Center for Resilience in Agricultural Working Landscapes

Agricultural production must increase more than 70% by 2050 to meet the increasing global demand for food, fuel and fiber.

Meeting this goal will require agricultural intensification and more efficient use of marginal lands, while contending with a suite of complex and interacting drivers of global change, including extreme weather, soil degradation and biological invasions. Sustainable intensification of agriculture is a grand challenge for humanity that will require fostering resilient working landscapes and transforming landscapes that are currently in undesirable states.

The Center for Resilience in Agricultural Landscapes, with the partnership of the Nebraska One Health program and the Center for Grassland Studies, and others, will address this challenge by focusing research, teaching and engagement on the theory and practice of resilience. The Center includes institutions and non-governmental organizations with a stake in maintaining productive and resilient food, energy, water and ecosystem services (FEWES) landscapes, with emphasis on the north-central Great Plains of the United States, one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. The irrigation systems of the Great Plains constitute an enormous investment in social, economic, and political infrastructure, creating one of the most complex irrigation societies in the world. The science and technology that has enabled this agricultural production has been exported as a global solution to food insecurity, yet the resilience and long-term sustainability of this model is uncertain and untested. The importance of this system, and others like it, demands an understanding of its response to stress, and where critical tipping points may lay — its resilience.

The Center for Resilience in Agricultural Working Landscapes (CRAWL) unifies expertise in agriculture with expertise in resilience, and focuses on approaches to measure and foster resilience in working landscapes. Our approach is a landscape approach; many other individuals and centers focus on agricultural productivity at the individual plant or animal scale, or on field scale production. We are interested in maintaining productivity of heterogeneous agricultural landscapes in the face of rapid social, economic and ecological change.

Avoiding Undesired Change In Nebraska's...

Grasslands

A significant threat exemplifying why resilience matters, is the invasion of Nebraska grasslands by woody species and subsequent change of grassland habitat to woodland or forest habitat. Such a change reflects a loss of resilience of the grassland, and emergence of an alternative “state” of the former grassland. This example of alternative states (grassland to woodland) exemplifies the type of broad change the CRAWL is focused on understanding and preventing. For grasslands, conversion to woodland reduces the value of these lands to livestock, negatively affecting livelihoods in a state where beef production is an important economic driver. Furthermore, when grasslands change to woodlands, changing woodlands back to grasslands is non-trivial; woodlands have high resilience and are difficult to transform back to grassland (hysteresis is a fancy term for the fact that when a system changes, and can be more difficult to change back than it was to change in the first place - the “path in” is not the same as the “path out”.

Other alternative states in grasslands are possible. A concern of ranchers in the Sandhills of Nebraska has been the potential for this twenty thousand square mile grassland to become shifting and moving dunes. In fact that particular possible alternative state has led Sandhills ranchers to implement resilience management techniques - in particular the active avoidance of thresholds. Sandhill blowouts are actively managed against, and the system kept in a highly grassy state to avoid the potential sand dune state.

Row Crops

Many systems in Nebraska have already undergone undesirable change, and in this case management seeks to reduce the impacts, or transform the system back to a more desirable state. The Dustbowl is a recent historic example of a desirable state shifting to an undesirable system state (from grassland to Dustbowl). The Dustbowl also illustrates the idea of transformation - active human guided regime change, from an undesired state to a desired state. Former Dustbowl lands are now some of the most productive in the US.

Learn more at Platte Basin Timelapse

Rivers

The Platte River Basin is a significant resource for Nebraska and the Great Plains. It provides drinking water, irrigation waters for agriculture, and habitat for wildlife, including migratory and endangered species. The Platte formerly existed in a braided, sand dominated highly mobile state, dominated by the effects of spring floods that scoured sandbars of vegetation. Water control structures and needs have altered flows and limited flood events, leading to an alternative river state dominated by stationary islands, incised channels, and vegetated sand bars. This state is desirable for humans (because it best provisions irrigation waters and constant flows) but undesirable for many wildlife species.

Lakes

A classic example of alternative stable states is the change in shallow lakes from clear water to algal dominated. This type of regime change occurs in Nebraska lakes. In some of our lakes, the algal dominated state of the lakes are dominated by toxic algae, making the undesired state of these lakes especially undesirable.