Resilience-Building Cycle for Smallholders (& Other Land-Based Projects)

I gave a couple of talks at the Green Gathering this past weekend, focusing on what I am calling ‘Pastoral Permaculture’ (to follow in another blog post) and ‘Resilient Smallholding’. It’s the latter of these that I’d like to focus upon in this post.

After some time thinking about developing resilience on my smallholding I have come up with a model that ought to provide some structure to the exercise; although calling it the ‘Resilience-Building Cycle for Smallholders’ it ought to be equally useful for farms and other land-based projects – ranging from market gardens and orchards to allotments and private gardens. As a process model it sets out a number of steps to follow (clicking on the image will enlarge it):


Resilience-Building Cycle

The starting point is the recognition that there are a number of significant threats to smallholders and other land-based projects (indeed to out society as a whole) – I  have set these out on another page as: extreme weather/a changing climate; resource depletion and financial instability.

Following the recognition that these and other threats exist, the next step is to assess these threats with respect to the smallholding (or other land-based project). The sometimes vague and often conflicting advice concerning these threats means that this is a very personal assessment, requiring a great deal or reading around, research and exercise of judgement. On my courses I describe my personal assessment of the nature and significance of these threats. One example is the threat of lengthy rain deluge (in light of the record wet summer and record wet winter of recent years!)

Once the main threats to the smallholding (i.e., in terms of extreme weather/changing climate, resource depletion and financial instability – along with any other threats specific to a particular site or project) have been recognised and assessed, then their potential impact can be assessed in terms of the vulnerabilities of the smallholding. The difference between ‘threats to’ and ‘vulnerabilities of’ the smallholding parallels the difference between hazard and risk in health and safety approaches: whereas in health and safety the approach is to recognise that hazards exist and then to manage the associated risks, in resilience-building the threats are recognised and assessed and then the associated vulnerabilities are mapped and managed. In the example of the threat of lengthy rain deluge, many vulnerabilities will arise, including soil erosion and waterlogging (with risk of poaching and compaction by livestock), loss of soil fertility, crop damage and under-performance, ill-thrift in livestock, etc. – the list of vulnerabilities will differ from smallholding to smallholding. I suggest using a ‘resilience audit‘ to map the various vulnerabilities of a particular holding from a range of threats – and have devised a number of bespoke forms to keep on top of the task.

Once a resilience audit has been carried out, the vulnerabilities that arise must be prioritised – and again I have devised a method for doing so, based on the intuitively useful tool of traffic lights (red/amber/green). This is useful in devising a plan of action to build resilience based on the assessment of threats and prioritisation of vulnerabilities; for each prioritised vulnerability a range of actions can be planned. Looking at a different vulnerability – the issue of drought spells leading to shortage of pasture for sheep and cattle – a range of resilience-building actions and contingencies might include: mapping tree-fodder resources (e.g. in existing hedgerows), developing a new tree-fodder resource (planting willow for coppicing/pollarding), planting fodder and forage crops as a buffer (ideally crops suitable for various livestock and human consumption, as well as other uses – e.g., comfrey, root crops/leafy brassicas), developing community links that might lead to emergency grazing/fodder supplies – as an ultimate contingency one might plan for a reduction in livestock numbers, with an acceptance that others might be doing so at the same time. The bigger the range of actions and contingencies, the better the resilience/buffer to any threats that develop into actual adverse events.

Of course, once a plan is set out it has to be enacted: take resilience action (mulch those vegetable beds, sow that green manure, plant that willow and compfrey!) This leads to the final step in the cycle – the review and evaluation of the resilience plan and actions/contingencies at regular intervals – which can launch back into any of the previous stages as required in the light of new information and/or experience. It is a good idea to keep a file of the various documentation that arises from threat and vulnerability assessments and the prioritisation and planning. If any particular threat is realised, then the plans have been laid to deal with it.


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This work by Adrian Patch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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