Fertile Ground For Transformation in Farming

By Michael Anderson and Miranda Jefferson

Farming in the 21st century means operating under uncertain and unpredictable conditions.

Woolf Farming and Processing is a farming business in California’s Central Valley. Family-owned over three generations, Woolf Farming has built its business around values of ‘good stewardship, reinvestment and innovation,’ in the words of its CEO, Stuart Woolf. However, Woolf Farming now faces environmental challenges familiar to farmers all over the world: drought, unpredictable weather and reduced water allocation. To survive amidst the change and continuous uncertainty of these ‘postnormal times’, Woolf Farming must constantly adapt and innovate.

The sun seems like an unlimited resource for farmers but the vagaries of weather, climate change and global markets mean they have to continually manage uncertainty. There is uncertainty in whether the rains will come, what produce they should grow and as a consequence, how they should develop their business as an organization. Stuart Woolf embodies those challenges. In recent years his farm has been dealing with drought and zero surface water allocation.

Woolf Farming proudly states: ‘Our goal is to build an enduring family business upon the simple notion of feeding more people with fewer resources. We will achieve this through good stewardship, reinvestment and innovation.’ Rather than growing the traditional rotational grain crops of the San Joaquin Valley, the Woolf family developed higher value speciality crops including almonds, tomatoes, pistachios and garlic. They have a history of re-investment, developing infrastructure and innovation to successfully expand their operations, but they continue to be challenged by the uncertainty of the climate, weather and the allocation of water resources.

Whether it is the weather, the volatility of the stock market, the rapid change of technology, the dependence on global economics, the effects of government policy, the influence of geopolitical crises and changes in society etc., the case study of Woolf Farming and Processing highlights the uncertainty that all organizations face in postnormal times. All organizations have to meet that uncertainty continually if they want to remain relevant, sustainable and effective.

But the Woolf farm has a conundrum. Despite past successful innovations in experimenting with crops and technologies to survive dry spells, and expanding into food processing and investments, the long- term drought and zero water allocation has taken them to a new tipping point. They are asking themselves are rising temperatures and volatile weather an unsual pattern of events for farming, or are they dealing with a new climate norm? Should they continue with business as usual or should they continue transforming their business? Should they go into organic produce where the profit is potentially greater? Or should they invest in developing solar energy on their land? Should they drill more groundwater wells? Or should they advocate for the development of a water trading market for efficient water allocation? Or should they just sell the farm and begin again by investing in something more viable?

These strategic and structural questions for Woolf farm all have to be considered on their short-term and long-term merits and ultimately how they affect the vision of what the farm wants to be: a family-run business organization that continues to feed the world population in an economical and environmentally sustainable way. How Woolf Farming and Processing goes forward is a matter of how they continue to transform to meet uncertainty. To transform, however, requires organizations to ‘prepare the ground’ to allow for transformation to happen, just as a crop must have prepared and fertile ground to begin to grow. If the organizational groundwork is there to transform, Woolf Farming can make challenging decisions, learn from success and failure and be agile and adaptive to fulfil their vision.

So what will Woolf farming do? The business has chosen to continue farming in California, committing to its values of innovation and adaptation. Woolf Farming continues to adopt new technologies to increase water efficiency, and has invested in solar energy generation for the farm. The family are exploring how to use agricultural waste to generate energy. They are also campaigning for water allocation reform in California. They have developed a community garden that produces food for families affected by the lack of water. Woolf Farming cannot control its environment completely, but through wise action, the organisation can choose the most effective adaptations, and go beyond self-interest to serve its community as well. Use of the 4Cs –creativity, critical reflection, communication and collaboration – helps organisations like Woolf Farming become more agile and adaptive so that they can continue their transformation work.

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