Resilience: Survive, thrive and farm another season!

 

A willow tree behind out herb garden.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

“The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it.” Sir Walter Scott

I’m reading Laura Lengnick’s book Resilient Agriculture, (review coming soon) and thinking about how growers thrive under varying situations, some of which we have no control over. To adjust to changing weather conditions, to continue after challenges and get the best possible outcome whatever happens, we need to be alert, adaptable and quick on our feet, a bit like a Ju-Jitsu practitioner.

Being ready to tackle whatever happens includes recognizing and building in many options, keeping all options open until the future is clearer, and knowing when and which way to jump. It involves being prepared with needed equipment (or at least phone numbers), and having our filing systems be accessible all year, not in a big heap!

It includes getting good at understanding current conditions and predicting the future, getting to grips with radar maps and how to use Growing Degree Days. It involves keeping records of when certain flowers bloom (phenology), and soil temperatures. This information helps us figure out when to plant according to actual conditions, rather than simply by the calendar, a method which is not useful as climate change takes hold.

A honeybee on deadnettle weeds. Fall deadnettle germination shows that conditions are cool enough to sow spinach. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Making good assessments of conditions is the first step in cultivating adaptability. The second necessary skill-set is the ability to know how to make a swift and effective decision and locate the resources to put that decision into practice. This includes information about soil temperatures and how long various crops take to emerge. Also, knowing how summer crops will respond to extra high temperatures. And how winter crops will respond to horrifying low temperatures. When is it time to cut your losses on a struggling crop and till it in? I do a weekly tour of the gardens and re-prioritize tasks. Growing food is an organic process, non-linear!

These two skills are followed by a review process, so we can learn from what went wrong, as well as what went right! Usually this involves record-keeping, (dates, actions and results) to inform next season. You can list other possible responses to fine-tune your choices next time. Record-keeping can include photos, audio recording, video clips. Whatever works. You may only need to tweak your response in future, or you may want a completely different approach. One of our garden mantras is “Never repeat the same mistake two years running.”

Get Ready for Farming After Anything

Carol Deppe in The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times recommends building in slack, rather than planning to work flat out every day. When something unexpected happens, you’ll have a bit of extra time available to tackle the problem. Personal troubles like injury, health challenges, or family emergencies; or household events like financial problems can require time focused elsewhere; or disastrous weather that affects everyone around you. On her website, Carol has an interview called Food in Uncertain Times: How to Grow and Store the Five Crops You Need to Survive. She says: “The resilient garden is designed and managed so that when things go wrong, they have less impact.” Grow food requiring minimal external inputs, know how to grow staple crops and save seeds. Some years you won’t need to employ these skills, but you’ll be ready when you do.

Being Flexible About Growing Food

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

We have a Garden Shift Honchos Guide to help whoever is leading the crew. It includes general guidelines: “Try to at least get the harvesting done, whatever the weather, (unless torrential rain, tornado, ice storm, thunder and lightning).” It suggests how to choose jobs from our posted task list. My priority sequence is harvest, plant, mulch, prepare beds for planting, hoe, hand weed. The Honchos Guide has hints for contingencies:

  • If the day is likely to be very hot, get the physically taxing tasks done first (especially anything involving shovels).
  • If the morning starts out with a heavy dew, postpone harvesting cucurbits, nightshades, strawberries and legumes until the leaves dry, to reduce the spread of disease.
  • After heavy rain: mulched perennials (fruit and asparagus) are the easiest places to work. Don’t work in sinking mud, it compacts the soil, which means the plants go short on air, and the soil will be slower to drain after future rains. Standing on long boards is an option for harvesting or planting.
  • If heavy rain is expected and you might have to stop in a hurry, do weeding, not planting. It’s a waste of time to hoe if it’s about to rain, or that crop is due for overhead irrigation. Don’t leave pulled weeds on the beds before rain or irrigation. They’ll re-root.
  • If you feel frazzled: choose a big simple task lots of people can do, like weeding strawberries, or hoeing corn. Or choose two tasks geographically close, so it’s easy to keep an eye on everything happening.
  • Choreographing the crew can be hard. It’s handy if everyone finishes harvesting around the same time. Perhaps spread out at first for miscellaneous harvesting, and then end up together on the crop that takes a long time.

Building in Options on the Farm

Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, advocates for constructing buildings that are easy to modify later, in gradual or drastic ways to meet the changing needs of the people inside. Farms can be looked at similarly. Keep as many options as possible (for crops, cover crops, crop layout) open for as long as possible.

It can be helpful to do some scenario planning, which I learned about in The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz. Scenario Planning is a method of making flexible long-term plans, using stories (scenarios) to help us visualize different possible futures that include not only factors we don’t control, like the weather or the market’s enthusiasm for bulb fennel, but also intangibles such as our hopes and fears, beliefs and dreams. Different combinations of uncertainties and possibilities, including interactions of some major variables in plausible but uncomfortable as well as hoped-for combinations are used to create each scenario.

Sometimes the easiest way to compare scenarios is to set options out in a grid. For instance, in choosing which cover crop to sow following a spring crop that we clear in August-October in zone 7, we can say that the main variables are whether the season is dry or wet, and whether we are early or late planting. We can sow oats from mid-August to early September, to winter-kill, or winter rye once we reach September 1 (before that we risk the rye heading up before winter and self-seeding).

Dry and Early: Sow cowpeas or soybeans with oats, for a winter-killed cover crop. Dry and Late: Sow winter rye or wheat alone.
Wet and Early: Sow a clover mix in August, or hairy vetch with winter rye, 9/1-10/10 Wet and Late: Sow Austrian winter peas with winter rye

Often there are more variables, such as weediness. We might undersow our fall broccoli with a clover mix in August, intending the clovers to become a Green Fallow plot for the following season. The next summer, we assess the situation. If the weeds are bad in July, we disk in the clovers and sow sorghum-sudan hybrid mixed with soy, as a winter-killed cover crop. If all looks well in July, but the weeds are gaining the upper hand in August, we have the option of tilling it in, and sowing oats mixed with soy. If the clover is growing well, and the weeds are not bad, we over-winter the patch, and disk it in February.

Broccoli undersown with clover.
Photo Nina Gentle

Vegetable Crop Options

We have a few options recorded in our calendar:

  • If spring is cold and wet, grow transplants for the second planting of cucumbers and summer squash.
  • If the winter squash patch is too wet to disk, grow transplants, but don’t sow later-maturing varieties.
  • If the soil is to wet to hill the spring potatoes, flame weed instead.

Abundance Options

What to do if your yields are higher than planned: increase sales by giving out samples and recipes, and feature the item on your website. Find sales to new customers (restaurants), process the crop for future out-of-season sale (if you have time), or donate it to a local food bank.

Shortage Options

With a CSA you can keep a list of who gets Sun Gold tomatoes each week, until everyone has had some. This method has the advantage of keeping the time spent picking cherry tomatoes down to a reasonable level. The sharers get some as a treat a few times in the summer, but not every week.

You can mix leaves of several greens in an attractive bunch and call it braising mix, or add unusual crops to bagged salad mix, or make up stir-fry or ratatouille packages. If a crop is really poor, it is often best to till it in and plant something else. For me, this eases the soul and lets me move on. We keep a running list of crops looking for a home, so we can replace failures with fast-growing crops such as radishes, arugula, mizuna, Tokyo bekana, or salad mix. One year when our fall cabbage didn’t fill the area intended, we used senposai, a tasty, fast-growing leaf green. If rutabagas don’t come up, sow turnips – there are very fast-growing turnips, and a small turnip is a delicacy, but a small rutabaga is a sad thing.

Hakurei turnips harvested late January.
Photo Pam Dawling

It helps to have a clear and simple rotation. Our raised bed plan is ad-hoc. We make use of the flexibility: one August we were a bit late getting some tilling done, and we sowed the last cucumbers in the bed which was to have been squash. Cucumbers take a bit longer than squash to reach maturity, and I wanted to get them in the ground as soon as possible. The squash had to wait two more days. Two days can make a lot of difference when planting for fall.

Finding Resilient Crop Varieties

We always read the information about disease resistance when choosing varieties, because mid-Atlantic humidity is so conducive to fungal diseases. Depending on your climate you might pay more attention to the cold-tolerance, or the number of days to maturity. Every year we trial small quantities of one or two new varieties of important crops alongside our workhorses.

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.”