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Linking the social, economic, and agroecological: A resilience framework for dairy farming

Cradock-Henry NA. 2021. Linking the social, economic, and agroecological: a resilience framework for dairy farming. Ecology and Society. 26(1):article 3. doi:10.5751/ES-12122-260103.


Agriculture is a major economic driver in Aotearoa-New Zealand (New Zealand), led by export earnings from dairy farming. Dairying is uniquely exposed to climatic- and nonclimatic socioeconomic stressors, which have their greatest effects on production and yield. The growing need to consider these and other changes is accelerating efforts aimed at ensuring greater resilience, adaptability, and flexibility within the industry.

To gain insight into these dynamics at the farm-level, a resilience-based assessment framework was piloted with three different types of dairy farming systems, following extensive drought on the east coast of the North Island. Using a participatory and bottom-up approach, the framework was used to qualitatively explore the potential significance of varying social, economic, and agroecological attributes between high-input, low-input, and organic systems, and their implications for resilience.

The “lock in trap” of highly intensive systems, although profitable in the near term, may be less resilient to climate shocks because these are likely to occur in conjunction with changing market and financial risks. Low-input systems are less dependent, in particular, on fossil fuels and are associated with higher levels of farmer satisfaction and well-being. Organic farming provides ecological benefits, and the financial premium paid to farmers may act as a short-term buffer.

The framework provides insight into the current context at the farm level and can draw out individual perspectives on where to target interventions and build resilience. Results demonstrate the potential of in-depth qualitative assessments of resilience, which can usefully complement quantitative metrics. The framework can be used as the basis for further empirical assessment and inform the design of similar approaches for cross-sector comparative analysis, large-N surveys, or modelling. Furthermore, the preliminary characterization of resilient farm-systems has the potential to contribute to broader sustainability frameworks for agriculture and can inform strategic adaptation planning in the face of climate change.

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