Adopting Precision Farming Practices Can Help Make Agriculture More Resilient

One of the most important and least appreciated concepts in agriculture is “resilience.” Resilience is the antidote to risk. Of the many definitions, the European Commission (EC) has probably the broadest one that has application to agriculture.

According to the EC, resilience is defined as the “ability of an individual, a household, a community, or a region to withstand, to adapt, and to quickly recover from stresses and shocks.” This definition explicitly emphasizes the importance of spatial scale when discussing resilience and implicitly acknowledges the temporal aspect when referring to adaptation and recovery. The definition introduces the important concepts of “stress” and “shock.” Stress, in the present discussion, refers to any phenomena that slows or suspends a particular agricultural practice, while shock stops the same practice. In other words, stress makes a certain endeavor more difficult, while shock makes the same endeavor impossible.

A couple of examples may help to understand the difference between stress and shock and why they are the basis for discussing resilience. A heavy rain may suspend (stress) a particular operation in a field during a growing season, while a flood (shock) would likely destroy a crop. The selected removal (stress) of a few trees in a landscape may slightly impact an ecosystem, while deforestation (shock) would destroy the same ecosystem.

Before tackling how a grower can respond to stress or a shock, it may be instructive to discuss the spatial and temporal aspects of these concepts. The scale of one phenomenon may disrupt the ability of an individual to perform an operation, but have little or no impact on the larger, surrounding community. The scale of another phenomenon may reach far beyond an individual. For example, if the vehicle of an individual breaks down, the surrounding community is still able to drive on the roads. If a bridge fails, the driving ability of a greater number of individuals would be affected in the same community. If there was a severe earthquake, transportation with a vehicle would be impacted across many communities in a state.

Long- Vs. Short-Term

The temporal scale is just as important as the spatial scale. A short-lived, isolated phenomenon that disrupts some practice is very different then a phenomenon that persists over a long time. For example, growers can deal with a dry spell over a matter of days but a prolonged drought can not only destroy a crop in a given season but also jeopardize farming in the upcoming years. This is exactly the situation in California where the agricultural industry is changing due to dwindling water supplies from an ongoing regional drought.

As defined, resilience is the ability to withstand, adapt, and to quickly recover from stresses and shocks. Withstanding stresses and shocks is a function of vulnerability. Everyone in agriculture is aware that a fallow field exposed to a heavy rain is more vulnerable to water erosion than a field covered with a crop. Similarly, everyone knows that rotating crops can make a field less vulnerable to the buildup of pests, provide better soil structure, and improve nutrient cycling in soils. By choosing practices wisely, a farming operation can withstand a number of biotic and abiotic stresses. However, if a shock is severe enough, then a grower must look to adaptation and recovery as a strategy.

The ability to adapt and recover from stresses and shocks is routed in an understanding of one’s vulnerability to some phenomenon and the odds of it occurring in a given future period. Some examples may illustrate the interplay of adaptation and recovery to some disruptive phenomena. If high winds are a recurring problem every year for a field, then the building of a wind barrier may be justified because of production losses. The protection of a field from high winds is an adaptation to a known vulnerability. If a crop is vulnerable to early spring freezes in one out of every two years, than a later planting with a shorter-season variety may make for a more resilient production practice. If hail is a frequent risk with catastrophic yield loss, then purchasing hail insurance is a form of monetary recovery to the shock. Replanting could be considered a recovery mechanism when a first planting is washed out by heavy rains.

Recognizing Diminishing Returns

Growers intuitively know that when implementing a resilient practice there is a point of diminishing return between the cost of the practice and the anticipated loss in production. That is, the implementation of proactive solutions to reduce the risk of stress or shock comes with a cost that may be greater than doing nothing. Again, the choice for implementing a new practice for a more resilient operation has to do with the frequency of the threatening phenomenon over a future period. If a catastrophic loss or shock occurs once in every 20 years, than the best recovery strategy may be simply to put money aside or buy an insurance policy for that future occurrence.

In some rare cases, a location may be vulnerable to a future shock that is so infrequent that many generations could pass before its occurrence. In fact, the shock is so infrequent there is no practical recovery plan for a social infrastructure that was put in place before the awareness of the risk. A classic case of such a future shock is the Cascadia earthquake risk due to a subduction zone in the Northwestern U.S. The Cascadia earthquake returns on average every 243 years with the last major event occurring on 1,700 A.D. based on proxy data. Seismologists estimate that there is between a one-in-three and one-in-10 chance for a mega earthquake (greater than 7.0 on the Richter scale) in the next 50 years. Because of the vulnerability of the existing infrastructure, recovery planning is focused on saving lives rather than property. While unanticipated future shocks are rare in agriculture, they still warrant a secondary consideration in a recovery plan if only for the safety of individuals.

Planning for the upcoming season should include a review of farm-level vulnerabilities to stresses and shocks and the adoption of possible practices to minimize their impact on production. A number of these practices could be drawn from technologies offered in precision agriculture. The inclusion of precision agricultural practices would contribute to making agriculture more resilient.

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