University of Vermont

College of
Agriculture and Life Sciences

Department of Plant and Soil Science

Into the Coffeelands

V. Ernesto Méndez blends ecological and social wellbeing in action-oriented research

Ernesto Mendez
Ernesto Mendez (Photo: Sally McCay)

V. Ernesto Méndez knows that being an agronomist alone isn’t enough to understand and affect the complex issues of agricultural sustainability and farmer wellbeing. That’s why he’s devoted his research and teaching career to transdisciplinary and action approaches that integrate systemic thinking with on-the-ground impacts.

Méndez, an associate professor of agroecology with a dual appointment in the Department of Plant and Soil Science and the Environmental Program, leads the university’s Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group, a “community of practice,” in Mendez’s words, where graduate students and researchers study ecological and socioeconomic sustainability in agricultural landscapes.

While many food systems researchers at UVM focus on pressing local and regional issues, Méndez brings a unique international perspective to his scholarship. Born in El Salvador, his academic pursuits brought him to the United States, but his international research interests—including interactions among agricultural, ecological, and socioeconomic factors for smallholder coffee farms in Mexico and Central America—keep him connected to his Mesoamerican roots.

As an inherently transdisciplinary field, agroecology allows Méndez to integrate research on conservation, sustainable coffee production and farmer livelihoods. Méndez also believes that research should support, and not simply reflect, the people and landscapes under study. For this reason, he employs a Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology, which integrates community-based research with an orientation towards tangible improved outcomes. The PAR approach seeks to incorporate community members into a process of research, reflection and action, and explicitly recognizes the important role of non-researchers in this process.

Méndez’s international focus, transdisciplinary lens and novel research techniques have resulted in enviable productivity: in the last 18 months, 14 papers he has contributed to, often as the lead author, have been published in peer-reviewed journals or have been accepted for publication.

Méndez has particular interest in sustainable production, environmental conservation and livelihood strategies smallholder coffee farmers in Central and South American and Africa use to face a diversity of challenges, ranging from fluctuating coffee prices to climate change. ARLG members have ongoing research projects in El Salvador, Mexico and Nicaragua focused on annual periods of seasonal hunger experienced by many smallholder coffee farmers between May and September. These projects focus on contributing factors and strategies for ameliorating los meses flacos or “the thin months.”

A recent longitudinal food security study (2007-2013) in coffee communities of Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, done in collaboration with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, yielded a key finding related to the thin months. 

“A strategy of income diversification in conjunction with continued investment in coffee production resulted in livelihood improvements for coffee farming families,” Méndez says.

Méndez’s work has been supported by Bioversity International (formerly the International Plant Genetic Research Institute), the Interamerican Foundation and Oxfam America, among others. Since he came to UVM in 2006, his research has also been funded by Keurig Green Mountain (formerly Green Mountain Coffee Roasters), which has devoted significant resources over the past 15 years to helping coffee farmers develop strategies for surviving the thin months. The company has also funded two student fellowships and additional projects related to smallholder coffee research with the ARLG.

Despite his many projects, Méndez continues to pursue new funding and collaborations. In March, he was appointed to the advisory committee of the Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation.

Although Méndez highly values his international research, he hasn’t shied away from working in Vermont. He is currently a collaborating leader of the Vermont Agricultural Resilience in a Changing Climate initiative, which employs strategies ranging from on-farm trials to policy analysis to identify best practices for Vermont farmers.