternoon. They were very appreciative, and I managed OK without my notes! It’s not as bad as it sounds – I had a slideshow and had practiced quite a few times, and knew it better than I would have guessed. Somehow I couldn’t get my notes on the laptop screen without them also appearing on the big screen along with lots of clutter. This flags a need to find out before my three workshops at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, January 23-26. Busy, busy.

The conference was very well organized and the food was spectacular – mostly local and sustainably grown. I had the chance to attend several workshops by other people. Tony Keinath, the vegetable pathologist at Clemson University, talked on Sustainable and Organic Approaches to Managing Cucurbit and Tomato Diseases – a very well-prepared and information-packed session. I feel in a better place to tackle next year’s plagues now. I was struck by the fact that he had seen NO benefits of using Oxidate, the hydrogen peroxide disease control product.

A workshop I found particularly valuable was Laura Lengnick‘s presentation “Is Your Farm Climate Ready?”  She is doing valuable work to help farmers get ready for climate variability. She is one of the main authors of a USDA ARS report Climate Change and Agriculture: Effect and Adaptation. Its publication date is November 14 2012. She also spoke at the August 2012 symposium of the Ecological Society of America, Climate change impacts on agricultural systems:

She suggests viewing climate change as yet another production risk to assess and prepare for. The vulnerability of your farm has two components: exposure and adaptive capacity. As far as vulnerability, the most immediate key exposure is water issues (too much and too little). Rising air temperatures, including night temperatures, more extreme temperatures provide threats and some opportunities. Increasing CO2 levels will provide some positive effects such as faster crop growth. As far as adaptive capacity, the main feature of that aspect is our personal capacity to respond and plan. Laura Lengnick says “Greater attention to climate as critical for decision-making is expected by future generations of producers.” We need to start with ourselves.

Baby ginger, ready to be eaten, pickled, candied, frozen.
Photo East Branch Ginger

Next I attended a workshop by Susan Anderson of East Branch Ginger, and learned so much about how to do the best by this crop, that I am looking forward to an even bigger harvest next year. This year we harvested 165 pounds, and saved 65 pounds as seed stock, so we can plant a bigger patch in next year’s hoophouse.

Harvested baby ginger, about 6 months old
Photo East Branch Ginger

Meanwhile I’ve finished my next article for Growing for Market. My working title is Knowing When to Take Action. It’s the third part of my series on being a resilient farmer. This article includes scouting and monitoring for pests and diseases; using pest and disease forecast services; and being prepared for the effects of extreme high and low temperatures. When is it time to cut your losses? A big part of the article is a table of soil temperatures to help when deciding planting and harvesting dates.