Laura Lengnick is the newly hired director of agriculture at the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming in Philipstown and the author of Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate.
What is “resilient agriculture” and how is it different from “sustainable agriculture?”
The idea of “sustainable” agriculture is that it sustains land, people and community. But the piece missing is intentional design and management, specifically through the lens of: How do we adapt for climate change? We need principles and practices when preparing, designing and managing farming and food systems that recognize change and the potential for disturbance and shock. Resilience is much broader than sustainability because we can apply it to any kind of disturbance and shock.
What are some of the shocks and disturbances?
The big shock that’s still in our face is the global pandemic. But the last hundred years of American agriculture has been shock after shock. Our changes in policy in the first half of the last century transformed agriculture from more of a regional and diversified farming to what we have now, which is more industrial. That’s a shock! We’ve had market shock; we’ve had price-of-land shock. Here in the Hudson Valley, there’s been shock after shock to the dairy industry and that’s driven so many dairy farmers out of business.
Disturbances are not as severe as those cataclysmic, headline-generating shock events. They’re within our capacity to respond. Maybe it’s something we’ve encountered before, and we’ve learned and changed practices on the farm to make it easier to respond. It’s the learning piece that’s missing in agriculture. Agriculture policy for the last 50 years has been about paying disaster aid after a disturbance, instead of learning from it and changing. Then the next disturbance hits, and we’re paying disaster aid again. Our farming system is fragile, and the costs are exploding.
Let’s say you’re in charge of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a week. What do you do first?
Get all the department heads in a room and ask: “How can we remove barriers for farmers who are ready to adopt more resilient practices?” We need to identify what programs and practices are putting up barriers, such as the subsidized crop insurance program. If you adopt many of the best resiliency practices, you become ineligible for subsidized crop insurance. Imagine if by putting up smoke detectors in your house you were no longer eligible for homeowner’s insurance. It’s crazy.
Can a large-scale farm be resilient and productive?
Yes. Resilient practices can be applied at any scale. My book describes many resilient farms and ranches that are farming at scale or larger than what’s typical for their region. But we can’t have large-scale farms in California growing 90 percent or 100 percent of our fruits and vegetables and sending them across the country. That kind of scale doesn’t work. Our national food system needs to shift where we’re growing food and how we’re growing food.
An updated version of your book will be published in May. What will be different?
A scientist wrote the first edition and an activist wrote the second edition.
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