Ecology and SocietyEcology and Society
 E&S Home > Vol. 19, No. 3 > Art. 45
The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Carlisle, L. 2014. Diversity, flexibility, and the resilience effect: lessons from a social-ecological case study of diversified farming in the northern Great Plains, USA. Ecology and Society 19(3):45.

Diversity, flexibility, and the resilience effect: lessons from a social-ecological case study of diversified farming in the northern Great Plains, USA

1PhD Candidate, Dept. of Geography, University of California–Berkeley


Social-ecological systems are considered resilient when they are capable of recovering from externally forced shocks. Thus, whether a given system is identified as resilient depends on a number of contested definitions: what constitutes a shock, what constitutes a discrete system, and what constitutes acceptable performance. Here, I present a case study in which outcomes apparent to both the researcher and the study subjects demonstrated resilience in effect: a group of farmers in the northern Great Plains in the north-central United States realized economically sufficient production during a low rainfall year when many others in the region did not. However, the researcher's attempt to model this case as a resilient system was continually challenged by qualitative findings, suggesting that these farmers did not experience the officially decreed "drought" year as a shock. Moreover, the social and ecological processes that produced a "resilience effect" functioned as open systems, and were not readily bounded, even in analytical terms. This is not to suggest that resilience is not an operationalizable concept. Rather, the series of processes which produce a resilience effect may be best understood within a broad framework attentive to diversity, flexibility, and relationships at multiple scales—instead of quantitative models focused on discrete moments of disturbance and adaptation.
Key words: diversified farming system; diversity; drought; resilience; northern Great Plains, USA; scale; slow variables; social-ecological systems; sustainable agriculture; values-based supply chain


The lexicon of “social-ecological resilience” has proven popular with scholars, policymakers, and land managers alike (Adger 2000; Berkes et al. 2003; Olsson et al. 2004; Folke 2006; Maguire and Cartwright 2008; White 2008a, 2008b; World Resources Institute 2008; Barthel et al. 2010; Davidson 2010; Folke et al. 2010; Derissen et al. 2011). Given the recent global increase in extreme weather events, and heightened concerns about future drought and flooding, "resilience" increasingly appears in place of the more general term “sustainability”, the latter of which has been thoroughly critiqued as too broad (Lélé 1991, Adams 1995, McManus 1996, McGregor 2004, Morse and Fraser 2005, Francis et al. 2007). Social-ecological resilience would seem to answer the call for a framework that responds more directly to global social and environmental challenges, while explicitly acknowledging the “coupling” of human and natural systems. And yet, resilience has proven a vexing term in its own right, as scholars debate how best to connect its theory with its empirics (Carpenter et al. 2001, Cumming et al. 2005, Fischer et al. 2009, Thrush et al. 2009). Despite the enthusiastic development and amendment of resilience models, even the most elegant diagrams remain difficult to operationalize. Critics note with frustration that very few studies actually measure resilience (Brand and Jax 2007); and, while some scholars and practitioners are more interested in quantitative specificity than others,1 they share a palpable concern to “get the model right”.

Another possible response to this impasse, however, is to conceptualize resilience in the reverse direction. Instead of trying to develop a more universally applicable model, how might we build our understanding of resilience inductively, based in particular cases? As Sayre (2004) convincingly argues for the case of ranch management, inductive studies have at least three advantages over quantitative, deductive ones: they can uncover unanticipated factors that have eluded previous research, they are better suited for understanding producers’ mental models, and they offer greater temporal depth. Thus, inductive research can serve as an elucidating complement to deductive studies of the same phenomena (Schrader-Frechette and McCoy 1993, Berkes et al. 2003, Foster 2006, Fortmann et al. 2008). In the following article, I take this inductive approach, arriving at a working understanding of social-ecological resilience through ethnographic research of an agricultural values-based supply chain on the northern Great Plains, an ecological region spanning parts of Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, known for its low and volatile moisture and what appears to be the early onset of climate change. Having persisted through several severe droughts, this network of dryland farmers has made significant strides toward achieving the ends that motivate resilience scholarship and policy: healthy livelihoods and landscapes amidst challenging social and ecological conditions.


The 2012 growing season was a historically dry year for American grain farmers. Eighty percent of U.S. agricultural land experienced drought in 2012, which made that year's dry spell more extensive than any since the 1950s (Economic Research Service 2012). I was thus surprised to hear that a group of farmers on the northern Great Plains in the north-central United States had been satisfied with their 2012 harvest and did not consider it a bad season. I had spoken extensively with these producers about the most recent serious drought year in the region—1988—which several had characterized as their "toughest time". So why, in 2012, were they flourishing? One easy explanation was that the 2012 drought was most severe east of here, in the midwestern corn and soybean belt. However, as local agricultural news media reported every day, it was still a hot, dry summer on the northern Great Plains. Six of the eight counties in which this group of producers farmed were granted federal drought designations during the 2012 growing season. If these growers had averted disaster, it was not because they had been spared the bad weather.

This study is based on extensive field research with this group of farmers, who have initiated a movement to grow and market ecologically appropriate rotation crops. Crop rotation is an ancient strategy for managing agricultural fields to maintain fertility. Throughout history, farmers worldwide have typically planted a sequence of crops that provide complementary nutrients and break up pest and disease cycles. However, the industrial model of agriculture, increasingly prevalent since World War II, has instead encouraged repeated plantings of the same crop, which depend on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Convinced that chemically supported monocultures were socially and ecologically unsustainable, four farmers in north central Montana founded a small processing and marketing business in 1986 to create an alternative to the commodity market that would allow them to recover the wisdom of rotation. Because the agricultural economy on the northern Great Plains is based on cereal grains, which deplete soil nitrogen, this processor/marketer focused on legumes (plants that can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a soil-available form and exude it through their roots).

The processor/marketer now contracts with a loose network of 15 to 20 producers, whose farms range in size from a few hectares to nearly 4000, but typically include about 400 to 800 ha of cropland—which is a modest area by the standards of contemporary grain agriculture. By design, no producer grows exclusively for this single processor/marketer. Rather, growers market high-value rotation crops through this “values-based supply chain” (VBSC)2 in order to support diverse operations that include other enterprises, such as animal agriculture and direct market produce. On a small but meaningful scale, members of the VBSC have replaced industrial grain monoculture with low-input, biologically diverse farming systems. (See Appendix 1 for a map and rotation plan from one member farm.)

At the close of the 2012 growing season, the CEO of the VBSC estimated the overall moisture for his growing region to be 40% of the previous year's level (D. Oien, personal communication). Yet, he reported that his suppliers’ farms achieved about 80% of the previous year's production—and that his post-harvest inventory of marketable product was at normal levels. In this article, I draw on qualitative research with members of this VBSC and their broader networks to explain this “resilience effect”.


To find out how the VBSC achieved this resilience effect, I undertook research typical of a supply chain study: I conducted interviews, surveys, and field visits with each producer, as well as with the full staff at the processing plant and several downstream buyers. I supplemented these methods with a more "ecological" approach, aiming to understand the VBSC as the product of its connections and relationships, including those not formalized by market transactions or contractual ties. By design, this research did not begin with an a priori model of the VBSC as a tightly bound “closed system”. Rather the VBSC presented an observable “resilience effect” that could be analyzed as a case, with attention to its broader connections and context. Hence, I used “snowball sampling” to identify the diverse network of nongovernmental organizations, university-based researchers, socially responsible investors, current and former agency personnel, and nonaffiliated producers who are key to the success of the VBSC. In all, I completed in-depth interviews with 25 growers, 15 other members of the supply chain, and 12 technical assistance personnel (Appendix 2).3 To verify farmers’ self-reported soil quality, soil moisture, and management practices, I made field visits to 19 farms. I also accompanied organic inspectors and the owner of the VBSC on similar field visits, and attended farm tours, workshops, and work parties as a participant-observer, which helped me “read between the lines” of interviews and ecological data to see how key social and ecological processes functioned in practice. Finally, I consulted oral histories and archives maintained by the Montana Historical Society, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, and the VBSC to understand “slow variables”—ranging from soil moisture conservation to the development of cooperative economic practices and civil society groups—at larger temporal scales. I conducted most of this research during the 2011 and 2012 growing seasons, but follow-up has continued through 2013. And, I have been in contact with members of the VBSC since 2008, when I was employed as an agriculture and natural resource policy staffer for a United States Senator. Further description of my methods and data can be found in the appendices to this article.


The “resilience effect” I observed within this VBSC—healthy landscapes and economically sufficient production during low rainfall years—hinged on both diversity and flexibility. Flexible diversification characterized not just the VBSC's member farms, but also the “slow variables” (Carpenter et al. 2001) that determined these farms’ underlying capacity to provide ecosystem services, and connected farmers to the larger social-ecological system of which they were a part. Slow variable processes of flexible diversification—such as the development of water-conserving crop rotations, the creation of values-based supply chains, and shifts to a mental model of agriculture rooted in soil health—were interwoven across relational scales, based on degrees of social and ecological proximity rather than strict geographic nearness. Beginning at the smallest of these scales, I identify the processes most clearly related to resilient outcomes and map the links through which such processes demonstrate a tendency or potential to scale up.

Individual scale: paradigm shift

While VBSC producers were far from being fully self-sufficient, slow variable processes at the individual scale were nonetheless key to their resilience. What producers characterized as a “paradigm shift”, or simply “transition”, marked a key internal transformation, a process related to, but distinct from changes in the ecological management of their farms. This internal shift was expressed as a transition from focusing on annual yield to focusing on the long-term health of the whole farm system—usually described as fundamentally based in soil, but also including plants and animals, and often farmers and their communities (Appendix 3).

Contrary to classical resilience thinking (Walker and Cooper 2011), this paradigm shift did not require a catalyzing crisis, nor was crisis sufficient to produce it (neighbors of VBSC members could face and recognize the same problems of drought and debt without changing their paradigm). Rather, this individual-scale process was described as a long-simmering development of what social movement theorists call consciousness (Freire 1970, Gramsci 1996), informed by an individual’s entire life experience. To experience a paradigm shift, producers needed a theory, not just a problem. Farmers re-oriented their focus from maximizing the exchange value of resources leaving the system to sustaining and renewing the use value of resources remaining in the system (Appendix 3). Somewhat paradoxically, this more intensive form of management required increased engagement with processes at broad spatial and temporal scales.

Farm scale: low-input management of diverse acgroecosystems

Individual-scale paradigm shifts supported and encouraged resilience at the farm scale, which was characterized by low-input management of diverse agroecosystems (Appendix 1). For this context—dryland farming on the northern Great Plains—a particularly important farm-scale process was conservation of soil water. Producers planted a variety of drought-tolerant crops and maintained soil cover throughout the year in order to retain soil moisture (Appendix 4). These water-conserving measures also served to return key nutrients and organic matter to the soil, and formed part of a larger whole-farm management strategy.

VBSC producers grew an average (mean) of 9.4 crops, including 5.07 grains, two pulses, and assorted edible oilseeds, legumes, biofuels, and hay. Average rotation length was 6.08 years. In addition, just over half of the producers grew diverse vegetable gardens for personal use or direct marketing. Seventy-three percent also raised animals on their farm, and 93% had substantial acreage of uncultivated land in native pasture, seeded pasture (sometimes restored from former cropland), borders, hedgerows, conservation plantings, or cover crops. Cover crops were used by all but one VBSC member, and these were diverse too: farmers raised an average of 5.31 different types, either in mixtures or in rotation. This level of on-farm diversity contrasted sharply with the adjacent landscape of grain monoculture. In the eight counties where this VBSC’s producers are located, over 81% of harvested cropland is devoted to either wheat or barley (USDA 2007). Typical rotations in the region alternate among wheat, barley, and summer fallow, without a nutrient-building or cover crop in between, although interest in pulse and cover crops is growing (N. Matheson, G. Jackson, and D. Wichman, personal communications).

Enterprise scale: diversification of markets

On-farm resilience was interdependent with resilience at a related, but distinct scale: the farm enterprise. Exceeding the geographical boundaries of the farm itself, the enterprise was the scale at which rural families confronted the interface between their land and the markets that determined whether this land's produce was sufficiently “valuable” to support a household. Because diversified farms were often economically insufficient in the context of the commodity market, individual paradigm shifts and ecological farm management went hand in hand with enterprise transition: reducing input costs and selling into a diversity of VBSCs and direct markets. VBSC producers reported a median of nine different markets, excluding direct market consumers. Eighty percent contracted with multiple VBSCs. A slightly different 80% sold at least one product directly and/or through local retailers, although this was not a substantial market for most. Fifty-three percent sold both crops and livestock/animal products, and approximately half hosted bees in exchange for honey or cash payment. This level of diversification contrasted sharply with typical farm enterprises in the region, which generally sold wheat to a single multinational corporation, perhaps sold malting barley to another multinational corporation, and might have direct local markets for hay and/or feed barley (N. Matheson and D. Wichman, personal communications).

For the diversified farmers of the VBSC in this case study, rotation planning linked on-farm ecological resilience and beyond-farm enterprise resilience, and in a market context they were each necessary for supporting one another (Appendix 5). Emergent benefits of this diversity were manifold, because farmers gained more flexibility to work within ecological constraints. Producers whose enterprises included livestock had the option to graze down the stubble of an economic crop or cover crop, while growers who had markets for legumes or buckwheat could use these crops as nutrient-building green manures if weather or poor prices made it economically unfeasible to harvest them. Importantly, the connection between on-farm resilience and enterprise resilience was more complex and bidirectional than a simple market signal—the relationships developed between farms and enterprises encouraged diversity on both ends.

For most producers, however, successful enterprise resilience required diversification outside the parameters of their “paradigm shift” and ecological management approach. To construct economically secure enterprises, 73% of the farmers sold to non-values-based supply chains (typically large corporations), and 47% sold into conventional commodity markets. The link between farm scale and enterprise scale, then, was one juncture at which resilience could break down—if enterprise options were not sufficient to support optimal farm-scale diversity.

Multifarm scale: cooperative economy

At one scale higher, resilience among VBSC farmers also relied on cooperative activity with one another. All but two interviewees reported some multifarm cooperation, and, overall, respondents characterized other farmers as the second-highest source of support for their agroecological operations, behind “personal values”. Such multifarm cooperation was critical to resilience at the single farm scale, because while diversified operations are knowledge- and labor-intensive, these costs can often be shared, thus reducing the burden on any one household. For example, utilizing diverse rotations often means having different equipment for smaller seeded crops and larger seeded ones, but because each machine is in use for only a small portion of the rotation, equipment can be circulated among several area farms. Similarly, troubleshooting complex rotations requires several seasons of observation, but comparing notes with similar operations nearby shortens the learning curve, which can mean the difference between a successful harvest and bankruptcy. The institutionalization of informal farmer cooperation, often neglected in descriptions of agroecological resilience, proved key for this case. The leap from informal mutual aid among individual farmers to cooperatively building new institutions (e.g., a processing facility for alternative crops, a farmer science network for trialing agroecological crops and practices) was critical to linking on-farm and enterprise diversity and was anything but automatic. Rather, multifarm institution building hinged on long-term processes deeply embedded in the agrarian history of the region: the development of organizational skills, political will, and familiarity with institutions and their pitfalls.

Network scale: civil society groups focused on advocacy and technical support

Multifarm resilience, in turn, relied on an even larger scale process: the formation of civil society groups focused on advocacy and technical support for sustainable agriculture (Appendix 6). In particular, a Farm Improvement Club program supported by small grants from the nonprofit Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) helped farmers organize collective work and access resources. This program sponsored farm-scale participatory research, field days, and annual conferences. When farmer clubs encountered regulatory or policy hurdles, the sponsoring nonprofit also provided a vehicle for mobilizing political action in partnership with farmers in other communities. Such “networked” resilience was both critical to processes at other scales and entirely dependent upon them. Broad-based civil society groups like AERO, the Farmer’s Union, and the Montana Organic Association were key to the production and reproduction of the theory that undergirded paradigm shifts, technical assistance that enhanced farm-scale resilience, and social learning forged connections among farmer-cooperators. These groups responded to several needs at smaller scales: individuals needed a means of organizing and meeting others who had experienced similar “paradigm shifts”, farms transitioning to diversified production needed resources and advocates, and enterprises required financial, and often political, backing. However, facilitative organizations also relied on the smaller scale processes they supported. When ties to the “grassroots” broke down, organizations either folded or changed in focus (Appendix 6, Humphries et al. 2008).

Public scale: safety nets and supportive policy

The previous five scales are perhaps the limit of what might typically be understood as a social-ecological system within the classical resilience framework. Yet, as several scholars have pointed out (Taylor 2005, Turner 2010, Watts 2013), the preceding discussion does not exhaust the cross-scale linkages integral to achieving resilient outcomes. At the broadest scale, resilience among case study farmers relied on public policy and public safety nets, such as crop insurance, health insurance, and conservation programs. Intertwined with processes at the other five scales, processes at this public scale were of key importance, because this was the scale at which the benefits of resilience met the investments necessary to resilience—the final accounting place at which cross-scale debts at lower levels could be settled. Without the security of this broad-scale settling up, resilience required rather dramatic subsidization (of community water quality by a handful of farm households, for example) that relied on extraordinary individual commitments of time, energy, and risk. Stronger safety nets allowed farmers to contribute time, energy, and resources to the long-term health of social-ecological communities—investments which were prudently conservative at larger temporal scales, but risky on an interannual basis, because they reduced liquid capital and labor time that would otherwise be available to respond to unexpected financial and climatic shocks.

This case study demonstrated that some public safety nets and public programs were effectively supporting multiscalar resilience. Cost-share for conservation measures through Natural Resource Conservation Service programs such as EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) had helped 73% of the VBSC farmers invest in long-term farm system improvements, such as tree plantings and perennial border strips. Other programs were helpful but incomplete. Federal crop insurance, previously available only for wheat and barley in this region, had been extended to cover legumes, but still left out many key rotation crops (such as sainfoin and buckwheat), and did not provide as much assistance for diverse crops as for conventional monocultures. Some safety nets were well resourced, but insufficiently linked to processes of resilience at other scales. The Natural Resource Conservation Service's Conservation Reserve Program, intended to prevent soil erosion, provided competitive income that had encouraged many producers in the region to cease cultivating some or all of their land. However, many case study producers claimed that this program was actually a detriment to responsible land stewardship, since the regulations had originally been written to encourage nondiverse conservation plantings and chemical treatments, and lucrative Conservation Reserve Program leases pushed rents beyond what dryland organic producers could afford (Appendix 7). Thus, the Conservation Reserve Program appeared to be a case of a well-intentioned public program that had drifted from its intended aims, for lack of a strong connection to grassroots actors at the farm, multifarm, and network scales.

In many cases, however, needed safety nets were simply absent. In particular, lack of access to affordable health care impeded processes of resilience at the farm and enterprise scales, by reducing the ability and willingness of farmers to take risks and reducing the availability of labor for time-intensive agroecological management. Six of the fifteen currently active producers who responded to questions about household finances were uninsured or underinsured, eight cited health care as a significant financial hardship, and seven of the nine households that reported off-farm employment cited health coverage as the main reason for seeking nonfarm work (Appendix 8). Whether they went without coverage or dedicated a large share of their income to minimal protection from catastrophic policies, health care was characterized by several farmers as the greatest source of economic vulnerability for their household. While growers could mitigate other sources of vulnerability—by reducing their use of off-farm inputs and selling into a diverse combination of VBSCs—they could not control whether they got sick (although many said eating their own organic produce and pursuing an active lifestyle was, in part, a strategy for staying out of the hospital).

Where safety nets and supportive public policies were absent, farmers worked to self-organize and find do-it-yourself solutions, as they did at other scales. Several interviewees commented wryly that older farmers had essentially fashioned a de facto retirement system out of the Conservation Reserve Program, although they questioned the ecological wisdom of paying producers to “take out the whole farm and move to Arizona”. Similarly, neighborhood fundraisers to cover expensive health care procedures were common in this region. Much like any homespun, patchwork creation, these self-fashioned safety nets were charming, but prone to holes, and such gaps affected some producers more than others. The ability and desire to invent one's own safety net was key to being able to afford the risk of ecological diversification away from the prevailing commodity system. Yet, this ability and desire was contingent on a number of factors—health and family status, whether one partner worked, access to military retirement or a pension from a previous career. Thus, this safety net scale was the one at which opportunities for diverse, flexible approaches to agriculture were the most stratified.


Admittedly, this article does not engage in a genealogy of social-ecological resilience thinking (for an excellent one, see Walker and Cooper 2011), and it could be argued that I am disregarding the complex history of this term and its development. However, my contention is that, while such genealogies deserve careful attention, meaning is also constructed by actors who fall outside such analyses. Wherever groups of people develop and share "working knowledge", it is well worth investigating empirically (Kloppenburg et al. 2000). As Taylor (2005) notes, the term "system" (and, by association, classical definitions of resilience) formally refers to coherent dynamics that are internal to a boundary, but in common usage the term may simply connote a set of interacting elements. Despite the term’s mathematical history, he suggests, we might take seriously this drift in its applied meaning. What if, Taylor proposes, we understood complexity in terms of intersecting processes, including history and contingent dynamics, rather than as a property of well-bounded systems?

Following this empirical approach, I arrived at a modified, but workable understanding of resilience through this case study. Based on the findings above, this VBSC on the northern Great Plains does not appear to be a closed-loop, resilient system. What this research uncovered, rather, was the multiscalar "underground" needed to support a “triple bottom line” 4 supply chain if it is to deliver on its promise of social-ecological resilience. In addition to illustrating the importance of multiple geographical and social scales—up to the level of public safety nets—this case study also highlights the temporal dimension of multiscalar social-ecological resilience. At each of the scales discussed above, history mattered, and not all the slow variable components of social-ecological resilience could have been established within the short time frame typically associated with the launch of an enterprise. For example, individual paradigm shifts relied on multigenerational processes of social learning, dating back to experiences with early twentieth century grain monopolies and the cooperative wheat pools formed in response. A sophisticated understanding of local ecology and the political economy of grain agriculture had been passed down through families and organizations like the Farmer's Union, along with models for cooperative marketing, on-farm research, and advocacy (Appendix 6). This temporal dimension of resilience squares with Berkes et al.’s (2003) findings on system "memory" and with Carpenter et al.'s (2001) emphasis on social and ecological slow variables. Yet these authors focus their attention at the institutional scale, as the site of learning and discovery that promotes system reorganization. While I found institutions and organizations important, I found their capacity to support resilience to be interdependent with processes at yet larger scales, i.e., processes not readily contained within analytically bounded systems.

If this case study suggests that processes at the very largest of scales—spatial and temporal, ecological and social—are critical to resilience at even the smallest of scales, where does that leave our understanding of resilience? If we cannot analytically bound a system, how can we distinguish resilience from nonresilience?

In some respects, this study’s findings support recent critiques of the resilience framework. As several scholars have pointed out, resilience involves both social and ecological processes at multiple scales (Carpenter et al. 2001, Olsson et al. 2004, Folke 2006). Moreover, these processes are densely interconnected, which complicates any attempt to isolate one or two factors as being most important in explaining outcomes (Taylor 2005). Defining resilience and its key indicators such that the concept can be applied by modelers to collect and quantify data is indeed frustrating. From a modeler’s vantage point, one might conclude that the term social-ecological resilience does not yet have precise, operationalizable meaning (Brand and Jax 2007), or is more properly understood as a discourse or heuristic (Watts 2013).

And yet, I also found that social-ecological resilience is understood as a coherent and meaningful concept in practice. Producers used the term resilience themselves, both in interviews and in conversations with one another. They identified the multiscalar complexities characterized by academics as problems with the social-ecological resilience framework, and were well aware that their condition was one of profound interdependence, which could never be fully captured by discrete “indicators”. Yet, because these producers were not tasked with measuring resilience, but rather with achieving it, the resilience framework’s inherent holism and irreducibility to isolable variables was not an insurmountable difficulty for them.5 Rather, their working knowledge of resilience embraced the gestalt-like nature of the concept, taking shape as a practical question that guided their approach to flexible diversification: what needs to be shared with whom, and at what scale, in order to flourish?

What needs to be shared with whom, and at what scale, in order to flourish?

This guiding point of inquiry, which appeared to be at the heart of the VBSC’s success story—allowed farmers to approach ecology, farm management, and political questions in an integrated fashion. Such working knowledge of resilience did not require producers to bound their communities. Farmers did not need to measure, specify, and identify a disturbance to know when or how to adapt. Rather, effective resilience hinged on continual, everyday processes of learning, adjustment, cooperation, and long-term planning. As farmers shared ecologies, knowledge, labor, and resources at various scales, they developed “transformatively adaptive” agricultural and social systems that addressed underlying biophysical and political economic vulnerabilities (Bassett and Fogelman 2013). Rather than managing bounded, closed-loop systems, farmers had to choose appropriate scales of action for each process, linking across scales through the intertwining of these processes. The major difference between these farmers and their neighbors was that their observational scale was often quite broad.

Commodity farmers in the region, it could be argued, were also pursuing a form of resilience, but typically at a smaller timescale: that of a single generation. Although the form of farm management required by their marketing strategy left these commodity farmers vulnerable to climatic and market fluctuations, the system of federal commodity subsidies and crop insurance that had been in place throughout this generation could mitigate such impacts, thus providing immediate economic security not available to the farmers who pursued alternative crops and markets. However, over the course of two to three generations, the combined economic and ecological vulnerabilities inherent to commodity grain production led to the failure of most family farms in America's interior (Harl 1990, Davidson 1996).

The farmers in this case study, observing their farm communities at multigenerational timescales, concluded that commodity agriculture was too risky—and that the constraints of their land were ultimately more fundamental than those imposed by contemporary commodity markets. After all, the main reason the 2012 drought was characterized as less severe in this region, when compared with harder hit portions of the midwest, was not that the northern Great Plains was not dry. Rather, it was always dry. The larger the observational timescale, the more certain this reality of low moisture. Thus, rather than attempting to manipulate their farm’s ecology to align with agribusiness (as most of their neighbors had), these farmers instead manipulated their farm’s economy to align with the region’s ecological constrains, such that the variability of moisture had a dampened effect on farm viability.

Instead of basing their resilience in the existing structure of federal subsidies and commodity markets, these farmers made a “paradigm shift” to focusing on the fundamental slow variable safety net of conserved soil moisture and organic matter, then scaled up their approach to resilience from there. At the farm scale, they made regular, consistent ecological investments, even in years when the rain was plentiful and markets were high. They learned to ask less of their soils, so that dry seasons were not a disastrous anomaly, but part of expected variation. To make their ecologically appropriate cropping systems generate a reliable livelihood, they needed to cooperate at the multifarm scale.  They not only developed VBSCs, but also organized at yet larger scales to form civil society groups. These groups provided technical support and advocated for state and federal policy change.

Over multigenerational timescales, farmers thus arrived at an understanding of periodic "farm crises" quite distinct from typical characterizations of drought. The cause of farm-scale crisis, as they experienced it, was not climatic variability, but the incommensurability of that climatic variation and the inflexible demands of the commodity system. In sum, these farmers experienced "drought” as a manageable phenomenon, because it resulted not from (inevitable) climatic variability but from (contingent) processes of economic and biological overconcentration. They could mitigate these contingent processes, not through adaptation to shock, but through flexible, everyday diversification that allowed them to avoid shocks in the first place. By cultivating broad-based social and ecological complementarities, farmers shared the wealth—and the risk—at multiple scales.

While the findings of this case study are necessarily limited, I suspect the "guiding question" I saw at work among this group of farmers bears a family resemblance to the land ethic described by Knapp and Fernandez-Gimenez (2008, 2009) as a central analytic for Rocky Mountain ranchers, or for that matter, the "rationality of resilience" that Hannah Wittman (2010) finds in use among members of Brazilian peasant movements, who emphasize "agrarian citizenship" and "systems of mutual obligation". Such empirical, qualitative research in particular places can greatly improve our understanding of the set of intersecting processes that produce a “resilience effect”—and farmers’ working knowledge is a good place to begin.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


The ideas expressed in this paper emerged during conversations with farmers, ranchers, and technical assistance providers, to whom I owe no small intellectual debt. I am especially grateful to Vilicus Farms for contributing their farm map and rotation plan as an appendix to this article. Colleagues at UC Berkeley, particularly members of the Diversified Farming Systems working group and the Berkeley Food Institute, were invaluable interlocutors. Nathan Sayre, Annie Shattuck, Claire Kremen, Margot Higgins, Jeff Martin, Shannon Cram, Adam Romero, Paul Roge, Gustavo Oliveira, Jennifer Baca, and Andrew Friedman read earlier drafts of this paper and provided incisive feedback. This article benefited, as well, from helpful comments and suggestions made by the editors at Ecology and Society and by two anonymous reviewers. Fieldwork was funded by a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation and a grant from the Charles Redd Center; writing was completed with the support of Soroptimist International's Founder Region Dissertation Fellowship, the P.E.O. Scholar Award, and the University of California–Berkeley's Graduate Division; and publication fees were supported by the Associated Students of the University of California’s Student Opportunity Funds.


Adams, W. M. 1995. Green development theory? Environmentalism and sustainable development. Pages 87-99 in J. Crush, editor. Power of development. Routledge, New York, USA and London, UK.

Adger, W. N. 2000. Social and ecological resilience: are they related? Progress in Human Geography 24(3):347-364.

Barthel, S., C. Folke, and J. Colding. 2010. Social-ecological memory in urban gardens—retaining the capacity for management of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change 20:255-265.

Bassett, T. J., and C. Fogelman. 2013. Déjà vu or something new? The adaptation concept in the climate change literature. Geoforum 48:42-53.

Berkes, F., J. Colding, and C. Folke, editors. 2003. Navigating social-ecological systems: building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Brand, F. S., and K. Jax. 2007. Focusing the meaning (s) of resilience: resilience as a descriptive concept and a boundary object. Ecology and Society 12(1):23. [online] URL:

Carpenter, S., B. Walker, J. M. Anderies, and N. Abel. 2001. From metaphor to measurement: resilience of what to what? Ecosystems 4(8):765-781.

Cumming, G. S., G. Barnes, S. Perz, M. Schmink, K. E. Sieving, J. Southworth, M. Binford, R. D. Holt, C. Stickler, and T. Van Holt. 2005. An exploratory framework for the empirical measurement of resilience. Ecosystems 8:975-987.

Davidson, D. J. 2010. The applicability of the concept of resilience to social systems: some sources of optimism and nagging doubts. Society and Natural Resources 23(12):1135-1149.

Davidson, O. G. 1996. Broken heartland: the rise of America’s rural ghetto. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, Iowa, USA.

Derissen, S., M. F. Quaas, and S. Baumgartner. 2011. The relationship between resilience and sustainability of ecological-economic systems. Ecological Economics 70(6):1121-1128.

Economic Research Service. 2012. U.S. drought 2012: farm and food impacts. United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., USA.

Fischer, J., G. D. Peterson, T. A. Gardner, L. J. Gordon, I. Fazey, T. Elmqvist, A. Felton, C. Folke, and S. Dovers. 2009. Integrating resilience thinking and optimisation for conservation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 24(10):549-554.

Folke, C. 2006. Resilience: the emergence of a perspective for social–ecological systems analyses. Global Environmental Change 16(3):253-267.

Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin, and J. Rockström. 2010. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4):20. [online] URL:

Fortmann, L., editor. 2008. Doing participatory research in conservation and rural livelihoods: doing science together. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex, UK.

Foster, K. A. 2006. A case study approach to understanding regional resilience. University of California Institute of Urban and Regional Development, Berkeley, California, USA.

Francis, C., R. Elmore, J. Ikerd, and M. Duffy. 2007. Greening of agriculture: is it all a greenwash of the globalized economy? Journal of Crop Improvement 19(1/2):193-220.

Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum, New York, New York, USA.

Gramsci, A. 1996. Antonio Gramsci, prison notebooks, volume 2. Joseph A. Buttigieg, editor and translator. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA and Chichester, West Sussex, UK.

Harl, N. E. 1990. The farm debt crisis of the 1980s. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa, USA.

Humphries, S., J. Jimenez, F. Sierra, and O. Gallardo. 2008. Sharing in innovation. Pages 36-54 in L. Fortmann, editor. Participatory research in conservation and rural livelihoods: doing science together. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex, UK.

Kloppenburg, J., S. Lezberg, K. DeMaster, G. W. Stevenson, and J. Hendrickson. 2000. Tasting food, tasting sustainability: defining the attributes of an alternative food system with competent, ordinary people. Human Organization 59(2):177-186.

Knapp, C. N., and M. E. Fernandez-Gimenez. 2008. Knowing the land: a review of local knowledge revealed in ranch memoirs. Rangeland Ecology & Management 61(2):148-155.

Knapp, C. N., and M. E. Fernandez-Gimenez. 2009. Knowledge in practice: documenting rancher local knowledge in northwest Colorado. Rangeland Ecology & Management 62(6):500-509.

Lélé, S. M. 1991. Sustainable development: a critical review. World Development 19(6):607-621.

Lerman, T. 2012. A review of scholarly literature on values-based supply chains. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Agricultural Sustainability Institute, University of California, Davis, California, USA.

Maguire, B., and S. Cartwright. 2008. Assessing a community’s capacity to manage change: a resilience approach to social assessment. Bureau of Rural Sciences, Australian Government, Canberra, Australia.

McGregor, A. 2004. Sustainable development and ‘warm fuzzy feelings’: discourse and nature within Australian environmental imaginaries. Geoforum 35(5):593-606.

McManus, P. 1996. Contested terrains: politics, stories and discourses of sustainability. Environmental Politics 5(1):48-73.

Morse, S., and E. D. G. Fraser. 2005. Making "dirty" nations look clean: the nation state and the problem of selecting and weighing indices as tools for measuring progress towards sustainability. Geoforum 36(5):625-640.

Olsson, P., C. Folke, and F. Berkes. 2004. Adaptive comanagement for building resilience in social–ecological systems. Environmental Management 34(1):75-90.

Olsson, P., C. Folke, and T. Hahn. 2004. Social-ecological transformation for ecosystem management: the development of adaptive co-management of a wetland landscape in southern Sweden. Ecology and Society 9(4):2. [online] URL:

Sayre, N. 2004. The need for qualitative research to understand ranch management. Journal of Range Management 57:668-674.

Shrader-Frechette, K. S., and E. D. McCoy. 1993. Method in ecology: strategies for conservation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Taylor, P. 2005. Unruly complexity: ecology, interpretation, engagement. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Thrush, S. F., J. E. Hewitt, P. K. Dayton, G. Coco, A. M. Lohrer, A. Norkko, J. Norkko, and M. Chiantore. 2009. Forecasting the limits of resilience: integrating empirical research with theory. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 276:3209-3217.

Turner, M. D. 2010. Climate change and social resilience: “adaptive” conflict in the Sahel. Paper prepared for the Berkeley Environmental Politics Workshop. Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, College of Natural Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, California, USA.

United States Department of Agriculture. 2007. 2007 Census of agriculture, United States, summary and state data. Volume 1, Geographic Area Series, Part 51. AC-07-A-51. National Agricultural Statistics Service, Washington, D.C., USA. [online] URL:,_Chapter_1_US/usv1.pdf

Walker, J., and M. Cooper. 2011. Genealogies of resilience from systems ecology to the political economy of crisis adaptation. Security Dialogue 42(2):143–160.

Watts, M. 2013. Silent violence. Second edition. University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, USA.

White, C., editor. 2008a. Building resilience (Part 1). The Quivira Coalition Journal 32.

White, C., editor. 2008b. Building resilience (Part 2). The Quivira Coalition Journal 33.

Wittman, H. 2010. Reconnecting agriculture and the environment: food sovereignty and the agrarian basis of ecological citizenship. Pages 91-105 in H. Wittman, A. A. Desmarais, and N. Wiebe, editors. Food sovereignty: reconnecting food, nature and community. Fernwood Publishing, Halifax, Nova Scotia and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

World Resources Institute. 2008. Roots of resilience—growing the wealth of the poor. World Resources Report 2008. World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C, USA, in collaboration with United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme, and World Bank.

1 Witness the differences among Carpenter et al. 2001, Thrush et al. 2009, and Folke 2006.
2 I follow Lerman’s (2012) definition of values-based supply chains as "wholesale marketing channels or supply chains that preserve the identity of the farmers and ranchers who raised or grew the product being sold, as well as any environmental, social or community values incorporated into its production. These supply chains are characterized by trust, transparency and equitable relationship between all participants" and are intended to "ensure a fair price for farmers".
3 Interview questions adapted, significantly, from Ryan Galt’s interview schedule for qualitative research with Community Supported Agriculture farmers in California’s Central Valley.
4 Committed to an expanded definition of economic value, focused on “people” and “planet”, as well as “profit”.
5 When producers were tasked with measuring standardized components of their diversified farming systems—typically by an organic certifier—they were quick to note that such data-gathering exercises did a poor job of informing, evaluating, or describing the “resilience effect” on their farms. Their inspectors, most of whom were producers themselves, often agreed, as in the following exchange I recorded during an organic audit:
Inspector: The organic industry believes documentation is more important than how good the job gets done. A great example is the cleaning of the equipment. It's more important that (the farmer) writes it down than that he does it.
Farmer: The extra paperwork and extra hassle . . .

Inspector: . . . is worthless.

Address of Correspondent:
Liz Carlisle
2839 1/2 Prince Street
Berkeley, California
USA 94705
Jump to top
Appendix1  | Appendix2  | Appendix3  | Appendix4  | Appendix5  | Appendix6  | Appendix7  | Appendix8