Jul 31, 2012


Drought and Cultivating Resilience
by Mary Fund

“I was born in a drought year.” So begins my favorite Wendell Berry poem.* With 82 Kansas counties declared disaster areas due to drought by mid-July, and the Governor requesting that another 37 be added to the list, that poem has often come to mind lately. I have been thinking not only about immediate drought manage-ment on the farm, but about the bigger issue of resilience. While some still argue that we can explain this year’s triple digit temperatures and drought as simply “summer”, the “weather is the news reality” begs to differ.

At KRC’s 2008 Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Blue Rapids, Ks., Dr. Fred Kirschenmann spoke about our natural resource base and changing climate as critical to “meeting agriculture’s challenges in a rapidly changing world.” Building resilience, which is the ability to recover or adjust to misfortune or change, was central to his comments.

Kirschenmann urged us to think about agricultural sustainability in a new way. He spoke of “weak sustainability”, which defines sustainability “as a steady state, assuming that the underlying structure of agriculture or the economy stays the same.” Under this system, all we have to do is tweak a few issues, or “green it up” (as nearly all corporations have done these days), and everything else would stay the same.

But Kirschenmann argued that the world is changing so rapidly that we can’t afford this definition of sustainability. It will not prepare us for the big changes we face in term of climate and resources.

Instead he offered a version of “strong sustainability” which asks how can we build resilience into the system? To do this you have to think about adaptation and not just tweaking or greening it up. “We are moving,” he told the 100 plus farmers and ranchers in the audience, “into a future where energy costs are going to go up, and the climate will become more unstable. The question is how is my farm going to survive these circumstances? This is true for not only agriculture but for society and the economy in general.”

“Industrialization”, he explained, “ is all about efficiency, which make sense until you realize that the only way to achieve efficiency is to eliminate redundancy. And in nature, redundancy is what makes resilience. If one thing crashes, there are six others that still work.” In terms of agriculture, the native prairie is the premier example of resilience, as during drought, certain species seem to disappear but others thrive because they are adapted to drought. As Wes Jackson’s lifetime of work at the Land Institute asserts, mimicking the prairie with our agricultural crops may hold the key to adaptation for the future.

But as most scientists, and even some economists realize, resilience requires biodiversity, and we are losing biodiversity at record pace.

Here in northeast Kansas, unprecendented amounts of grass and pasture have been broken out the past few years for cropland based on current high crop prices. Natural field borders of trees, grass and brush, as well as riparian areas are bulldozed, taking with them wildlife and pollinator habitat to make way for homogenous fields of corn and soybeans. Resilient? I think not.

Not that systems with more complex crop rotations, deep rooted cover crops, and livestock integrated into the operation won’t be sorely tested during the current drought, but past indications are that they will fare better ecologically than simpler, specialized operations (and if you leave out federal crop insurance and commodity crop subsidies, they may also fare better economically).

Whether you view the current drought and high temperatures as a short-term typical weather cycle or part of a bigger shift to a dryer, warmer climate, a shift to making your farm or ranch more resilient is important. It might begin with something simple like cover crops as forages for livestock following an early harvest of corn for livestock feed. Or it might involve installing paddock fencing and alternative watering sites to better manage pasture and livestock. Or it may involve incorporating wheat or small winter grains into that rotation of corn and soybeans. These are certainly not the whole solution but they are a start.

Wendell Berry’s poem ends with “ My sweetness is to wake in the night after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.” I know I look forward to that.

*“Water”, from Farming: A Handbook by Wendell Berry, 1967 Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanich Publishers.

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