Resilient Agriculture

Resilient Agriculture

4:07pm Mar 04, 2016
Elina Mark (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem. Follow Shawn on Twitter @SCIFitz.

How will American agriculture survive climate change? Farmers are already facing increasing challenges in keeping food on our tables. Sustainable farmers face additional challenges from policies that favor large industrial farm practices. Dr. Laura Lengnick, soil scientist and author of Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, has traveled the country to talk with sustainable farmers and to show how using their methods can cultivate resilience in the face of a changing climate.

"I thought that sustainable farmers might be like the proverbial canary in a coal mine. They’re the type of farmer that might notice pretty subtle changes in weather, before other farmers. These farmers depend on healthy ecosystem function in order to provide what they need to grow - crops and livestock. And ecosystems are incredibly sensitive to changes in temperature and changes in precipitation."

And indeed, changes are upon them.

"Really since 2000, American farmers began to see weather variability beginning to affect their ability to take care of their crops properly. There has been an increase in extreme weather events, and the weather events are becoming increasingly more intense. Some places in the southwest have seen 15 years of extreme drought. We’re seeing more frequent and intense rainfalls having as much of an effect on agriculture in the midwest and northeast as drought is having on the southwest. When the annual precipitation is being delivered in more intense rain events, you have longer periods of dry or drought in between those rain events. And so we’ve actually seen many farmers in the midwest and in the northeast investing in both drainage and irrigation. And many of those farmers have never needed either one of those."

It sounds pretty frightening. After all, this is where our food comes from. But sustainable farming methods actually offer resilience in the face of climate change.

"The work that I did involved doing case studies with 27 award-winning sustainable farmers. No matter where they were farming, they identified three things particularly important to cultivating climate resilience on their farms. The first is soil quality. A farm with high soil quality actually promotes clean water in the region where they are operating. It reduces flooding and the need for fertilizers, for pesticides, for irrigation. This paradox we have of too much water and not enough water, soil quality buffers both of those extremes. The second one is highly diverse systems where you’re mixing annual crops with perennial crops; integrating animals into those systems; growing what are called cover crops, which are crops that are grown to increase biodiversity on the farm, or to build soil quality. And then the third key asset is diversified marketing. The diversified markets basically spread risk across markets. These sustainable farmers have worked along with consumers over the last 30 years to rebuild a more local or regional agriculture."

Dr. Lengnick wrote her book to give a voice to these farmers, whose practices can seem invisible to most of us. But these practices may play a key role in climate resilience.

"We know a lot already about how to create a more climate-resilient food system in this country. This model is on the ground, right now, all over the country, and it’s growing, and it offers a multitude of solutions to climate change. We just need to start focusing on transitioning the US food system to look more like a sustainable and resilient food system. One of the important messages of the book is that we know how to do this, we just need to get started."

This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of UFOmusic.com.

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