By Amanda Egdorf-Sand, Executive Director, NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation
Carbon. You may hear this mentioned more often these days. It’s one of the building blocks of all things on this planet. And it’s a key factor supporting agriculture resilience. More on carbon in a minute.
Agriculture resilience is about equipping farmers to absorb and recover from shocks and stresses to their agricultural production and livelihoods. Some stressors appear suddenly and with intensity, such as a hurricane; others slowly erode a farmer’s ability to farm, like soil loss. We know that Mother Nature knows no bounds and that pressures on farmers are coming from all directions, from variability in input costs, markets, and supply chain issues, so it’s up to farmers (and their support team, such as SFLRP and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), among many others) to ensure that the whole farm system increases its resiliency to instability and uncertainty.
What does agriculture resilience look like? Well, it looks like a lot of things, but we can assemble it together like a three-legged stool: environment, economics, and social/community systems.
The first leg of the stool, environment, brings us back to carbon. How can something so elemental contribute to on-farm resilience? Considering that a farm is a complex system, we must literally and figuratively start at the roots. The NRCS defines soil health as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. Healthy soil serves five essential functions for agriculture: regulating water, sustaining plant and animal life, filtering and buffering potential pollutants, cycling nutrients, and physical stability and support. If we take a microscope and look at the soil on the farm, we can see that there are anywhere from 100 million to one billion individual bacteria and microorganisms thriving in just one teaspoon of soil!
The soil has an incredible capacity to sequester (or capture) carbon out of the atmosphere, thereby supporting that thriving ecosystem beneath our feet. Higher soil organic carbon supports soil structure, which means greater aeration and more spaces for those underground critters to inhabit, supporting root growth in plants. It also increases water retention and drainage, allowing the soil to act as a sponge during those high rain events and holding that moisture so that it can be utilized during dry spells. You also see reduced erosion and nutrient losses because we are supporting soil structure, which then increases soil fertility.
How do we boost soil health? The NRCS points to four soil health principles: keep it covered (such as with a cover crop), minimize soil disturbance (such as reduced tillage or no-till), plant diversity, and keep a living root/plant in the ground. Unsure of the next steps? Reach out to your local NRCS and Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) office. Each county has at least one technical person who can help you look at the whole farm and provide guidance to boost your resilience (for free!). My organization, the NC Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation, is piloting the Carbon Farm Planning approach, looking at soil health through a carbon lens. In Halifax County, Hulan Johnston and his supporting technical team served as the champion farmer for this type of resilience planning.
Next, we look at economics. The financial resilience of the farm is supported by its diversity of income streams. With a greater variety of products and customers comes resilience to whatever adversity lies ahead. What on-farm assets do you have? If you have 100 acres of forested land, are you maximizing your opportunities? Again, reach out to your supporting team of advisors (NRCS, SWCD, NC Forest Service, NC State University’s Cooperative Extension, NC A&T’s Cooperative Extension) and learn about the opportunities that may exist on your farm. Maybe there’s an untapped resource you haven’t considered yet! Also, protect those assets by making sure you have the proper insurance. Having a conservation plan gives you a blueprint for success, and insurance protects the investments you make. By utilizing resources such as the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s publication called “Weathering the Storm,” you begin that conversation surrounding risk management and thoughtful strategies to reduce risk.
Social and Community Systems.
The last leg of the stool are your social and community systems. This is a resource that sometimes gets overlooked, but without it the stool would fall over. This is where your technical support team comes into play. Your community connections are part of this as well. What other farmers do you have in your network that can advise you? Who do you have on speed dial when problems arise? Investing time in your community means that you are building social capital that will be there to support you through any disaster. Community-building is your leadership on the town council, on the local soil and water conservation district board, or on the parent-teacher association. Pulling your neighbor’s car out of the mud with your tractor … those connections, those actions make a difference. It all builds a network of individuals who will be willing to help you should you need it. Just like the soil is a complex network of organisms, so are we, building our adaptive capacity to collectively weather the challenges that lie ahead.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge and thank the organizations that are making our resilience planning effort possible: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Virginia Tech, Southern SARE and the NC Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. The North Carolina Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to promote, protect and improve North Carolina soil and water resources for the enhancement of economic growth and stewardship of the natural environment. To learn more, visit www.ncsoilwater.org.