We all know that small and medium-sized farms play a crucial role in rural economies, food security, and land stewardship. Yet, over the long term, extreme events and rapid changes to our community can threaten small and medium-sized farm viability. In the North Puget Sound Region, some of these threats include seasonal flooding, climate change, urban encroachment, and spikes in fossil fuel costs.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded the Huxley College of the Environment’s Resilience Institute a two-year grant to study small farm resilience when faced with extreme events and rapid changes. The grant is through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (formerly Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service); research is funded by the National Research Initiative of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA Grant #2008-04177.
This study will have three major phases. First, we will work with local stakeholders to develop indicators of small and medium-sized farm resilience. Second, we will develop workshops where farm stakeholders determine how extreme events may affect local farms and the agricultural communities. Of particular importance will be developing agreement on practices and policies that are likely to support small and medium-sized farm resilience, especially as these farms experience extreme events and rapid changes. Third, we will work with a coalition of advocates to implement the policies and practices within the immediate North Puget Sound Region and beyond.
As an extension of our research, we will develop, test, and disseminate a simple Farm Resilience Business Planning Tool. This Planning Tool will help farmers envision potential threats to their livelihoods, explain key resiliency strategies identified during the project, and help farmers evaluate the appropriateness of such strategies for their own farms.
The work will be carried out by the Resilience Institute. Gigi Berardi is the project’s principle investigator; Rebekah Green is a co-principle investigator. Byrant Hammond is the project's graduate research assistant and Sam Ripley is working on the project as an undergraduate research assistant.
The study will be carried out in three northwestern Washington State counties. Whatcom County, and San Juan County, and either Island, Skagit or Snohomish County.
The study started May 1, 2009 and extended for two years.
USDA categorizes farms in a number of ways. One categorization is based on sales. Small and medium-sized farms are those with annual gross sales below $250,000. Large farms are those generating sales above $250,000. Another categorization is by size. Small farms are defined as up to 50 acres. Medium-sized farms are defined as having 50 acres up to 1000 acres.
What is "Resilience," Anyway?
Resilience is a concept used to indicate a community’s ability to anticipate, adapt to, and successfully overcome negative events so that it can continue to provide the necessary physical, social, cultural, and economic structure for members to live, work, and thrive.
The following are some of our preliminary findings based on thoughtful input provided at the Whatcom, Snohomish, and San Juan County workshops.
- Growers' insights regarding farm vulnerabilities and resilience strategies under a variety of scenarios have been tremendously helpful in deepening our understanding of unique challenges facing small- and medium-sized farms in western Washington state.
- While each workshop examined only two or three county-specific scenarios, many common concerns and strategies emerged for all counties and scenario-types. The draft diagram below, developed by Bryant Hammond and Rebekah Green, provides an initial framework to guide development of tools to advance our knowledge regarding farm challenges and needs.
The workshops highlighted both threats to small farm viability and current strategies for enhancing resilience. At the farm level, threats related to labor issues and relying on energy inputs, and lack of available time. Farm-level resilience strategies everyone highlighted included being flexible, owning land, or managing relationships with neighbors, customers, and landowners. Other forces operated at the farm network level – where many growers utilized co-operatives or informal support, designed novel marketing schemes, or worked with advocacy groups as tools to address the threats of farmland loss and negative public perceptions. At the policy level, regulations considered to threaten farm viability had to do with wetland buffers, water rights, manure application and nuisance ordinances, and reporting requirements.
However, it was clear that there was little, if any, policy-level support for farm resilience. Current policies support price stability, especially for large farms, and assist when farms are not resilient in the face of extreme events. There seem to be few tax credits, assistance programs, or other policy efforts that encourage agriculture sector resilience – an issue where small- and medium-sized farms have an advantage and important leadership role. Rather, at all levels, many small farms seem to operate close to resilience thresholds that threaten long term viability of individual farms and regional agricultural systems.
Another key vulnerability had to do with securing a reliable, skilled labor supply — which was the focus of our culminating workshop this past February.
It also is clear that the “key experts” “or resource people” necessary to inform USDA and certain farm support organizations about the unique vulnerabilities and resiliency of farms are the farmers themselves!