Presilient Farming: Eco Design on the Land

Eco design is a large field, and I spend almost as much time advising on land management as I do on healthy homes. In a nutshell, eco design is about working with nature instead of against it.

Eco design is the beautiful marriage of art and science. In the housing sector, the science is mostly physics, but when is comes to land management the science is mostly biology and hydrology, along with a healthy dose of chemistry. Whether it’s a residential section or an entire farm, ecological land management focuses on two goals: diversity and moderation.

Biodiversity simply means providing a wide range of living organisms. Moderation means buffering against climatic extremes such as drought and flood. Both of these improve the resilience of any piece of land, and for farms would more than likely ensure long term profitability and protect against short term volatility.

It was with this perspective that I registered for a presentation called, “Doug Avery’s Resilient Farmer: Innovate or Stagnate.” The large venue was packed wall to wall with stoic looking farmers. Being unfamiliar with Doug and his work I was not prepared for what first came out of his mouth.

For nearly an hour, Avery spoke almost exclusively about depression and suicide among farmers. From his website:

“In New Zealand, we are twice as likely to die from our own hand as in a motor accident. Men are three times more likely to die than women, and rural men are twice as likely again. Below the tragedy of suicide is a huge pyramid of depression. This is something we all have to work together to address.”

This message was echoed in a front page story on Monday in the Chronicle: “Don’t accept tough farmer myth.” Sam Kilmister’s article quoted Lyn Neeson of the Rural Support Trust:

“If we do perpetuate the idea that farmers are stoic and tough and can get through anything, when something like this does happen and they can’t cope they feel like something is wrong with them, which makes them very vulnerable.”

Within a week of attending Avery’s talk, I heard Tim Groser, National Party MP and Minister of Trade, on the radio warning that the nation’s farmers needed to develop better resilience to the expected impacts of climate change. I’ve been developing resilient properties for over a decade and a half, so I agree with Groser that a prudent and conservative approach to land management is best.

This makes a line in Kilmister’s article especially concerning: “The trust is an important part of shooting down the perception that resilience is the backbone of the farming community.”

The takeaway from all of this appears to be that the resilience within the farming community is low but it needs to be high. We have our work cut out for us, and just as eco design is the future of housing in New Zealand it is also the future of farming. Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 9.36.18 am

Three concerns are identified by Neeson of the Rural Support Trust as especially worrisome to farmers: market prices, weather, and off-farm income. Eco design specifically addresses two of these factors, which are too often considered out of a farmer’s control.

Diversifying farm income is a critical step to developing resilience to price volatility. In nature, monocultures are vulnerable to insects and diseases, often with disastrous results. The same is true of farming.

Buffering against the extremes of flood and drought, while not changing the weather, can moderate the effects of extreme weather events on a farm and its income. The best time to prepare for the next extreme weather event is yesterday. The next best time is today.

We have been on our farm for less than a year, and I have already spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars on drought-proofing, flood mitigation, and diversification. I have come to call this approach ‘presilience’. Some of the best eco designers around the world call it ‘regenerative design’ or ‘regenerative agriculture’. In a nutshell, it’s innovate or stagnate. I know which side I’m on.

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Sidebar: 2021 Whanganui Flood Prelief Fund – Prevention is better than cure.

We have voluntarily reduced stocking rates on our farm and taken steep hillsides out of grazing to help protect the city from the next flood. This approach can be cheaper and more effective than building higher stopbanks.

You can help make our community more ‘presilient’. We are accepting donations of trees and of cash to go to the purchase of trees to plant on vulnerable slopes. Electronic donations can be made to this account: 38 9014 0367090 00