Book review: Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate

by Laura Lengnick, book review by Chris Walters

resilient-agricultureThis is not a book composed of brisk summaries and sweeping statements. Laura Lengnick gets into the weeds without delay, devoting the first 100-odd pages to laying out the particulars of sensitivity and adaptability that affect farms buffeted by rapid changes in weather patterns. Given the size and complexity of the phenomena under discussion — as well as masses of fresh data being collected all the time — it’s something like a thumbnail sketch. But it’s an impressively detailed, lucid and well-organized introduction to a topic that could easily fill several volumes.

Lengnick asks the crucial question in the final paragraph of her book’s first third: “What are the barriers and opportunities to the development of a sustainable U.S. agriculture robust to the increasing pace and intensity of climate change?” The rest of the book is devoted to the answer as delivered by 25 sustainable producers from all over the land. Every region is represented, and readers are likely to encounter people they’ve already met either at conferences or in these pages. All of them sound like people you’d like to meet, and taken as a whole, the range of their responses to the bedevilments of the past few years are dazzling.

Crazy weather means all bets are off, all verities open to question. A crop never before grown in one region may become viable and useful due to a lengthening season. Increasing wind speeds mandate a change in cover cropping to something less likely to blow away. Tree breaks get planted, and ingenious systems for saving rainwater become a priority. And at almost every turn, the inventiveness of American farmers outpaces the support they receive from de- or underfunded government agencies that might have lent a crucial hand in years gone by.

Lengnick is a former agricultural researcher, activist, consultant and U.S. Senate staff who spent more than a decade leading the sustainable agriculture program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, where she still resides. The blending of practical problem-solving, political savvy, academic rigor and fingers-in-the-dirt experience suggested by her imposing resumé is all over this book. While some of the passages on agricultural systems and agroecosystems and so on may verge on abstraction, the reports from the field that make up the bulk of the book keep it grounded in the everyday, granular details that fill up the lives of sustainable farmers. Lengnick has accomplished something significant here, and how she did it without a whole wing of researchers on call is anyone’s guess.

by Laura Lengnick, 2015. New Society Publishers. ISBN: 9780865717749.

This review appears in the April 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.