NRT director leading ag network from Canada to Mexico

by Ronica Stromberg, NRT Program Coordinator

Leaders in the new NIARR network include, from left to right, Elena Bennett, director of ResNet in Canada; Shana Sundstrom, program coordinator on the grant; Craig Allen, director of the NRT and on the advisory board to the Resilience Alliance; and Jennifer Hodbod, advisory board member to NIARR and the Resilience Alliance. Other leaders who joined NIARR at the outset are Tala Awada, director of the Agricultural Research Division at Nebraska; Cyprien Awono, senior socio-economist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Living Laboratories Division; Brandon Bestelmeyer, research head of the USDA-ARS Jornada Experimental Range in New Mexico; Sheri Spiegal, range management specialist with the USDA-ARS Jornada Experimental Range; and Anna Pacheco, senior national coordinator of the Living Laboratories Network.
May 3, 2022

Lincoln, Neb. —Craig Allen, NRT director, now heads an international network connecting agricultural networks across Canada, the United States and Mexico to better research agricultural systems and their resilience.

“We will over time develop a research agenda and, with the data from this network, start large-scale analyses that couldn't be done just within each individual network,” Allen said.

The Network for Integrated Agricultural Resilience Research unites the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network, the Agriculture Canada Living Labs Initiative and ResNet in Canada, the international Resilience Alliance organization and researchers in Mexico. The National Science Foundation awarded the NIARR team a four-year, $400,000 grant to connect Canadian and U.S. networks, and the university provided an additional $150,000 to connect Mexican researchers.

All of the network partners have data except the Resilience Alliance, which is an international think tank.

LTAR has 18 research sites across the United States, some with data going as far back as 100 years ago. The LTAR sites are hosting the NIARR working group funded by the National Science Foundation grant.

“We're really excited to now have a working group within the LTAR, USDA’s network, focused on resilience,” Allen said.

Allen, the four other principal investigators on the grant and the three members on its steering committee will meet monthly in the working group, starting in May. Shana Sundstrom, who serves as a principal investigator and the program coordinator on the grant, said all the people from the networks in NIARR can participate in the working group.

“The bulk of our activities are going to happen through that resilience working group that we're setting up inside the LTAR network just because they have the infrastructure in place for collaboration like this,” Sundstrom said.

Besides completing tasks to get the working group set up, the leadership team has been putting a survey together with a LTAR social scientist interested in documenting the creation of a network.

“That needs to happen before we launch the working group meetings,” Sundstrom said. “Those will be the fun part, bringing together scientists interested in these ideas and talking through all of it and then getting to do science.”

Jennifer Hodbod, a Michigan State University professor who serves on the NIARR advisory board, plans to look into the agricultural networks the United Kingdom has also. She recently accepted a position at the University of Leeds and will move at the end of the semester.

“I hope to bring in a more European perspective once those networks of mine start to develop and once I start to see if the sustainability or resilience challenges are similar or different,” she said.

Hodbod has worked as a social scientist mainly in grazing systems and said she expects to also add to the social perspective when looking across agricultural networks.

“The folks who manage our systems are often the trickiest parts of a model or study, right?” she said. “We don't necessarily make rational management decisions. We are influenced by our values and our families and generations of tradition and such.”

She said that as the NIARR working group looks at whether management practices build or break the resilience of agricultural lands, it will be important to understand why people are making the decisions they are making and not making other decisions.

“That can be both a barrier and a conduit to change,” she said. “So, if we're talking about how to break undesirable resilience in some of our ag systems or support resilience that has more sustainable or equitable outcomes, then often understanding human behavior and reasoning is a really important step in that process.”

An example she gave of undesirable resilience in an ag system was the Dust Bowl created in the Great Plains in the 1930s by drought and tilling. Modern-day concerns include degraded soil, water and air.

Sundstrom said a key objective of NIARR will be to look at thresholds, the point at which a system can no longer withstand a disturbance and changes to a less desirable state, or regime. For example, a grassland can change to a desert after a long time without rain.

“Part of our NIARR work is to parse out where do we need to look to see if there is threshold behavior, where are the most crucial places to look in terms of the security of agricultural production?” she said. “And it's only until we get everybody in a room together that we can start to answer the question of which parts of the system are the most important to start asking these questions?”

She plans to lead a literature review on thresholds and other resilience concepts of heterogeneity, scale and regime shifts. The intent is to determine how far along research is on these topics and to identify research gaps to fill, she said.

“LTAR is already trying to create indicators for sustainable agriculture, which is related to resilient agriculture, but it's not the same thing,” she said. “It will be very interesting as we work through this process of determining the most important questions to ask about these landscapes to see if the indicators that LTAR is already creating adequately encompass the kind of information that we need to ask these questions, and then if not, what other kinds of data need to be collected. LTAR has the possibility of actually changing or adding to the kinds of data that they collect.”

Elena Bennett, a principal investigator on the grant in Canada, directs ResNet, collecting data since 2019 on working landscapes such as timber or energy production as well as on agricultural lands. Bennett said ResNet data differs from the data LTAR collects because her group is trying to assess tradeoffs in the services that ecosystems provide and those can be different in different places.

“A lot of our work is directly with communities where a client or a partner needs an answer,” she said.

She has a team in Saskatchewan now, looking at the possible effects on agriculture and wildlife of draining Prairie Pothole wetlands, and a team in Nova Scotia, considering lowering the number of dikes used to hold seawater back because of costs to maintain them.

In the NIARR project, Bennett said she would like to encourage the United States to consider more the tradeoffs between things such as agricultural production and wildlife or water quality and fertilizer.

“What I’m hoping for is a way to infuse some resilience knowledge into the world of agriculture by connecting to some existing networks,” she said.

Hodbod said she anticipated much good coming from the collaboration.

“What's super exciting about this type of approach and the funding that supports it is that there is now recognition that there are diminishing returns from us all having these individualized projects and there are so many things we can learn from each other,” she said. “Having this structure to actually support sharing what we've learned, sharing where the research questions still are, and then being able to create new research questions and research designs that go across the network has huge potential.”