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To Hedge Against Climate Change, Soil Scientist Says Farmers Need “Resilience”

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Courtesy Laura Lengnick
Author Laura Lengnick (left) lives and works in Asheville, North Carolina.

Our changing climate presents a unique challenge to our food system. Soil scientist Laura Lengnick says she has some tools that could help farmers and ranchers deal with the risks. She’s a small farmer herself and a longtime sustainable agriculture researcher.

Lengnick’s most recent book, “Resilient Agriculture,” lays out case studies of farmers across the country who are adopting practices meant to hedge against the hotter temperatures and more erratic precipitation climate change will bring. She profiles a handful of Colorado farmers and ranchers making changes already.

The idea is meant to challenge the concept of “sustainability,” which Lengnick says is a “20th century idea.” Sustainability, she says, takes too many things for granted, while resilient practices help farmers adjust to a changing climate and economy.

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Credit Courtesy Laura Lengnick
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Courtesy Laura Lengnick
Soil scientist Laura Lengnick says farmers need to adopt more resilient practices to adapt to climate changes.

Interview highlights

On the concept of ‘resilient agriculture’

Laura Lengnick: I think I came to the idea of resilience from a fairly critical place in that I thought it was maybe some new idea that was really no different  -- just another word for sustainability. And what I have learned is that it is deeply and completely different from sustainability.

Sustainability is a 20th century idea. It assumes that we will have stable conditions that we can predict: economic conditions, climate conditions, social conditions. Resilience assumes instability, it assumes we can’t predict conditions. It assumes that we will be surprised, and it assumes continuous change.

These are all characteristics of I’d say of the 21st century in general, but specifically the characteristics of how climate change is changing agriculture and food systems.

On West Slope fruit grower Steve Ela

Lengnick: He’s very focused on soil quality, improving soil quality which provides a great buffer to more variable weather and extremes, particularly precipitation. He is managing a very diverse operation, and that diversity has increased over time as variable weather has increased. And finally, he is focused on high-value marketing.

So these three practices together -- attention to soil quality, a high value placed on soil quality, diversified production and diversified and high-value marketing -- are all resilient agriculture practices.

On supporting ‘resilient’ farms

Lengnick: I think that anyone who can afford to do it to spend at least some of their food dollar supporting local and regional production and buying directly from producers who have diversified production systems. And so that means you’ll need to get to know these farmers a little bit and ranchers a little bit. And understand a bit of the practices that they're using.

A great place to get started at this is one of the many farmer's markets that  seem to be all along the Front Range. You have a very vibrant local and regional food system in Colorado. That would be a first step, and there you’re directly supporting farmers who are managing for high soil quality, diversified production and then they are selling into these diversified markets.

On a possible ‘resilient agriculture’ label

Legnick: We don’t really have any label. And I think labels can get problematic anyway and often can be more confusing than helpful, but there is no resilient agriculture label that can help a shopper right now make a choice among products. It does require a bit of the consumer.

I think climate change will require that we all change some of our behaviors and became a little more aware of not just the kind of food you're eating, but the way that you in your own life using resources, particularly those that are being increasingly threatened or challenged by climate changes.

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