Farmers in Idaho rallied to harvest a neighbor's potatoes as a deep freeze threatened to ruin them

French Fries, Social Networks, and Climate Change

Did you know that french fries, climate change, and social networks are closely related? I just had to write about this fascinating story that I heard on NPR about potatoes in Idaho. "In all my years of raising potatoes and trying to squeeze in the harvest before the weather causes damage, this is the earliest we've seen a widespread frost of this magnitude," says the potato farmer being interviewed. Idaho provides more than 30% of the US potato crop, many of which end up as your french fries.  The growers have to deal with a short growing season, planting after the spring rains and harvesting before the fall frost.  In 2019, the rains lasted later than usual and and the frost came much earlier--they experienced a climate shock.  Such extreme weather events, including the 2019 flooding in the Midwest, are an expected result of climate change. Climate shocks will have a big impact on agriculture, since most modern cropping systems are adapted to a fairly narrow envelope of climate variability.

The story goes on to talk about how social networks are crucial for helping farmers respond to these shocks, providing social capital to make the system more resilient.  "The neighbors that are done, or almost done, are offering trucks and equipment, you know, tractors, harvesters, to go in and help the guys that still have a lot remaining," reports the farmer.  Other news reports convoys of equipment (the pic is from this story) moving from farm to farm, as neighbors help each other with harvest. "You got bankers, you got area people that are doing different things that call, and they offer to not just give your their prayers, but they put on their gloves and come help ya," observes another farmer, who then goes on to say "the nature of farming, you are always competing against your neighbors volume and market, but in the end your friends and neighbors, the livelihood of one another, is always on the mind of all the farmers in our area." In other words, this type of helping behavior within social networks is the "culture" part of agricultural systems.

I've heard this before. During our study on sustainable viticulture, I once asked one of our winegrape grower advisors about why social networks were important. I remember that he replied they were especially variable when the weather patterns were different than expected, and growers would communicate with their friends and neighbors about how they were changing their harvesting timing and practices to deal with the change. In other words, the climate shocks activated latent social capital, which is hard to observe during "normal" weather.  And this is not limited to agriculture. A few years ago when I visited Brisbane, Australia, I toured a upper watershed that in the previous year had experienced flash floods. I heard stories about neighbors rescuing each other off roofs, long before any government response was mobilized.  Later, after the slower flooding in Brisbane receded, there were traffic jams as people tried to get into the city to help victims clean up.  The importance of social capital and networks in surviving and recovering from disaster is very well documented in Daniel Aldrich's important book "Black Wave", about the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

I think this phenomena of social capital and the dynamic activation of social networks in response to environmental shocks and change is one of the most important and understudied aspects of human social behavior and culture. It is crucial to recognize that much of this social network activity is in the private sphere, independent of government policy and programs. It responds much more quickly, and with lower cost, to environmental change than government.  It may be that government policy can help facilitate the development of social capital over a long period of time, but having it in place is a critical resource for resilience and helps determine which communities are more or less vulnerable to climate change, extreme weather, and other shocks.

So next time you eat your french fries, think about how social networks helped make it possible.

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