Sources of Resilience in food systems, farms and communities

The journey  to ecological resilience and sustainability in food systems, farms and communities

We all want to survive and thrive.  It’s a common goal of individuals, species, communities, organizations. But many don’t achieve it. Ecosystem researchers have observed that natural ecosystems are much more resilient than systems managed by people. In addition, resilient systems mitigate and adapt to wicked problems, such as climate change, How can human systems become as resilient as natural systems and still increase productivity?  We’ve just published online the conclusions of our own research integrated with hundreds of other studies on resilience.

Download summary powerpoints tailored to a Western audience presented in Durango Colorado or and Eastern audience presented in Burlington, Vermont.

Whether it’s your own resilience, the resilience of your community, the resilience of your farm or any other system, you’ll be interested in the free book available in the links below.

We’re making the book available free because we think it is important to get these new conclusions out as quickly as possible.  All we ask is that you give us some feedback on how our research works for you.

This second edition of the book is called  Southern Resilience: food systems, farms and communities.  You can access it by clicking on the chapters below and downloading pdfs.
Begin now with the preface and introduction. We’ll explore the foundations of resilience and the research that has come before us.

– Preface: origins and overview

Understanding resilience of agriculural systems rests of a few basic concepts.  Here we explore the adaptive cycle of all living systems, the concept of complex adaptive systems–all living systems independently reactive and adapt to each other making Nature chaotic and the difference between engineering and ecological resilience.  Then we introduce the eight qualities of resilient systems.

Chapter 1 Introduction and background to understanding the qualities of resilient systems

The foundation of all resilient systems is local self-organization, but what is local? What scale are you operating within and how does a self-organized system emerge? The following chapter will give you practical tools and real life examples to guide you in developing a robust locally self-organized food system.

– Chapter 2 Local Self-Organization in Resilient Systems

It all begins with connectivity, your willingness to reach out and discover new partnerships and cooperative  enterprises. But we can be too connected. How are we to be both connected and independent? We’ll explore this paradox in the following chapter.

– Chapter 3 Networked Yet Independent: Modular Connectivity

How do resilient systems work with nature?  How do systems become more integrated with natural ecological processes. How can natural processes become ecological engineers working on our behalf instead of enemies to be fought?  The next chapter helps you make your systems more ecologically integrated.

– Chapter 4 Working with Nature: Toward Ecological Integration

As we work with nature we encounter another resilience paradox. Ecologically resilient systems are highly diverse, but too much diversity can destroy a system. The following chapter shows that only through complementary diversity does resilience results.

– Chapter 5 The necessary give and take of Complementary Diversity

Foremost among the qualities crucial to resilience are those which renew, back up and reproduce the system.  Whether it’s a daughter, a backup business plan, replacement parts, a son or an employee, who’s got your back?

– Chapter 6 Maintenance and ecologically Redundant systems

The heart of any resilient agricultural system is high quality soil composed of a diverse set of complementary species.  Soil represents part of the infrastructure any resilient system creates to support itself through any disturbance.  Explore in the next chapter the quality of increasing physical infrastructure common to all resilient systems. We begin with the most basic infrastructure-you, the manager.

– Chapter 7 Accumulating Reserves and Physical Infrastructure

As we change our systems to become more self-organizing how do we conserve time tested strategies while also incorporating change and innovation? In the following chapter we explore the paradox of being innovative, yet traditional.

– Chapter 8 The Edge of Chaos: Conservative Innovation

Sometimes innovation isn’t enough, the system must be totally transformed to respond to extreme disturbance. A system can become over-mature, calcified and slow to change in the face of disturbance. Resilient systems embrace disturbance, using it to ensure periodic transformation.

– Chapter 9 Embracing Disturbance for Periodic Transformation

Above you learned of the eight qualities of resilient systems.  A natural phenomenon can never be fully expressed in mere words.  Others trying to explain and predict resilience have formulated the eight qualities in different ways.  Deepen your understanding by exploring alternate ways of looking at resilience.

– Chapter 10 Conclusions on Relationships to Other Resilience Perspectives

Perhaps you’re wondering how these qualities are present in permaculture, agroecology and other disciplines devoted to creating more sustainable agricultural systems? The following chapter will highlight many commonalities as well as a few important distinctions.

– Chapter 11 Permaculture, sustainability, agroecology, organic agriculture and vulnerability: their foundation in ecological resilience

What do practitioners think about resilience and the route to more resilient and sustainable agricultural systems?  The next chapter presents the results of our survey of Extension agents, farmers and other food system managers.

– Chapter 12 Survey of Extension agents and other practitioners on research and education priorities

Resilient systems in Nature don’t worry much about social equity, poverty or quality of life.  Yet we value all these in our human systems.  It turns out the ecologically resilient systems have a dividend:  health, poverty and inequality all are associated with ecologically resilient systems.

– Chapter 13 Sustainability, resilience and quality of life

Finally, a review of the eight factors with a focus on building community resilience.

– Chapter 14 Resilience never ends: conclusion and invitation

Look in the following aplpento see the methods we used for our qualitative and quantitative studies.

– Appendix I Materials and Methods

Here a copy of the paper version of the online survey

– Appendix II. Sustainable Agriculture Survey for Paper Distribution

Below is the full collection of case studies generated from our study and cited in the chapters above. These case studies will help you broaden your understanding of resilience from real life examples. All of these stories cover at least five years of resilience, others more than 40. Take time to read and enjoy them. 


Hardin Family -The Glue That Can’t Un-glue

Searcy County, AR – There is only one Local

Little Rock, AR – Little Rock in a Large System


Beat 4, Forty Years a Cooperative

Connectivity and Redundancy: Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network 

Oxford, MS – Memory and Revolt


Sewanee, TN – The Food System Revival

Chattanooga, TN – Growing the “Sustainable Blue Collar Town”

– Nashville: biodynamic farm network

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