What is Agricultural Resilience?

March 2021

By Joel Tallaksen, Renewable Energy Scientist

Over the last several years, the WCROC Crop, Dairy, Swine, and Renewable Energy Programs have been increasing our efforts to include how our research can address farm resiliency. In this process, we have often discussed what farm resilience means and how it is defined. Depending on who is discussing resilience in agricultural, they are often talking about very different topics. However, they all center on the concept of the ability to survive and thrive in changing circumstances. Agriculture has always had to be somewhat resilient due to the constant change in the products it supplies, consumer expectations of farmers, farm programs, economics, markets, weather, climate, and changes in agricultural communities and society in general. However, the last decade in particular has seen change in almost all areas of agriculture at the same time.

Before discussing resiliency in more detail, I think it is important to specifically mention the human component of resiliency. The toll that stress can take on farmers and the farm community while they are facing or in the middle of a change is an often not fully recognized. University of Minnesota Extension and other organizations have collected a number of resources covering the mental health aspects of resilience. Farmers themselves and their families are the most important part of the equation for farms to successfully adapt to changes. At times, these challenges are beyond the ability of one farmer or farm-family to overcome on their own. As seen in other high stress occupations or situations, the physical and mental stress wears down an individual’s ability to cope with complex problems. This downward cycle can impact judgement and health. Please be aware of when these situations may be occurring and do not hesitate to use the available resources to get back to a healthy mental and physical state, online resources are in the links below and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Farm and Rural Helpline phone number is 833-600-2670.

The farmer and farm-family are part of a larger aspect of resilience, the social or community component. This includes the people on and near the farm, plus the resources they bring to and beliefs they have about agriculture. Farmers typically see this in the support of the local community and their ability to find a farm labor force and other resources. However, often distant consumers are also a large part of the social component. Consumers have choices in the food they buy, and this impacts the demand of certain products from the farm sector. It can also influence regulatory policy and government support for farm issues.

One of the factors consumers are more closely following is the environmental aspects of farming, which is another component of resilience. This includes on-farm issues like the loss of soil quality due to erosion or over-use of land, as well as issues affecting the broader environment such as water quality and greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental issues are often long-term challenges, which can involve trade-offs between current productivity and long-term productivity or consumer perception.

Both the social and environmental components of resilience heavily influence the final component of resiliency, the economic component. Most farmers have a passion for agriculture and producing the food that consumers need and want. However, they have an important responsibility to generate an income to support their families as well.

Together, the social, environmental, and economic aspect of resilience are often referred to as a three-legged stool for sustainable systems. When all three of these are not working together, the system is out of balance and will fail over time. By understanding the issues in each of these three areas, farmers are better able to identify where they can improve their farm’s resiliency.

Three factors are typically considered in being more resilient- persistence, adaptability, and the ability to transform. Persistence refers to the ability to deal with short-term challenges, it does not necessarily mean large operation changes. This might be recognizing that crop or livestock prices will be low at a given time, but the long-term trend is that prices will recover, and the crop or livestock enterprise will be profitable. Setting up a reserve to weather these financial stresses will make the farm more resilient to this type of short-term stress. Adaptability is being able to make larger changes to your current crop or livestock enterprise to keep those operations profitable over the long-term. An example would be adding irrigation or drainage to fields. The largest changes come with transformation, where new crop or livestock enterprise may need to be added to replace or supplement the current livestock and cropping systems. These can be disruptive technologies that often require farmers to move outside their normal comfort zones while they transition to the new activities.

Much of the research that we at WCROC conduct is done to make farms more resilient. Whether it is our horticultural, cropping, livestock, or energy systems research, we strive to improve the social, environmental, and economic components of agriculture. We try to identify areas where farmers are likely to benefit from enhanced or new production methods, or where they can diversify their operation. The research is often multidisciplinary and integrates many research areas covered by WCROC and the University of Minnesota, such as renewable energy, livestock, economics, and soil science. This type of interdisciplinary research is a hallmark of the WCROC research programs. To further assist farmers in making their operations more resilient, we are currently pursuing funding to develop farm resiliency plan templates that can assist farmers in identify resiliency options tailored to their farms. In a future newsletter article, I will take a closer look at specific initiatives that my colleagues and I in the renewable energy team are working on to improve farm resilience.

Online resources for the mental health aspects of resilience:

Other articles on resilience in agriculture: