One of the greatest leverage points in fostering the transition to sustainability can be found in the realm of food systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the critical importance of small farm resilience to the well-being of communities around the world. We explored the role of small and medium farms in promoting sustainable social-agricultural systems, and investigated how the resilience of these farms can be both measured and amplified. W e integrated concepts from the fields of food systems sustainability and resilience, agroecology, and positive deviance to identify indicators that can help measure and track farm resilience. Our aims were to 1) investigate the diversity of ecological and social factors that impact the vulnerability, resilience, and long-term health of small-medium farms and farm systems, exploring similarities and differences between the two cultures/geographies; 2) incorporate farmers’ personal experiences together with knowledge in the academic literature to enrich understanding about food systems sustainability; and 3) develop an indicator tool for evaluating farm resilience that empowers farmers to both assess their local farm system and to implement and document change over time.
Our research process employed a cross-cultural, mixed-methods, Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach that engaged farmers from diverse geographic settings in Puerto Rico and Vermont. The project was organized into four phases implemented over a six month period from July through December 2020. These included identifying farmer participants, selecting key farm resilience frameworks, distilling a preliminary list of indicators, and validating those indicators with farmer feedback through surveys, interviews, and group meetings. The phases culminated in the creation of a Farm Resilience Tool for conducting rapid assessments using 20 indicators organized into four categories of Growth Mindset, Strong Relationships, Sustainable Farming Practices, and Sustainable Business Management. We further outlined a proposal for how to implement and refine the tool with farmer participants through subsequent PAR activities. Refinement is essential, given that our proposal is place-based and local, yet also modular and globally scalable to help advance planetary sustainability. More research is necessary to understand potential tradeoffs and synergies that can occur from trying to optimize multiple outcomes in tandem, and how to transition small farm resilience to broader-scale landscape planning and management strategies.
Among the important lessons learned from this project are A) the importance of farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing, B) the value of an authentic and reciprocal PAR process in expanding the range and depth of understanding beyond the academic literature, C) the utility of integrating positive deviants for helping identify indicators and examples of resilience outside the box of traditional thinking, and D) the rich interaction across cultures and geographies that enlivens the research and enlightens the outcomes. All these lessons converge on the critical insight that sustainability is ultimately about the quality of relationships within food systems. Thus, food systems research must integrate objective and subjective methods in order to cultivate the relational synergy needed to address and transcend the complex problems we face in the 21st Century.
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Estrin, Hans; Poleman, Walter; Alonso-Rodríguez, Aura M.; Gonzalez, Edgardo; Juncos-Gautier, Maria A.; Nytch, Chistopher; and Thompson, Ethan, "A cross-cultural, participatory approach for measuring and cultivating resilience on small and medium farms" (2021). USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Center. 1.