NEWS: Highlights of the AX Summer Research Fellowship

This summer, 8 undergraduate students from across the University of Vermont participated in the first year of the Agroecology Extension Summer Research Fellowship, a collaboration between UVM Extension, the Plant and Soil Science Department, and the ALC. 

We’re excited to share two opportunities to dig deeper into what the fellows were up to this summer around Vermont: a special feature on UVM Extension’s Across the Fence TV program and a CALS story, Agroecology in Action. Thanks to those who helped capture and share pieces of this program in its inaugural year. 

The fellowship is a part of USDA NIFA’s Research and Extension Experience for Undergraduates (REEU) program and will continue for the next 4 years. In future years, the workforce development grant will bring students both from UVM and institutions across the country to Vermont for an immersive summer research and extension experience in agroecology.

Amaya Carrasco-Torrontegui chosen for Graduate Student Award for Outstanding Research and Scholarship

Current Food Systems PhD student and ALC member Amaya Carrasco-Torrontegui was chosen for the Graduate Student Award for Outstanding MS Research and Scholarship in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, where she completed her MS in Leadership for Sustainability.

Community wellbeing was at the center of Amaya’s capstone, which also included a strong component of self awareness, leadership, and heart. Amaya developed and led an eight-session seminar in Spanish on sustainable food production in collaboration with the Missouri University Extension that was attended by 240 participants from nine different countries. The course was titled Agricultura Urbana Sostenible. She also offered support to people growing their own food with sustainable agriculture techniques in the United States, Ecuador, and other countries in Latin America; a particularly significant need during the COVID-19 pandemic when many were experiencing food shortages.

“Carrasco Torrontegui knows what it’s like to be a migrant; she has grandparents from Basque country in Spain, parents from Chile, and she was born in Ecuador.

“For me, it was very difficult to come to the U.S. because I didn’t have friends and my visa didn’t allow me to work or study,” Carrasco Torrontegui said. “And that was very hard.”

While walking around her neighborhood in St. Louis, Carrasco Torrontegui passed by a plot of land where people were growing plants.

She found out it was part of U City In Bloom, a nonprofit with more than 200 community gardens in University City. A volunteer at that garden happened to be from Ecuador, too; she became Carrasco Torrontegui’s first friend in the U.S. and introduced her to the world of urban agriculture.

“I discovered that was a passion for me — growing food, connecting with people, being in nature, learning from plants and insects,” Carrasco Torrontegui said.” From an article in NewsTribune.

Felicidades Amaya on this award and completion of this incredibly valuable project! Read the abstract of Amaya’s research and full paper: BE YOU: A JOURNEY TO FIND COURAGE. Amaya is currently involved in the Collaborative Crop Research Project, so stay tuned to see what she does next.

From capstone paper: Urban agriculture class with the older adults of the 60 and Piquito Project

NEWS: ALC collaboration leads to a NIFA Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates grant

A team from UVM Extension and the Department of Plant and Soil Science, including ALC members Scott Lewins, Vic Izzo, and Karen Nordstrom, was recently awarded a Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Research Education and Workforce Development Program.

This exciting collaboration  will fund the development of an innovative undergraduate fellowship program in 2022 rooted in a transdisciplinary extension experience that will catalyze not only the dissemination of cutting-edge research ideas and technologies, but also demonstrate a healthy collaborative community for a thriving researcher and farmer partnership at a time when collaboration will be key to addressing increasingly complicated agricultural challenges.

Congratulations to all involved!

Looking for Moths Under the New Moon / Buscando mariposas bajo la luna nueva en El Yunque

By / Por: Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz

This essay was written by Luis about his experiences assisting Aura M. Alonso-Rodríguez – both ALC members – with her research en El Yunque. This essay was originally published in Spanish in 80 grados and then translated by the author and published on Here’s more about Aura’s research

This essay was originally published in Spanish at 80 grados. It was translated by the author and published on

I was thinking of two things while walking: that my legs could not hold me anymore and that I wanted to see a coquí, Puerto Rico’s endemic frog. We had been within the green labyrinth of El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s tropical rainforest, for almost four hours. Although I wanted to look up and appreciate the plethora of stars, I kept my gaze down so that the flashlight on my head would light the way. Falling down on one of those paths, full of rocks and roots, while carrying a backpack full of scientific equipment, is not a pretty picture. There were times when I slipped, but still had not fallen. I was in the back of the line, walking slowly to see if I could spot a coquí, but without missing the pace of the team. “Look, Luis,” Aura said after a while. And there it was, quiet on a log, ready for the photo. After that, she asked us to turn off our flashlights.

Aura Alonso-Rodríguez is an ecologist. She studies human and climatic impacts on tropical ecosystems through insects. Two other people and I accompanied her on her once or two times-a-year pilgrimage to El Yunque, under the new moon. We were assisting her in her research, focused on understanding the impacts of Hurricane Maria on moth (nocturnal butterflies) communities. It is under the new moon that this type of sampling can be done effectively: the darkness reduces competition between the light from the trap and from the moon, thus attracting more moths.

The voices of the rainforest multiplied and amplified once we shut off the lights. To be immersed in the darkness of our rainforest and to listen to its sounds is not an opportunity that I am often given. In that moment, I finally looked up to the skies and appreciated the stars without fear of falling. As a drizzle began, we turned on the lights, and continued our walk back to the where we started.

We arrived around 6:30 P.M. to the El Verde field station, the research center of the University of Puerto Rico located in El Yunque. The objective was to go to the three spots that Aura selected, where we would place three traps with ultraviolet bulbs that would attract the moths. We carried three 25-pound batteries into the rainforest; each of us with a backpack full of equipment and several bottles of water and snack bars. It was almost 11 P.M. by the time we got back to the parking lot. The rain helped disguise the sweat and tiredness of our bodies.

That new-moon-weekend in July 2020 brought back memories of when I did research in the field, but it also reminded me of how complicated and complex it is, as many things are out of our control. Especially, when there is an ongoing pandemic. We returned to the house while listening to the symphony of our stomachs. And although we were tempted to open a few beers and socialize, we opted to go to sleep after eating, as we had to return to the forest around 5:00 A.M. When I saw Aura’s disappointment and frustration when finding the traps turned off the next morning, I knew we should have had at least one beer before going to sleep.

The coquí posing on a tree, and the trap turned on. Inside of the bucket there is a little flask with chloroform, and a forest of newspaper.

I arrived in Rio Grande, one of the municipalities where El Yunque is located, Friday afternoon. Aura and I met at a local supermarket to buy food for the weekend. The last time we saw each other was two months earlier, in Vermont, where we are studying. We stared at each other for a few seconds, and then hugged. Obviously, breaking pandemic protocols made us feel bad — even though we had been in isolation for a long time, preparing for that sampling weekend at El Yunque. It felt good to escape from the south of Puerto Rico, where I live. The drought, plus the Saharan dust, had the area all covered in brown and misty landscapes. These episodes of severe drought are becoming more frequent and intense in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, like most islands in the region, is expected to see increasing temperatures due to climate change. Seeing so much green, while following Aura towards the house near the rainforest where we would be staying, was almost magical. “It is very dry here too, even if it doesn’t look like it” –she told me, as we got the equipment out of her car.

Aura has been collecting moths in El Yunque since the beginning of 2017. Little is known about them. In particular, their role in nocturnal pollination, which is important for the ecosystem, and for agricultural production. Aura told me that, “[all] butterflies belong to the order Lepidoptera, and more than 90% of them are nocturnal. The last study about them in Puerto Rico was done in 1998 (1); 1,045 species of butterflies were estimated, of which 26% are native to the archipelago.” The objective of her project was to know the degree of difference, if any, in moth communities (assemblages) in two forest areas in El Yunque: one dominated by Sierra Palm (Prestoea montana), and the other by Tabonuco trees (Dacroydes excelsa). There are 4 types of forests and various microclimates that make El Yunque a special place. To that we add its cultural and traditional significance, particularly the one that our Taino ancestors gave it. Unfortunately, human impacts, such as light pollution, solid waste mismanagement, and poorly planned constructions, together with natural impacts that are intensifying due to climate change (also human-driven), such as droughts and stronger storms, have increased the vulnerability of our national forest, producer of water, air and beauty. People like Aura seek to understand how, specifically, these impacts harm their biodiversity, in order to outline effective ways for conservation.

I underlined “was” in the paragraph above because Aura’s study now revolves around understanding how those assemblages changed with the impact of María, a 2017 category 4 hurricane that caused damage or death to 23-31 million trees in Puerto Rico [2]. “[Our study] is one way of better understanding the response and recovery of the forest to this impact.” Preliminary data from the study suggests that the assemblages were completely changed by the impact of the hurricane, regardless of forest type [3]. Nonetheless, after the hurricane, the number of individuals (abundance) and the number of species (richness) was higher in the area dominated by Tabonuco trees. “These trees are strong, they create underground connections between them, unlike Sierra Palms that do not provide good shelter due.” Therefore, given that the impacts will continue to occur, if we want to safeguard the biodiversity of the forest, it is important to conserve those areas dominated by Tabonuco, most of which are remnants of mature forest. Meaning that these areas have not been affected by human disturbances. Aura is confident that future samplings will shed more light on that preliminary conclusion.

The figure on the left shows the assemblages in Sierra Palm and Tabonuco before and after María. Each point represents the species composition at a different sampling site. By agglomerating the points in the different ovals, the statistics show that the assemblages changed due to the impact of the hurricane in both types of forest. The figure on the right, divided in two, shows richness and abundance. In both, the boxes on the left side show that the richness and abundance of both areas was similar before the hurricane. But those on the right side show that assemblages in the Tabonuco forest had more richness and abundance after the hurricane.

As we walked under the subtle light of dawn to where we had left the traps, Aura pointed out areas and described how they were like before the hurricane. Frankly, everything looked the same to me. It was remarkable how embedded she was in the landscape and the connection she had with the forest. I told the team that if they were following me, we would have already gotten lost and would never find where we left the traps. “I grew up in the forest,” Aura said. And just as she had seen El Yunque transform, she also saw how the mountains of Carraízo, where she was raised, transformed throughout her childhood. Witnessing the change of the landscape catalyzed questions that she would later answer through her scientific work. “What do you feel?”, I asked her when we got to the first spot and saw the light off. Although there was a hint of anger and frustration, Aura took a deep breath and began to tell us the possible causes. She had checked the voltage of the batteries and tested them before the weekend. But as she said, it was not in her control that they got damaged. Sometimes one wastes so much energy in pondering over something one does not control. And now, whenever something similar to the “battery situation” happens to me, I think about how Aura responded to it.

We proceeded to remove the trap — we noticed that several moths were caught, but not the number that she expected. Yes, seeing their corpses raised uncomfortable questions in me. But their life cycle is very short and sampling once or twice a year does not harm the population―I said to myself. When collecting all the equipment, Aura took out a densiometer and together with the other colleague measured the canopy to see how much light enters the area. By comparing the canopy cover data that Aura took before and after Hurricane Maria, she can determine how much the forest has recovered since the hurricane. Then we walked up the mountain to find the second trap off. The same happened with the third. And what do you do when an experiment goes wrong in El Yunque? Well, you go for a dip in a swimming hole.

Above, Aura is setting the trap. Below, holding the densiometer, and separating the collected specimens.

While floating in the river, Aura went over different options on how to deal with the setback. She would soon have to return to Vermont, and coinciding with the new moon in Puerto Rico is not an easy thing. So, she had to re-sample to not miss the opportunity. The next day, when I had to go back to the hot south, we returned with charged batteries and set up a camera to see how long the light bulbs lasted. Before I left, I went with her to the laboratory to help sort the samples we collected the previous night. We were classifying all the moths by morphospecies, that is, by how they resemble each other. “That’s why I like insects, you have to learn how to see the details” -she said, while she explained to me how difficult it was to determine the real species, particularly that of the smallest ones.

I wanted to stay longer to help with the resampling, but responsibilities in the south required attention. As I was driving home along the old highway, it was clear how the green was turning brown. During that week, I could not get what happened in El Yunque out of my mind, plus my flat feet kept reminding me of how much we walked. Neither could I shake off that moment of silence and stillness when we turned off the lights. At the end of the week, Aura told me that they managed to acquire new batteries and that she decided to repeat the sampling the following month. Putting the camera served to check how long the bulbs were on and thus be able to adjust their results.

There are three new moons this summer of 2021, so maybe I’ll be an assistant to my ecologist friend again. Meanwhile, I hope to educate myself more about Tabonucos, about where they are in Puerto Rico, and on what we can do as a society to protect them. As the song of Francisco Roque Muñoz says, “Un jacho de tabonuco, tengo yo para alumbrarme” (A piece of Tabonuco, I have to light up the way).

  1. Torres, J. A. y S. Medina-Gaud, 1998. Los insectos de Puerto Rico. Acta Científica 12: 3-41
  2. Feng et al. (2018) Rapid remote sensing assessment of impacts from Hurricane Maria on forests of Puerto Rico. PeerJ Preprints 6:e26597v1
  3. Aura Alonso-Rodríguez. University of Vermont – Rubenstein School. (2019, October 29). Vegetation types influences the response of moth communities to hurricane disturbance in a tropical rainforest. [Video]. YouTube.
Buscando mariposas bajo la luna nueva en El Yunque – This essay was published originally in 80 grados (Puerto Rico) in March 12, 2021.

Iba caminando y pensando dos cosas: en que ya no aguantaba las piernas y en que quería ver un coquí. Llevábamos casi cuatro horas bosque adentro en El Yunque. Aunque quería mirar hacia arriba y apreciar el revolú de estrellas, tenía la mirada hacia abajo para que la linterna en mi cabeza iluminara el camino. Caerse en una vereda de esas, llenas de piedras y raíces, mientras se carga un bulto lleno de instrumentos científicos, no debe ser bonito. Hubo ocasiones en que resbalé, pero aún no me caía. Yo iba atrás en la fila, caminando lento para ver si lograba ver un coquí, pero sin perder el paso del equipo. “Mira, Luis”—dijo Aura al ratito. Y allí estaba, tranquilito en un tronco, listo para la foto. Luego de eso, ella nos pidió que apagáramos las linternas.

Aura Alonso Rodríguez es ecóloga. Estudia los impactos humanos y climáticos en ecosistemas tropicales a través de los insectos. Otras dos personas y yo la acompañamos en su peregrinación a El Yunque bajo la luna nueva para asistirle en su investigación, enfocada en entender los impactos del huracán María en las comunidades de mariposas nocturnas. Es bajo la luna nueva cuando este tipo de muestreo se puede hacer de manera efectiva: esa fase oscura ayuda a que la luz de la trampa no compita con la de la luna y así pueda atraer a las mariposas.

Los sonidos se intensificaron tan pronto apagamos las luces. No hablamos. Escuchar al bosque tropical más importante de Puerto Rico no es algo que se me da mucho. En ese momento pude mirar hacia arriba y apreciar el revolú de estrellas. Al comenzar una llovizna, prendimos las luces y continuamos.

Llegamos alrededor de las 630 P.M. a la estación El Verde, centro investigativo de la IUPI ubicado en El Yunque, para ir a los tres spots que seleccionó Aura, donde colocaríamos las tres trampas con bombillas ultravioletas que atraerían a las mariposas. Cargamos tres baterías de 25 libras cada una; cada quien con una mochila llena de equipo y varias botellas de agua y barritas para merendar. Ya eran casi las 11 de la noche cuando regresamos al estacionamiento. La lluvia ayudó a disimular el sudor.

Ese fin de semana de luna nueva en julio 2020 me trajo recuerdos de cuando hacía investigaciones en el campo, pero también me hizo recordar lo complicado y complejo que es, pues muchas cosas no están bajo nuestro control. Especialmente, cuando hay una pandemia en curso. Nos fuimos escuchando la sinfonía de nuestros estómagos. Y aunque nos tentaba abrir cervezas y socializar, optamos por ir a dormir después de comer, pues teníamos que volver al bosque alrededor de las 5:00 A.M. Al ver las bombillas de las trampas apagadas cuando volvimos al bosque y la cara de decepción y frustración de Aura, supe que debimos habernos bebido por lo menos una cerveza antes de dormir.

El coquí posando y la trampa recién prendida. Adentro hay un envase con cloroformo y un bosque de papel periódico.

Yo llegué a Río Grande viernes por la tarde. Me encontré con Aura en un supermercado del área. La última vez que nos vimos fue dos meses antes, en Vermont, donde cursamos estudios. Nos quedamos mirándonos unos segundos y nos abrazamos. Obviamente, nos hizo sentir mal romper los protocolos pandémicos—aunque llevábamos mucho tiempo en aislamiento, preparándonos para ese weekend de muestreo en El Yunque. Me hizo bien escapar del sur. La sequía, más el polvo del Sahara, tenían la zona toda arropada de marrones y paisajes brumosos. Ver tanto verde, mientras seguía a Aura hacia la casa dónde nos quedaríamos, fue casi mágico. “No te creas, esto está bien seco aquí también” –me dijo, mientras bajábamos el equipo de su carro.

Aura lleva desde principios del 2017 recolectando muestras de mariposas nocturnas, de las cuales no se sabe mucho. Particularmente, su rol en la polinización nocturna, lo cual es importante, no solo para el ecosistema, sino incluso para la producción agrícola. “Las mariposas (todas) son del orden Lepidoptera y más del 90% de ellas son nocturnas. El último estudio en Puerto Rico fue en el 1998 [1]; se estimaron 1,045 especies de mariposas. El 26% son nativas del archipiélago.” ―me contaba Aura. El objetivo de su proyecto actual era conocer el grado de diferencia, si alguna, en las comunidades de mariposas nocturnas (ensamblajes) en dos áreas del bosque: una dominada por palma de sierra (Prestoea montana) y otra por tabonuco (Dacroydes excelsa).

En El Yunque hay 4 tipos de bosques y varios microclimas que hacen de él un lugar especial. A eso le añadimos su significado cultural y tradicional, particularmente la que le dio nuestros ancestros Taínos. Lamentablemente, los impactos humanos por contaminación lumínica, desechos sólidos y construcciones mal planificadas, en conjunto con impactos naturales que van intensificándose por el cambio climático (también causa humana), como las sequías y tormentas, han hecho que la vulnerabilidad de nuestro bosque nacional, productor de agua, aire y belleza, vaya en aumento. Personas como Aura, buscan entender cómo, específicamente, esos impactos perjudican su biodiversidad para entonces delinear maneras efectivas para la conservación.

Arriba subrayé “era” porque el estudio de Aura giró en torno a comprender cómo esos ensamblajes cambiaron con el impacto de María, huracán que causó daños o muerte de 23-31 millones de árboles en Puerto Rico [2]. “Es una manera de entender mejor la respuesta y recuperación del bosque”. Datos preliminares [3] de su estudio muestran que los ensamblajes cambiaron por completo por el impacto del huracán indistintamente del área. Sin embargo, después del huracán, el número de individuos (abundancia) y la cantidad de especies (riqueza) fue mayor en la zona dominada por tabonuco. “Esos árboles son fuertes, crean conexiones entre ellos bajo la tierra, a diferencia de las palmas de sierra que pierden las pencas y quizás no proveen buen refugio”. Por lo tanto, dado a que los impactos seguirán ocurriendo, si queremos salvaguardar la biodiversidad del bosque, es importante conservar esas zonas dominadas por tabonuco. Aura confía en que los próximos muestreos arrojarán mayor claridad a esa conclusión preliminar.

La figura de la izquierda muestra los ensamblajes en palma de sierra y tabonuco antes y después de María. Cada punto representa la composición de especies en un sitio de muestreo diferente. Al aglomerarse los puntos en los distintos óvalos, la estadística muestra que los ensamblajes cambiaron por el impacto del huracán en ambos tipos de bosque. La figura de la derecha, dividida en dos, muestra riqueza (“richness”) y abundancia (“abundance”). En ambas, las cajitas del lado izquierdo muestran que la riqueza y abundancia de ambas áreas era similar antes del huracán. Pero las del lado derecho muestran que en el bosque de tabonuco se encontró mayor riqueza y abundancia de mariposas nocturnas después del huracán.

Aura señalaba áreas y describía cómo eran antes del huracán, mientras caminábamos hacia donde habíamos dejado las trampas. Francamente, para mí todo se veía igual. Era notable cuán inmersa estaba ella en el paisaje y su conexión con el bosque. Y más cuando no había amanecido del todo. Yo le comentaba que, si me estuvieran siguiendo a mí, ya nos hubiéramos perdido y nunca encontraríamos dónde dejamos las trampas. “Yo me crie en el bosque” ―me decía Aura. Y así cómo había visto a El Yunque transformarse, también vio cómo la montaña de Carraízo, dónde se crio, fue transformándose a través de su infancia. De ahí comenzaron preguntas que luego contestaría a través de su trabajo científico. ¿Qué sientes? –le pregunté cuando llegamos al primer spot y vimos la luz apagada. Aunque hubo una pizca de enojo y frustración, Aura respiró profundo y comenzó a contarnos las posibles causas. Ella había verificado el voltaje de las baterías y las había probado. Pero como ella dijo, el que se dañasen no estaba en su control. A veces uno se vuelve loco ponderando sobre algo que no controla. Y ahora, cada vez que pasa algo similar al papelón de las baterías, pienso en cómo Aura respondió a la situación. Procedimos a quitar la trampa—notamos que se atraparon varias mariposas, pero no la cantidad que se esperaba. Sí, me dio cosita verlas muertas. Pero su ciclo de vida es bien corto y muestrear una o dos veces al año no perjudica a la población. Al recoger todo el equipo, Aura sacó un densiómetro y junto a la otra compañera se midió la cobertura de dosel, para conocer cuánta luz entra a la zona. Comparando los datos de cobertura de dosel que Aura tomó antes y después del huracán María, ella puede determinar cuánto se ha recuperado el bosque desde María. Luego, nos fuimos jalda arriba para encontrar el segundo spot apagado. Pasó lo mismo con el tercero. ¿Y qué se hace cuándo un experimento sale mal? Pues, nos fuimos a nadar un rato a una charca del área.

Arriba Aura está montando la trampa. Abajo, se muestra el densiómetro y a Aura separando los especímenes recolectados.

Mientras flotaba en el río, Aura compartía distintas opciones para lidiar con la situación. Pronto tendría que volver a Vermont, y coincidir en Puerto Rico con la luna nueva no es cosa fácil. Por lo que había que volver a muestrear para no perder la oportunidad. Al otro día, cuando yo tenía que volver al sur caluroso, regresamos con las baterías cargadas y colocamos una cámara para saber cuánto tiempo duraba la bombilla prendida. Antes de irme, fui con ella al laboratorio para ayudarla a clasificar las muestras. Ese día también aprendí que decirles “polillas” no es lo mejor. Alevilla o mariposa nocturna. A cada ratito Aura me decía que estaba poniendo distintas mariposas juntas. Las estábamos clasificando por morfoespecie, o sea, por cómo se parecen entre sí. “Por eso me gustan los insectos, hay que saber ver los detalles” -decía, mientras me explicaba lo difícil que era determinar la especie real, particularmente de las más pequeñitas.

Yo tenía ganas de quedarme más días para retomar muestras, pero las responsabilidades en el sur requerían atención. Mientras guiaba por Fajardo, camino a Juana Díaz por la carretera vieja, se notaba bien claro cómo el verde se tornaba marrón. Durante esa semana, no me podía quitar de la mente lo ocurrido en El Yunque, más mis pies planos no paraban de recordarme todo lo que caminamos. Tampoco me podía desprender de ese momento de silencio y quietud cuando apagamos las luces. Al final de la semana, Aura me contó que lograron adquirir nuevas baterías y que decidió repetir el muestreo el mes siguiente. Poner la cámara sirvió para conocer cuánto tiempo estuvieron las bombillas prendidas y poder así ajustar sus resultados.

Hay tres lunas nuevas este verano 2021, quizás volveré a ser asistente de mi amiga ecóloga. Mientras tanto, conviene educarnos sobre los tabonucos, sobre dónde están y cómo conservarlos. Como dice la canción, “Un jacho de tabonuco, yo tengo para alumbrarme”.

Para conocer más sobre Aura y su trabajo, oprime aquí.

  1. Torres, J. A. y S. Medina-Gaud, 1998. Los insectos de Puerto Rico. Acta Científica 12: 3-41
  2. Feng et al. (2018) Rapid remote sensing assessment of impacts from Hurricane Maria on forests of Puerto Rico. PeerJ Preprints 6:e26597v1
  3. Aura Alonso-Rodríguez. University of Vermont – Rubenstein School. (2019, October 29). Vegetation types influences the response of moth communities to hurricane disturbance in a tropical rainforest. [Video]. YouTube.

NEWS: PAR projects led by ALC members receive funding

Left photo credit: Janica Anderzén, Right photo credit: Scott Lewins
Left photo credit: Janica Anderzén, Right photo credit: Scott Lewins

ALC members Scott Lewins, Vic Izzo, Janica Anderzén, and Alejandra Gúzman Luna have received funding to advance their Participatory Action Research (PAR) projects both locally and internationally. We’re so grateful for the support and excited to see these projects through!

The Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association and the New England Vegetable and Berry Growers Association have recently made donations to the Vermont Entomology and Participatory Action Research Team (VEPART), led by Scott Lewins and Vic Izzo, in support of their research and outreach efforts within the region. This great partnership between VEPART and two key grower groups is part of VEPART’s ongoing Participatory Action Research on appropriate IPM tactics for northeastern organic growers, and ultimately a more sustainable approach to pest management.

This generous grower support has helped launch the Agroecology Extension Summer Research Fellowship, an experiential learning experience focused on the development of adaptable research, leadership, and outreach skills. The goals of this exciting new initiative include training the next generation of extension researchers, and contributing to new and ongoing Extension projects dedicated to UVM’s Land Grant mission.

From the Gund Institute for the Environment’s website: Gund Graduate Fellow Janica Anderzén (CALS) will study the ecological, economic, and social importance of bees for coffee farmers in Chiapas, Mexico. Native and managed bees help shade-coffee farmers ecologically by pollinating coffee and food crops. Farmers who manage honeybees are less financially dependent on coffee, increasing their resilience. Her results will inform farmer and community education programs and dialogues with local governments regarding harmful pesticides. Project collaborators include: Gund Postdoctoral Fellow Alejandra Gúzman Luna (CALS); Rémy VandameMichelle RosalesDaniela Gallardo OlimónYliana Delfín Fuentes, and Omar Argüello Nájera of El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR); and Rigoberto Hernández JonapáJose Antonio López PérezWilliams Salomon Roblero, and Inés Lucia Pérez Gómez of Campesinos Ecológicos de Sierra Madre de Chiapas (CESMACH).

Read more about Janica, Ale, and the ALC’s work with coffee farmers and diversification of coffee farms here.

NEWS: ALC contributes chapter to Urban Agroecology book

ALC co-director Martha Caswell and other members of the ALC contributed a chapter to a new book titled Urban Agroecology, Interdisciplinary Research and Future Directions. The chapter discusses an ongoing participatory action research (PAR) project with urban and peri-urban agroecology project partners in Burlington, Vermont. For years, the ALC has been building a relationship and working with  the Vermont Community Garden Network, the Intervale Center, New Farms for New Americans, and the Catamount Farm. Components of this PAR process have resulted in participatory mapping and inventorying of agroecological practices with the Intervale Center, student design projects facilitated through PSS courses taught by Stephanie Hurley and Annie White, and upcoming collaborations for a summer research fellowship with VEPART to tackle pest management challenges.

Map based data collection with the Intervale Center. Photo: María A. Juncos-Gautier
Map based data collection with the Intervale Center. Photo: María A. Juncos-Gautier

The research in this chapter brings together agroecological principles, landscape design, and cultural ecosystem services in a transdisciplinary, PAR approach to assessing urban agroecology in Burlington. While Vermont is a predominantly rural state, this chapter explores the growing field of urban agroecology through urban and peri-urban farms and gardens in and around Burlington. Urban agroecology utilizes the frameworks and approaches of agroecology and applies them to urban contexts. As demonstrated in existing research, urban agrifood systems fill a multifunctional role in urban areas and can contribute to addressing issues such as food insecurity, public health crises, and poverty. As such, there is great potential for the application of agroecology in urban agrifood systems, and in further exploring and amplifying the benefits.

While the ALC’s work with these partners is ongoing, the value and importance of vibrant local food systems has been highlighted in the current COVID-19 pandemic and resulting food crisis. Through our PAR process, we look forward to continuing to facilitate conversations and connections within Burlington that center around agroecology and its potential within the urban and peri-urban context.  As articulated in the chapter, “Ideally, by reinforcing its presence and relevance, agroecology can become a unifying catalyst for broad food system transformation in Burlington” (p 316).

Chapter Citation:

Caswell, M., et al. (2021) Agroecological transformations in urban contexts: transdisciplinary research frameworks and participatory approaches in Burlington, Vermont. Pp. 299-320. In M. Egerer and H. Cohen (eds) Urban Agroecology: Interdisciplinary research and future directions. Boca Raton, FL, CRC Press/Taylor and Francis.

Download available here.

NEWS: ALC Co-Director Ernesto Méndez selected for VP of Research fellowship

The ALC is excited to share the news that ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez has been selected as the inaugural Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) Fellow at UVM.  This competitive fellowship provides institutional support for the institutionalization of  the ALC as a University of Vermont institute. Tentatively named the International Agroecology and Food Systems Institute, this initiative will integrate research, education, and outreach to better understand and support food systems that are ecologically sound and socially just. This new unit will have three primary areas of focus, 1) Agroecological performance, 2) Agroecology, food sovereignty and justice, and 3) Innovative pedagogy for agroecology. 

This fellowship comes at a critical time as multiple crises nationally and globally have worsened and revealed issues in our food and agricultural systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown our high level of vulnerability to industrialized agricultural and food systems. Supply chains got broken, healthy and nutritious food became inaccessible, and those who are on the front lines of food production were forced to take on enormous risk. Alternatively, ecologically sound and socially just agrifood systems, which rely on local food production at small and medium-scale production, have emerged as a more stable and sustainable alternative that can withstand multiple crises globally. The transformation of the ALC, which started as a research group, will create an opportunity to address many of these issues through agroecological frameworks, deepening the capacity and learning of agroecology and food systems scholars, and students and community partners at UVM and beyond.

BLOG: Exploring the newly launched Vermont Agrarian Commons at Bread and Butter Farm

By: Nell Carpenter and Martha Caswell, with input from Megan Browning, Vermont Agrarian Commons

In the spring of 2020, Bread and Butter Farm, a farm partner of the ALC, became the founding farm of the Vermont Agrarian Commons, one of a collection of ten Agrarian Commons nationwide. The Agrarian Commons is a model for land access that challenges notions of land ownership established in the U.S. by European colonizers, and seeks to redefine land access for farmers, with particular attention toward the next generation of farmers. By reconsidering relationships to land, this movement provides new options in reaction to the U.S. Agricultural Crisis, and its many ecological, sociocultural, and economic impacts. Though there is a global movement toward agricultural commons as a viable, and desirable model – there are context-specific details that are particular to each locale. 

Below, we will dig deeper into the Bread and Butter example to better understand how this works, but to start let’s set the stage for its relevance. The Agrarian Commons is a model inspired by centuries of thought, practice, and community. This model recognizes that the current model of land ownership over the land currently known as the U.S. was a foothold in colonizing the land, dictated by capitalist and white supremacist frameworks of leadership and governance. The Agrarian Commons model envisions a return to a relationship with the land that more closely resembles the reciprocal, stewardship of land that has been practiced through intergenerational management by BIPOC and peasant communities around the world.  Read more about who and what has inspired the Agrarian Commons here, and hear current stakeholder perspectives here

As we know, land is a limited and expensive resource, which can mean that farmers who are able to access land are perpetually working to lessen their debt, but aren’t ever able to escape that burden. This can result in farmers spending the majority of their careers engaging in unsustainable agricultural practices to chip away at mortgage debt that only gets passed to the next farmers of that land. Many tools and structures such as conservation easements exist to help lessen these costs, however, land access for those who want it remains a primary challenge, especially for BIPOC community members who have been excluded by long histories of racist and exclusionary policies. 

Graphic from:

The commons is a strategy for increasing access to land and freeing up financial resources for regenerative agricultural practices by making land available at a lower price and providing a structure for land to be held in community, rather than individually owned. This lower price is possible because the land is acquired  by a nonprofit legal entity (501c2) – in this case the Vermont Agrarian Commons – through fundraising or land donation. The Commons then provides a 99 year ground lease of the  land to a farm business – in this case Bread and Butter Farm. The Agrarian Commons are governed locally by a board composed on ⅓ leaseholding farmers, ⅓ community stakeholders, and ⅓ Agrarian Trust staff, and exist in partnership with Agrarian Trust (501c3). The Agrarian Commons model and lease structure is governed by bylaws, such that each farm business operating in the commons adheres to a level of social and ecological sustainability in their operations with a focus on agriculture in community. The land in the commons is, thus, decommodified, out of the real-estate market, and considered a member of the commons alongside the business(es) it hosts.  While Bread and Butter is the founding farm for the Vermont Agrarian Commons, there will be opportunities for the Commons to grow with additional land and farms over time. Other Agrarian Commons exist around the country, in various states from California to Virginia. Explore them all here.

Beyond breaking the cycle of unsustainable land ownership and inequitable access and tenure to land, the Agrarian Commons can be a step towards food sovereignty, particularly for BIPOC and immigrant communities. In Central Maine, the Little Jubba Central Maine Agrarian Commons was just established in association with the Somali Bantu Community Association (SBCA). This land will expand their existing Liberation Farms land for SBCA farmers, an important foothold of food access and cultural vibrancy for the Somali Bantu Community. The Little Jubba Agrarian Commons and others will be able to ensure that the land remains in their possession for at least the next 99 years. In tracing the current and historic stealing of land, genocide, and racist land policy, this is a significant step in creating opportunities for BIPOC farmers and communities to reclaim land. And, in the event that an Agrarian Commons entity dissolves, the “bylaws ensure that all assets will transfer to Indigenous communities and communities of color as one small way to move against the perpetuation of white-led nonprofit ownership of land” ( 

In late October, the ALC welcomed Megan Browning from the Agrarian Trust/VT Agrarian Commons for a discussion about the commons with our Community of Practice. In just a little over an hour, we learned about the overarching vision and then dug into the legal details. After lots of questions and discussion, it’s clear that this movement is on its way towards very concrete impact in the United States. 

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Megan is working with Corie Pierce and Brandon Bless of Bread and Butter Farm (BBF), as well as additional board members, to establish the Vermont Agrarian Commons through the acquisition of land. BBF is a collaborative working landscape that actively honors its land, animals, community members, soil, plants and history. The original parcel of land farmed by  BBF was around 140 acres of extremely depleted land. In 2018, BBF entered into a three year lease for eventual ownership of 375 acres of land that would have otherwise sold to developers. The negotiation involved significant contributions by the Vermont Land Trust, town of South Burlington, town of Shelburne, and Dirt Capital Partners, as well as the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Currently, BBF  manages over 600 acres of land through ownership and lease, which is the land to become the Agrarian Commons with the support of the partners named above,  local community members and, Agrarian Trust. 

Corie wrote a piece about this experience that you can read here, but here’s a preview to help you understand what this means to Corie and others at BBF.

“We absolutely love this model because it does so many things!!

  1. Most importantly, it helps to guarantee a high standard of managing land forever by excellent farmers. 
  2. It means that this land WILL be farmed forever! It can never be a gentleman farm that is just mowed each year and owned by an individual who chooses to work elsewhere and not farm but have the luxury of their own 500 acres for themselves.
  3. Bread & Butter Farm is relieved of our mortgages and allows us to make investments in the farm business for the future for the people who work here and for the needed infrastructure.
  4. We commit this land to a commons model where there will be 17 miles of beautiful trails that weave through the 500 acres for the community to enjoy (think Shelburne Farm walking trails in the southeast quadrant of South Burlington!), and…
  5. This will become a model for future farms in Vermont and for the country, which is EXACTLY what we need!!  More viable models so that more amazing land steward/farmers are incentivized to farm and are ABLE to farm so that we can provide nourishing food for our community and simultaneously building soil and health of the land. And many more amazing reasons.”

Read more about the Vermont Agrarian Commons here, and follow along by following @agrariantrust and @breadandbutterfarm on social media, as well as joining the Agrarian Trust newsletter list here.

NEWS: ALC team contributes to important paper discussing ‘The evolving landscape of agroecological research’

NEWS: ALC team contributes to important paper discussing ‘The evolving landscape of agroecological research’

A paper recently accepted in the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems charts the evolving landscape of agroecological research using innovative bibliometric and network analysis. Led by Dr. Rachel Mason, a PSS alum who now works at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, the article analyzed the evolution of themes in agroecology research between 1982 and 2018. The author team, which included ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez, ALC research associates Gabriela Bucini and Scott Merrill, and ALC doctoral candidates Alissa White and Janica Anderzén, examined the evolution of agroecological research using research papers from the Web of Science. This manuscript is an important contribution about the evolution and growth of the field of agroecology as shown by trends in scientific publications. Moreover, the content of the scientific papers signals that agroecological science has been increasingly engaging with social movements and taking a wider food systems perspective.

The figures below summarize and characterize agroecology in academic research over time, demonstrating an increase in work focusing on food sovereignty, food justice and social movements (you can click on each figure to enlarge). The paper uses citation-based networks to identify discrete areas of research within agroecology, and shows that many of those areas build on knowledge from social science disciplines. We share the abstract and link to the article after the figures.


It has been widely argued that agroecological science, which originally developed as the application of ecological principles to agricultural systems, should engage with the social and political issues that affect production agriculture, and incorporate knowledge from a variety of sources.  In this paper we use techniques from network science and bibliometrics to evaluate the degree to which this transformation has taken place. By creating networks based on over 3,000 agroecology papers and the roughly 160,000 references they cite, we distinguish the sub-fields (“research fronts”) that made up agroecology in three time intervals: 1982 – 2004, 2005 – 2013, and 2014 – 2018. We also identify the main disciplines from which the research fronts in 2014 – 2018 drew their supporting knowledge. We suggest that, very broadly, themes in agroecological research include: Ecosystem services; (agro)biodiversity; approaches to agricultural intensification; tropical agroecosystems (particularly coffee); pest and weed management; organic agriculture; cropping systems; system transitions, modeling and design; climate change adaptation; food sovereignty; education; and the nature and purpose of agroecology itself. Some research fronts mainly cite papers in natural science fields such as ecology, environmental science, agriculture, and entomology. However, others draw upon work in social science areas including development studies, environmental studies, and anthropology. The analysis presented in this paper demonstrates that agroecology has indeed evolved to possess many of the characteristics of an “ecology of [the entire] food system”. We anticipate that this work will also be of use to those wishing to gain an overview of the field or identify key papers, knowledge gaps and potential collaborations.

Citation: Mason R., White A., Bucini G., Anderzén J., V.E. Méndez., Merrill S.C. (2021) The evolving landscape of agroecological research. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 45: in press.


NEWS: Highlighting ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez on multiple panels

NEWS: Highlighting ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez on multiple panels

ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez has participated on three virtual events in the past month, one based out of the University of Vermont as well as two hosted by other institutions. See below for ways to access recorded versions. We are grateful for the opportunity to join in on important conversations, about food systems, agroecology and climate change, which are being held during such a critical time.

The evolution of agroecology as a practice, a research discipline, and a social movement – The UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Quarterly Lecture Series

On October 7, Ernesto Méndez joined five experts in agroecology in giving ‘lightning talks’ on their interpretation of the evolution of agroecology as a practice, research discipline, and social movement. Recording coming here soon.

An evening with Jonathan Safran FoerWe are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast – UVM Continuing and Distance Education, George D. Aiken Lecture Series 

On October 8, Ernesto Méndez interviewed author Jonathan Safran Foer about his book, We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, and work surrounding climate change. The event was heavily attended.

Dismantling and Rebuilding the Food System after COVID-19: The 5Ds – The University of British Columbia Centre for Sustainable Food Systems

On September 18, Méndez joined four other experts in the field to discuss redistributive policy tools towards the “5D of Redistribution”: Decolonization, Decarbonization, Diversification, Democratization, and Decommodification. Watch the recording here.

BLOG: In the vibrancy of the 16th annual meeting of the Andes Community of Practice / En la vivacidad de la 16ª reunión anual de la Comunidad de Práctica de los Andes

BLOG: In the Vibrancy of the 16th Annual Meeting of the Andes Community of Practice / En la Vivacidad de la 16ª Reunión Anual de la Comunidad de Práctica de los Andes

By/Por: Gabriela Bucini, Ernesto Méndez, Nils McCune and Amaya Carrasco (Agroecology Support Team/Equipo de Apoyo en Agroecología)

When we imagine the Andes, we see majestic peaks and a vibrant texture of landscapes and cultures. Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru are the three countries where the projects of the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP), funded by the McKnight Foundation, work together as a community of practice (CoP). The CoP is formed by local NGOs, research centers and other associations, which directly work with smallholder farmers. Central to the activities of the Andes CoP is to support producers who wish to orient their farms towards agroecology, conserving soil health, enhancing agricultural biodiversity and integrating different knowledge systems, including indigenous knowledge and western scientific methods. 

Participants of the CdP 15, July 2019, Ecuador.

Every year, in an invigorating atmosphere of friendship and collaboration, the Andes CoP gathers in one of the three countries to exchange insights and discuss new and lifelong questions that kindle the research of the CoP across farms and communities. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 16th conference of Andes CoP took place online. Yasmin Jalil and Sergio Larrea aptly organized the online system, supported by the CoP organising committee and the regional team composed by Claire Nicklin, Roberto Ugas and Carlos Barahona. Yasmin and Sergio facilitated the conference, and the animated and keen group, was able to instill life to two weeks of high-quality content. This included seminars, thematic groups, open spaces for discussion and planning, presentations of advances in GIS mapping, as well as a new session dedicated to agroecology fellows. 

Agroecology is at the core of the CCRP program’s commitment to support an ecologically sound and socially just transition of the Andean food system. The CCRP’s interest is particularly directed to collaborative agroecological research and knowledge-sharing, aimed at strengthening the capacities of farmer groups, research institutions and development organizations. The Agroecology Support Team (AES) includes Ernesto Méndez, Gabriela Bucini and Nils McCune, of the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), at the University of Vermont (UVM). AES seeks to deepen the agroecological knowledge of the program participants and assists in research and co-learning that supports a transition towards agroecological systems. 

Ernesto, Nils and Gabriela participated at the Andes CoP16 and facilitated a dialogue around agroecological transitions. The two sessions entitled “Reflexión sobre Agroecología en Los Andes” (Reflection on the agroecology in the Andes) provided fertile ground to collectively reflect on the current state and visions for the future of agroecology in the region. The AES team proposed questions for nine working groups aimed at bringing collective awareness around the values and principles that guide their work with Andean producers, and which are vital to create strength and cohesion in the agroecological journeys of the local communities.  

Agroecological Visions for the Andean regions

What does it mean to be in an agroecological transition? Where are we starting and where do we wish to go? What principles guide us in the journey?  The work of answering these questions and envisioning actions to start or to continue the agroecological transition were grounded in the CoP wisdom and experience. To catalyze the dialogue, Ernesto gave a presentation on agroecological principles and showed concrete examples of principles-based transitions in two farming systems of Vermont, U.S.A, where the ALC is located.  His presentation encouraged the participants to note that agroecological principles have the depth to support real change and the width to reach different contexts and cultures in the world. These principles can hold meanings that overlap with indigenous principles, such as those of the Andean cosmovision, and can therefore be held together.

The visions for the regions of the Bolivia central plateau, the central zone of Peru and the central zone of Ecuador were shared in a plenary session. The themes spanned across the three dimensions of agroecology – science, practice and movement – with strong emphasis on the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions. Technical skills are important but need to be built within a participatory and sincere exchange of knowledge between indigenous farmers and technicians. The CoP visions wish to enhance the inclusion and legitimization of indigenous knowledge in the farming practices and in the schools, in order to strengthen the presence of local farmer organizations in the governance, to continue to work on women’s empowerment, equity and food sovereignty. Markets for agroecological and autonomous products and conscious consumers supported by short market chains are important for the future of farming in the regions. The visions call for responsible policies that account for the interests of local farmers, instead of supporting capitalistic and extractive farming and mining practices.

Agroecological components, such as agricultural biodiversity, seed conservation, ecological pest management, water conservation/management, soil health, risk management for climate change, and healthy nutrition are all part of the visions for agroecology in the Andes. The challenges of COVID-19 add a need for the health of the people with whom we interact. “Agroecology is a concept in construction at the scale of the individual, the family, the community and the territory”, said one participant. Another participant noted that “agroecology is a trajectory that is made on the base of principles but also on the base of the analysis of opportunities and threats in the current conjuncture.” When we look at the principles that will orient the journeys of the CoP, we find them in the integration of different knowledge systems and in particular the Andean cosmovision, which recognizes the connection of natural and human systems. The CoP emphasizes participatory and horizontal learning approaches based on trust, solidarity, respect, humility, cooperation, equity and inclusion at all levels. The collective action and complementarity of efforts that leverage the capacities and values of people can lead to a transformation not only of single individuals but also of families, farms, communities and ultimately, of food systems. Sovereignty is essential, the CoP recognizes, in the three dimensions: in the resources, the food and the individual choices. 

Opening ‘mistica’, with a focus on Andean cosmovision, for the CoP 15, in Ecuador, in 2019.

What is missing for agroecology to be strong in these territories?  Technical skills are necessary to improve research quality, but they need to also be supported by an agroecological approach that influences political economies, and more explicitly, national, regional and local policy.  The principles of participation, co-learning and humility transform research by creating relationships of trust that empower all participants to work for change. A key challenge identified was the connection with consumers, both in rural and urban contexts. For a new agriculture based on indigenous and agroecological principles to thrive, it is necessary to educate and direct consumers towards healthy diets and a preference for traditional/local food ingredients. Influenced by consumers, markets can then also more directly support agroecological food systems. Another challenge is keeping local knowledge alive by integrating scientific and technical knowledge with indigenous knowledge, viewing them both on an equal basis. This process can start in schools where the new generations can be encouraged to apply local knowledge. Technology poses a more general challenge, according to some people in the CoP, which poses questions on who brings the technologies and how to make sure that it is appropriate for the local environment and culture.

Music and socializing in the CoP 16

Noches de cultura and a closing of a beautiful story

On Friday night, it was time to take out the musical instruments and warm up the voice. All are welcome to share their talents …both modest efforts, as well as the more experienced! The CoP Andes has wonderful musicians! The charango and the guitarra accompanied voices and brought many smiles through computer screens. Music and song bring people together in a special way and makes us feel close.

 We close with a personal story illustrating the relationships that support the co-creation of agroecological knowledge, shared by Juan Torres from the project “Semillas y Escuelas” (“Seeds and Schools”).  He often visits producers of his project and works with them in the fields.  He shares his knowledge and learns from them. During a visit, he asked a producer what he wished. The producer said: “You always come to the field and get to know our environment and how we work. I’d like to come to where you work once and see how you learn and you work”. This led to an arrangement for the producer to go visit the campus of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina in Lima, Peru. The producer enjoyed visiting the big library and the building where Juan works. A simple visit opened a new vision of science and generated more equity in the relationship. This story reminds us that an individual’s professional positionality and experience can become a place of learning and discovery for others, if we are open to listen and share. Equal interest in the technician/academic and the producer to share their knowledge can open new horizons and strengthen relationships for expanded learning.


En la Vivacidad de la 16ª Reunión Anual de la Comunidad de Práctica de los Andes

Cuando imaginamos los Andes, vemos majestuosas montañas y una textura vibrante de paisajes y culturas. Bolivia, Ecuador y Perú son los tres países en los cuales los proyectos del Programa Colaborativeo para la Investigación en Cultivos (CCRP, por sus siglas en Inglés), financiado por la Fundación McKnight, trabajan juntos como una Comunidad de Práctica (CdP). La CdP está formada por ONG locales, centros de investigación y otras asociaciones, que trabajan directamente con los pequeños agricultores. Un aspecto central de las actividades de la CdP de los Andes, es el apoyo a los productores que desean orientar sus granjas hacia la agroecología, conservando la salud del suelo, mejorando la biodiversidad agrícola y la integración de los diferentes sistemas de conocimiento, incluyendo conocimientos indígenas y los métodos científicos occidentales. 

Participantes de la CdP 15, Julio 2019, en Ecuador

Cada año, en una atmósfera vigorizante de amistad y colaboración, la CdP de los Andes se reúne en uno de los tres países para intercambiar ideas y discutir nuevas ideas y cuestiones que persisten, y las cuales catalizan la investigación de la CdP en las granjas y comunidades. Este año, debido a la pandemia de COVID-19, la 16ª conferencia de la CdP de los Andes ocurrió en línea. Yasmin Jalil y Sergio Larrea, organizaron acertadamente el sistema en línea, con el apoyo del comité organizador de la CdP y el equipo regional compuesto por Claire Nicklin, Roberto Ugas y Carlos Barahona. Yasmin y Sergio facilitaron la conferencia, y el animado y entusiasta grupo, pudo dar vida a dos semanas de seminarios de alta calidad, grupos temáticos, espacios abiertos para el debate y la planificación, presentaciones de los avances en la cartografía con SIG, así como una nueva sesión dedicada a los becarios de agroecología. 

La agroecología es la base del compromiso del programa de la CCRP de apoyar una transición en el sistema alimentario andino, de manera ecológica y socialmente justa. El interés de la CCPR está dirigido en particular a la investigación agroecológica en colaboración y al intercambio de conocimientos, con el fin de fortalecer la capacidad de los grupos de agricultores,y a las instituciones de investigación y organizaciones de desarrollo. El Equipo de Apoyo en Agroecología (AES, por sus siglas en Inglés), integrado por Ernesto Méndez, Gabriela Bucini y Nils McCune, del Colaborativo y Medios de Vida (ALC, por sus siglas en Inglés), de la Universidad de Vermont (UVM), busca profundizar los conocimientos agroecológicos de los participantes en el programa y prestar asistencia en la investigación y el aprendizaje conjunto que apoye a la transición hacia sistemas agroecológicos. 

Ernesto, Nils y Gabriela participaron en la CdP16 de los Andes y facilitaron un diálogo en torno a las transiciones y transformaciones agroecológicas. Las dos sesiones tituladas “Reflexión sobre Agroecología en Los Andes” proporcionaron un terreno fértil para reflexionar colectivamente sobre el estado actual y las visiones para el futuro de la agroecología en la región. El equipo AES propuso preguntas para nueve grupos de trabajo con el fin de crear una conciencia colectiva en torno a los valores y principios que guían su trabajo con los productores andinos, y que son vitales para crear fuerza y cohesión en los recorridos agroecológicos de las comunidades locales.  

Visiones agroecológicas para las regiones andinas

¿Qué significa estar en una transición agroecológica? ¿Dónde estamos empezando y a dónde queremos ir? ¿Qué principios nos guían en el viaje?  La labor de responder a estas preguntas y prever medidas para iniciar o continuar la transición agroecológica se basó en la sabiduría y la experiencia de la CdP. Para catalizar el diálogo, Ernesto hizo una presentación sobre los principios agroecológicos y mostró ejemplos concretos de transiciones basadas en principios en dos sistemas agrícolas de Vermont, Estados Unidos, donde se ubica el ALC.  Su exposición alentó a los participantes a observar que los principios agroecológicos tienen la profundidad necesaria para apoyar un cambio real y la amplitud necesaria para llegar a diferentes contextos y culturas del mundo. Estos principios pueden tener significados que se alinean con los principios indígenas, como los de la cosmovisión andina, y por lo tanto pueden mantenerse unidos.

Las visiones para las regiones del altiplano central de Bolivia, la zona central del Perú y la zona central del Ecuador se compartieron en una sesión plenaria. Los temas abarcaron las tres dimensiones de la agroecología -ciencia, práctica y movimiento- con un fuerte énfasis en las dimensiones sociales, culturales, políticas y económicas. Los conocimientos técnicos son importantes, pero es necesario crearlos en el marco de un intercambio participativo y sincero de conocimientos entre los agricultores y técnicos indígenas. Las visiones de la CdP desean mejorar la inclusión y la legitimación de los conocimientos indígenas en las prácticas agrícolas y en las escuelas, fortalecer la presencia de las organizaciones locales de agricultores en la gobernanza y seguir trabajando en el empoderamiento de la mujer, la equidad y la soberanía alimentaria. Los mercados de productos agroecológicos y autónomos y los consumidores conscientes apoyados por cadenas de mercado cortas son importantes para el futuro de la agricultura en las regiones. Las visiones exigen políticas responsables que tengan en cuenta los intereses de los agricultores locales, en lugar de apoyar las prácticas agrícolas y mineras capitalistas y extractivas.

Nube de palabras con los principios más buscados realizados en los Andes

Los componentes agroecológicos, tales como la biodiversidad agrícola, la conservación de semillas, el manejo ecológico de plagas, la conservación/gestión del agua, la salud del suelo, la gestión de los riesgos del cambio climático y la nutrición saludable forman parte de las visiones de la agroecología en los Andes. Los desafíos de COVID-19 añaden una necesidad de cara a la salud de las personas con las que interactuamos. “La agroecología es un concepto en construcción a escala del individuo, la familia, la comunidad y el territorio”, dijo un participante. Otro participante señaló que “la agroecología es una trayectoria que se realiza sobre la base de principios, pero también sobre la base del análisis de oportunidades y amenazas en la coyuntura actual”. Cuando miramos los principios que orientarán los recorridos de la CdP, los encontramos en la integración de diferentes sistemas de conocimiento y en particular la cosmovisión andina, la cual reconoce la conexión de los sistemas naturales y humanos. La CdP hace hincapié en los enfoques de aprendizaje participativos y horizontales basados en la confianza, la solidaridad, el respeto, la humildad, la cooperación, la equidad y la inclusión en todos los niveles. La acción colectiva y la complementariedad de los esfuerzos que aprovechan las capacidades y los valores de las personas pueden conducir a una transformación, no sólo de las personas individuales, sino también de las familias, las granjas, las comunidades y, en última instancia, de los sistemas alimentarios. La soberanía es esencial, según la CdP, en tres dimensiones: en los recursos, en los alimentos y en las opciones individuales.

‘Mística’ de apertura con un enfoque en la cosmovisión andina, para la CoP 15, en Ecuador, en 2019.

¿Qué falta para que la agroecología sea fuerte en estos territorios?  Los conocimientos técnicos son necesarios para mejorar la calidad de la investigación, pero también deben estar respaldados por un enfoque agroecológico que influya en las economías políticas y, más explícitamente, en la política nacional, regional y local. Los principios de participación, co-aprendizaje y humildad transforman la investigación al crear relaciones de confianza que facultan a todos los participantes para trabajar en pro del cambio. Un desafío clave identificado fue la conexión con los consumidores, tanto en contextos rurales como urbanos. Para que prospere una nueva agricultura basada en principios indígenas y agroecológicos, es necesario educar y orientar a los consumidores hacia dietas saludables y una preferencia por los ingredientes alimentarios tradicionales/locales. Influenciados por los consumidores, los mercados también pueden apoyar más directamente los sistemas alimentarios agroecológicos. Otro desafío es mantener vivos los conocimientos locales mediante la integración de los conocimientos científicos y técnicos con los conocimientos autóctonos, considerando a ambos en pie de igualdad. Este proceso puede comenzar en las escuelas, donde se puede alentar a las nuevas generaciones a aplicar los conocimientos locales. La tecnología plantea un desafío más general, según algunas personas de la CdP, que plantea cuestiones sobre quién aporta las tecnologías y cómo asegurarse de que son apropiadas para el medio ambiente y las culturas locales.

Música y socialización en la CdP 16

Noches de cultura y una hermosa historia final

El viernes por la noche, era el momento de sacar los instrumentos musicales y calentar la voz. Todos son bienvenidos y bienvenidas a compartir sus talentos… ¡Los principiantes y los más experimentados! ¡La CoP Andes tiene músicos maravillosos! El charango y la guitarra acompañaron a las voces y trajeron muchas sonrisas a través de las pantallas de las computadoras. La música y el canto unen a la gente de una manera especial y nos hace sentir cercanos.

 Cerramos con una historia personal que ilustra las relaciones que apoyan la co-creación del conocimiento agroecológico, compartida por Juan Torres del proyecto “Semillas y Escuelas”.  Él visita a menudo a los productores y trabaja con ellos en los campos.  Comparte sus conocimientos y aprende de ellos. Durante una visita, preguntó a un productor qué deseaba. El productor dijo: “Siempre vienes al campo y conoces nuestro entorno y cómo trabajamos. Me gustaría venir a donde trabajas una vez y ver cómo aprendes y trabajas”. Así que arreglaron que el productor fuera a visitar el campus de la Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina en Lima, Perú. El productor disfrutó visitando la gran biblioteca y el edificio donde trabaja Juan. Una simple visita abrió una nueva visión de la ciencia y generó más equidad en la relación. Esta historia nos recuerda que la posición profesional y la experiencia de un individuo puede convertirse en un lugar de aprendizaje y descubrimiento para otros, si estamos abiertos a escuchar y compartir. El mismo interés en que el técnico/académico y el productor compartan sus conocimientos puede abrir nuevos horizontes y fortalecer las relaciones para un aprendizaje más amplio.

BLOG: Querencia y Comida: Nuevomexicanx Tradition as a Model for Food Resilience

Querencia y Comida: Nuevomexicanx Tradition as a Model for Food Resilience

By Camilla Bustamante

Camilla was a participant in this years Introduction to Agroecology course (PSS 311), part of our Certificate of Graduate Study in Agroecology (CGSA), and wrote this piece as an ALC guest author.

Querencia as “love of home, love of place” is described by American author and founding father of Nuevomexicano Chicano literature, Rudolfo Anaya, in his foreword to Querencia: Reflections on a New Mexico Homeland (University of New Mexico Press).  And it is this querencia for northern New Mexico- El Norte- that is inextricably tied to the land and how the practices of cultivation have defined both place and people.  This querencia extends to the wisdom of Native and colonist antepasados whose Indo-Hispano heritage is rooted in La Madre Tierra, from the headwaters that serve the oldest acequia systems in the United States, to the adobe walls that envelop familia, to the parciantes on these acequias who collaborate to share water to grow for the needs of the community.  It is these food traditions that have assured food security in northern New Mexico for centuries.  Continued colonization and development of irrigable land move away from these practices and threaten the livelihood of these agroecological systems. 

Historic acequia waters channeled to farmland (Photo credit: Camilla Bustamante)

“…from centuries past to present, the wisdom of the ancestors alive, and I listening.”- R. Anaya

The villages of northern New Mexico (El Norte) are home to the descendants of prehistoric Native Pueblo and Spanish colonist peoples who established communities along the headwaters and streams flowing into the Rio Grande in an otherwise arid land.  Access to these waters, joined with indigenous wisdom and colonist understanding created that which is sacred and has fostered ceremony, community and familia.  Seasonal and companion planting, such as the Three Sisters being squash, corn, and climbing beans; the use of the alkaline in soil to preserve dried maiz concho (corn) so it would be available in the winter for posolé and frijole con chico, that would be part of many family meals. Still today, though threatened by the affliction of greed, the food systems in El Norte cultivate an earnest respeto y permiso (with respect and permission) for the land and people.  

In a conversation with old-timers in northern New Mexico a rancher who was 86 in 2005 told me that the land degradation didn’t start “until the fences came in with the Forest Service.” He reflected on the days when livestock were rotated to new locations each season to keep the underbrush and risk for overgrazing down. He noted that the rotation of livestock was in its own way, fire management.  It was also the rotation of vegetation crops that maintained the quality of the otherwise sandy loam soil. Communities planned their crops and exchanged their harvests that supported a more balanced diet. Once I was referred to derogatorily by an employer as a beaner, referencing my Chicana heritage. It was shortly after that when the Food and Drug Administration revised the Food Pyramid, placing legumes at the top. Proudly I can note that the people of El Norte, and many other indigenous communities, have known what is healthy for them.

Community, by nature, is self-defined, fluid in the outcome of shared values with each generation contributing to its ongoing identity.  The communities of El Norte have long been formed by those who share a mutual respect for the relationship between water and land, sharing in the identity of El Norte.  It is here in El Norte, where nature is a sacred member of the community, where seeds are family, and where days for planting and harvest are aligned with those of patron saints and phases of the moon.  The food traditions of El Norte were born from the wisdo

m of the ancestors establishing an unwrote discipline that has been practiced for centuries.  Greed, contemporary and historic, has often challenged the balance of life in this area.  It has been in revisiting the folkore of our ancestors, and alignment with natures systems, where we have often found solutions to our modern-day conflicts.  

“…we learned a deep, enduring love for the sacredness of the earth, for the unity of life, a harmony that brings peace and happiness. Querencia means vecinos.” -R. Anaya

Acequia with pool (Photo credit: Camilla Bustamante)

Nature as a sacred community member is ever evolving and adapting to the influences of its vecinos.  From the headwaters that are driven to nourish the fields, orchards and livestock, agua es vida – life wants to live.  Nature’s course is to nourish, and traditional farming methods were seemingly aware of this fact.  It is in El Norte where querencia is born of indigenous knowing and cultivated in a manner that cannot be disputed, and are supported by science.  It is in these local practices where a sense of place and identity are formed and shared with our vecinos.  When we are in disharmony, nature will seek to create balance.  To live as a parciante on an acequia means to abide by a system that seeks to assure that all vecinos are served equally.  When we contest natural laws, nature will hold its course and time will reveal the victor.  When discord disrupts balance, our sense of unity and harmony is compromised.  The lessons of our ancestors teach us to work with and respect natural systems and hold natural laws as sacred. 

It has been said that the remains of ancestors that billow when the wind picks up the land.  It is this land where seeds are planted and provide nourishment as they have for the ancestors and will for future generations.  For farmers whose use of the land has become tradition, and the tradition is to produce food, the connection becomes integral to identity – if “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” then there is profound meaning in connection to the land.  In El Norte there are communities whose identities are based on the connections to the land and the ancestors who billow in the seasonal winds.  It is not uncommon that seeds are identified by a family name and referenced by the grandmother who acquired it for a family or community.

As the local communities have transitioned from the barter to the cash economy, the local food system has become a complex dynamic of access, economics, tradition, and identity.

Our sense of place, with unique geographic elements, customs, practices and people, conforms only to the natural environment that surrounds it.  In historic communities with pre-historic roots, such as in El Norte, the foods are unique to place.  Some foods have been derived from indigenous tradition and others have been adapted from European influence to accommodate ingredients available to the area.  It is here where the influences of the natural environment on food culture contribute to both personal and community identity.  Shared experience contributes to community identity, and sense of place contributes to how we see ourselves in our community.  External influences on the traditional people of El Norte have only in the last century had a profound influence on the economics and perception of wealth, as well as the desire for convenience.  Labor on the land is less desirable when comfort and convenience can be purchased. Community food traditions are threatened by imported food commodities and systems and the threat to community health prevails.  As our traditional community food systems are challenged, so is identity.  Knowledge of oneself and sense of community is necessary for mental and spiritual health, and when nature is part of our community, our physical health is a benefactor.  The messages of our ancestors remain constant and the traditions contribute to the livelihood of the lands and its peoples. 

To learn more about the New Mexico Acequia Association  Donate

NEWS: ALC member featured in Seven Days article on VT mutual aid

ALC member featured in Seven Days article on VT mutual aid

From left: Austin Kahn, Sam Bliss and Emma Schoenberg of Food Not Bombs – JAMES BUCK

ALC graduate student, Sam Bliss, has been working tirelessly with Food Not Bombs for years. Their work, and that of many other VT organizations, are featured in this Seven Days article, highlighting their efforts since the onset of the COVID pandemic.

Member interview: Nils McCune on Puerto Rican coffee farmers, pandemic response and resilience, community building, and beyond

Member interview: Nils McCune on peasant balances, Hurricane Maria, the power of popular movement building and beyond

Nils McCune, a research fellow at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Mexico, is the newest member of the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative. To welcome him to our community of practice, ALC graduate student Sam Bliss interviews him here about an article he got published a year ago in the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. 

This research is about Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ responses to the crisis triggered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. It continues a recent theme on the ALC blog: in February, Sam interviewed ALC grad student Tatiana Gladikh about her research on Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ participation in government conservation programs; and in March, ALC grad student Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz wrote about how the Covid-19 pandemic impacts food sovereignty in Puerto Rico. Both argued that current policy stands in the way of making the island’s agri-food food systems more just, ecological, and resilient. In what follows, Nils talks about how Puerto Rican peasant farmers are already coming together to construct sovereign food systems, from the understanding that people must build power collectively to make change for the better because those in positions of power will not.

Sam Bliss: The article you published last year was titled, “Peasant balances and agroecological scaling in Puerto Rican coffee farming.” What are peasant balances?

Nils McCune: Every day we make decisions about how to use our time and energy. These decisions involve combining different kinds of values, as well as considerations of the present and the future. A good example is the way the quarantine is hitting those people who are able to work from home, in the presence of their family or in their community, and who must balance an economy of care with a needed level of income. How important is it that I play with a child instead of letting him look at a screen all day? Can I balance that needed playtime with getting my salaried work done? Are there certain key tasks that, once completed, let me then switch the use of my time and energy and just focus on taking care of my family or my community? These are ways that all people make sense of the different systems of values that make up our social and cultural reality. We learn to strike many invisible balances, and we sometimes drop the balance for periods of time, in order to focus on one particular need– like writing a thesis–, but eventually we must find the balance again, before our hair falls out and we go mad.

In the early years of the Soviet Revolution, there was an enormous debate about how to end poverty and hunger in Russia. Socialism was supposedly based on an industrial model, but Russia was a country of poor peasants and rich landlords. So the question was how to carry out a land reform that could guarantee food production, but also develop a social consciousness, a revolutionary sense of social responsibility. At the time — like today — many thought that peasants represented inefficiency, backwardness, poverty, and ignorance. However, a prominent agricultural economist, Alexander Chayanov, noticed that peasants were in fact operating a sophisticated system of labor-based, non-market economies. Today we might call them circular, sustainable economies. A peasant family worked extremely hard until it had guaranteed that everyone would have enough to eat, and then it stopped working and began holding cultural activities, harvest festivals, or simply resting. Chayanov called this the consumer-drudgery balance.

Rather than a capitalist economy, where profit-maximizing is the goal, the peasant economy is built upon balances that ensure health, promote local traditions and provide for future well-being. What makes it all unique is the fact that peasants are able to build this autonomy even while being pushed on all sides by capitalist relations — labor markets, land sales, commercial seeds, fertilizer and pesticide marketing schemes, credit programs, commodity prices, migration, and so on. Peasant balances are the duck-and-weave, the dance of long-term survival on the land, despite living within a predatory economic system. As such, building peasant balances means carving out non-capitalist spaces even while surrounded by a global capitalist system.

SB: Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico right in the middle of your interviews with farmers, organization representatives, and government officials. How did that change your initial research questions and plans?

NM: Well, it immediately introduced serious ethical implications to my work. Absolutely everyone I had met in Puerto Rico was thrown into a very serious disaster situation: damaged houses, roads and farms, tangled electrical wires everywhere, many communities cut off from towns. In Utuado, where our project was based, people were walking for hours in order to drink water from the rivers.

We all know that the roots of the crisis are in the colonial relationship that the United States has with Borikén (colonially known as Puerto Rico). That relationship, plus the deindustrialization of the US and the rules of the global financial system created a fictitious debt crisis, i.e. the people of Puerto Rico “owe” much, much more than they ever borrowed or received. Before the Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, there was already a very complex pseudo bankruptcy taking place that included the installation of a foreign economic council (“la Junta”) with the capacity to override Puerto Rican law in order to cut public services, in line with neoliberal theory that attacking the public sector would be the way for Puerto Rico to pay the Wall Street hedge funds that currently hold its debt. A preposterous arrangement, because the debt is unpayable even if every last public service were cancelled on the island, even if they privatized all schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, water, firefighters, and every other government institution. Plus privatizing services make it more difficult for Puerto Rico to have a functional economy capable of servicing debt payments. And remember that the hedge funds purchased that debt for fractions of a cent on the dollar, so they would be reaping profits of up to 10,000% if somehow the Puerto Rican people did pay the full official amount of the debt. 

So before the terrifying destructive power of Maria, there was already an extreme case of disaster capitalism, with debt vultures circling over the heads of the Puerto Rican people. There was already an ethical situation of how I, with a salary coming from the United States, could responsibly carry out a research project in a situation where such a huge economic crime is taking place. With the scale of the catastrophe created by Maria, I had a very difficult time figuring out how to ethically participate in the research project. There was an academic rush on Puerto Rico in that context– disasters make for good science — and I felt very torn about taking data from farmers who were facing enormous material losses, depression issues, and sometimes personal tragedy. I tried to be congruent with my values, spending time with farmers, bringing them tiny solar-powered lamps (which would appear for a couple days at a time in local stores), and checking in constantly with Organización Boricuá, the Via Campesina member organization, to hear their perspective on the local situation and my work. In the end, everything I have published on Puerto Rico has been with the co-authorship of Boricuá members. 

I also worked with Organización Boricuá on a month-long reconstruction brigade, which was a phenomenal experience. In a group of 20 to 30 people from several countries, popular organizations and cultural traditions — but spearheaded by the Black Dirt Farm Collective of African-American small farmers and peasants — we traveled from farm to farm, from Toa Alta to Vieques, spending two to four days in each place, sleeping in tents and doing construction work during the day, along with a lot of political and cultural activities. To me, there is a very interesting dialectic there. We’re dealing with a situation that obviously requires structural change, but rather than wringing our hands on the sidelines, or taking a “neutral”, academic, data extractivist approach, we participated in mutual aid brigades. These work brigades are not self-care; they are physically tough, transformative, collective experiences that dramatically change the situation for farmers. A farmer who has spend two months just looking at their destroyed farm– uprooted trees, broken sheds, twisted greenhouses– and all of a sudden a group of 20 people comes over with a bunch of power tools and celebrates a work party with them: rebuilds the shed, rebuilds the greenhouse, rebuilds the terraces, pulls the weeds, chops the broken trees into firewood, and plants the fields. By the time the brigade leaves, the farmer and the brigade are family. It is magical and possible at the same time; I think that the work brigade model is how we need to move forward with agroecology in every country, making adjustments as we go and respecting the fact that a Boricuá volunteer work brigade on the Isla del Encanto is a tough act to follow.

SB: You and your coauthors write that agroecological brigades traveled the countryside after Hurricane Maria helping what you call “unconventional” farmers repair infrastructure and restore their fields. How did these roaming collective work parties come together?

NM: They came together thanks to the excellent organizing work of several key people. Let me take a step back. Across the world, there is a tradition of people farming together. Enslavement-based plantation agriculture, then modernized agriculture, global free trade, the Green Revolution, consumerism, neoliberal politics, all of it is about breaking with these traditions to pursue an individualist, utilitarian myth of upward mobility, the nuclear family, living through our commodities. The Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica was formed in the late 1980s by independence activists who realized that without food sovereignty, Puerto Rican independence was an illusion. So they went up into the mountains and taught each other to farm. And Boricuá was founded through just this kind of work brigade. The model became important again in the economic crisis that has taken hold since 2014, and then even more so after the hurricanes of 2017. On the day after Hurricane Maria, there were already Boricuá brigades plowing and planting fields of Boricuá member farmers, in preparation for the food crisis that was about to begin. Sit on that for a second.

As the Puerto Rican social movements have continuously improved this model of work brigades– in the cities but especially in the countryside– organizations from many countries have taken notice. So immediately after the hurricanes, several organizations, led by Organización Boricuá, Black Dirt Farm Collective and the Climate Justice Alliance, along with allies such as WhyHunger and others, organized international brigades in addition to the permanent local brigades.  

SB: Why didn’t conventional farmers draw on their communities to rebuild?

NM: There is a labor scarcity in Puerto Rican agriculture, parallel in some ways to how US agriculture has been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. Simply put, farm prices do not allow farmers to pay decent salaries, because cheap, subsidized food floods Puerto Rican supermarkets. So, using a conventional economic farming model, nearly all farmers in Puerto Rico are losing money. It is only when farmers creatively use peasant balances, combining their own labor and know-how with solidarity networks, reducing external inputs and developing a relative autonomy from the market, that farming becomes a viable life activity. Many farmers are figuring this out, but like agriculture around the world, there is a major generation gap that separates elderly farmers from the youthful energy of the agroecological movement. Some young people really understand this problem and are making a strong effort to engage with non-agroecological farmers, basically in order to save Puerto Rican agriculture from the collapse of the conventional model. But Coca-Cola and Monsanto-Bayer are also major players in Puerto Rico; both own and rent a lot of farmland, and control markets, so there are big stakes. The big corporations in Puerto Rico basically play the same role that drug cartels play in Mexico, Colombia and several other countries: they monopolize and militarize when small-scale agriculture gets stuck in market economies where it is meant to lose.

SB: What does the experience of small farmers rebuilding after these recent hurricanes have to teach us about how to respond to and recover from the current crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic? 

NM:  Look, for quite some time now, it has been clear to the world’s decision makers that globalized food systems are totally unsustainable and have high vulnerability built into them. Since at least the food price crisis of 2007-08, governments, corporations, and international bodies such as FAO have known that food sovereignty– the right of people to control and defend their own farming, grazing, fishing and food systems using agroecological principles– is the only responsible way to move away from climate catastrophe and toward resilient food systems. But here is the lesson: the world’s leaders are not going to do anything about it. They will absolutely lead us off the climate cliff, with starvation, war, mass migration, and a lot of fascism to come.

Only the people will solve this. And if we can’t produce our own food, we will not be able to survive the coming storm. What I mean is that right now — not after the November elections, not after they find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, not after the next crisis, not after Rapture — right now, we can build food sovereignty by practicing agroecology and continuously pushing for justice in every walk of society, from the prison-industrial complex to the heroin epidemic to homelessness, from the banking system and the blatant racism of the Republican party to the unwavering imperialist foreign policy of both major parties. If we are not building a robust popular movement that reflects our values, we’re not being responsible to ourselves, much less the planet and those who will inherit what we leave behind. So our day-to-day can reflect that understanding, and a lot of humble efforts to build on one another’s ideas and actions can add up to big change.

SB: So, for peasants, labor isn’t so much a cost to be minimized but a resource for sustaining livelihoods and agroecosystems. What would a food system, or an economy, look like if we all viewed labor that way?

NM: That’s right, peasants do not necessarily subscribe to the Western dualist thought that separates work from everything else we do and turns our labor into a necessary evil in our lives. It is true that work is a part of life and sometimes we have to do things that are difficult. Just hang out with a peasant for a few hours and you will be marveled by what they can do. It’s true what they say: the real genius is in the working class. In the city or the countryside.

If we conceive of our life energy as something that can contribute to building the world we want to see, and we look for people who are doing things we want to support, then work becomes demystified and we find a tremendous amount of meaning in the many difficult things we do. That goes for spending time with elders, taking care of people’s children, planting, harvesting, building, fixing, healing. We call it movement time, movement labor. Not a new concept. There have always been people who dedicate their time to make sure others have the time to contribute to the social struggle. The key is to be part of a coherent whole that corresponds and reciprocates. Hard to find. But worth the journey.

Put down your buzzer, this is not Jeopardy.

Put down your buzzer, this is not Jeopardy.

A blog reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic by ALC Educational Coordinator Vic Izzo

Since the “Stay home, Stay safe” order was initiated here in Vermont, I have had the pleasure of spending each morning (and often evening) exploring the wonders of nature with my two year-old son. Our journeys are often a mixed bag. Some days we head out to a lesser-known hiking trail to learn about trees, while others days you might find us inspecting the entrances of ant nests poking out from the cracks in our driveway. Though these nature observations are fun and educational, my son’s most enjoyable outdoor excursions are our visits to our local community garden plots. Now don’t be presumptuous about my son’s predilection for gardening… While he does enjoy helping his dad turn soil, plant seeds, and water our thirsty seedlings, the real reason he begs for “garden time” is the resident woodchip, soil, and gravel “mountains” that he gets to climb unsupervised. With each successful ascent of these “mountains” he raises his arms in the air and begs for my adoration. These literal small victories are undeniably adorable; but more importantly, they have been a healthy reminder for me to appreciate those things around me…to smell the woodchips. To be honest, I barely noticed the many piles of sorted materials until my budding mountaineer scoped them out. I knew the piles were there but I never really acknowledged them or appreciated their significance. They are generally not on my radar and I’m not a two year old…

Vic Izzo’s son triumphantly atop the woodchip pile by the family’s community garden plot.

I recently had a similar revelatory experience during an intriguing ALC workshop led by a colleague from the Rubenstein School of Natural Resources, Dr. Matt Kolan. Matt is the director of the Leadership for Sustainability Master’s Program (MLS) here at UVM.  His work and teaching uniquely examines leadership and education in a holistic and expansive way. Students in the MSLS program actively engage in discussions and projects that explore how power and privilege shape our educational and leadership experiences. During his lecture, Matt pointed out that the dominant model of higher education is built upon a process that selects for rapid and confident responders and rewards those students with positive descriptors such as “fast learner”, “quick processor”, or “confident speaker”. These designations are, of course, quite familiar to me as they are the backbone of many of my best recommendation letters. Never do I find myself writing that a student is a slow learner, moderate processor, or quiet communicator.

As I sat and listened to Matt’s reimagining of the college classroom, I found myself reliving some of my own undergraduate classroom experiences. Vividly I remembered how I approached each class as a contestant on Jeopardy, eagerly looking to prove my worth. From the moment I sat down in class, I was in a race to respond to any question or comment before my competitors could capture the instructor’s attention. In my mind, the entire lecture process was an opportunity to quicken my intellectual skills. Yet, as Matt and others within the workshop unpacked the pitfalls associated with selecting for rapid responders, I suddenly began to see a giant woodchip pile emerge from the periphery of my perspective. Similar to my son, Matt provided me with a new lens, or more precisely, he expanded my view of the world around me. He didn’t reveal anything necessarily complicated or new.Quite the contrary, he simply pointed out a rather intuitive concept: reactionary behavior is not always a beneficial trait. 

Much the same way that our educational systems select for rapid responding students, our businesses, organizations and governmental agencies tend to seek out leaders that exhibit those same fast thinking and quick responding traits. Never has this tendency or bias been more evident than in the current COVID-19 reality. As the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold of our social, political and economic consciousness, so has the thirst for quick responses and reactionary policies. Daily news headlines and articles are chock full of economic timelines, infection rates, and critical examinations of decision making speed. From an academic perspective, I’ve seen no less than three recent grant requests-for-proposals (RFPs) with the word “rapid” in the title and an appropriately paired “rapid” submission deadline. Now, I acknowledge that crises, especially those of this magnitude, often necessitate quick decisions to avert catastrophe. However, it is important to acknowledge that the speed of a decision is rarely directly correlated with a successful outcome. As many of my fellow educators can attest, the rapid move to online instruction in response to the coronavirus outbreak, though (likely) necessary, may not have achieved the outcomes our organizations expected. Our communities are asking, begging leaders in every facet of society to make decisions, give us answers…now. And yet, when those quick decisions, predictions, and/or responses fail, we become angry, disappointed and (ironically) are often left at the trailhead of a longer road to resolution. 

Witnessing and experiencing the pervasive pressure to make quick decisive decisions in my home and work life has left me depressed, frustrated, and introspective. It has also led me to more deeply consider the revelations brought to light by both my son and colleague:

Perhaps it is time to pause.

Perhaps it is time to slow down some of our decision-making processes.

Perhaps we need to call upon those “slow thinkers” to help us.

Perhaps there is a woodchip pile that we are not seeing that can provide us with a better vantage point.  

Perhaps we should all take some time to think a little more like a two-year old.

Read Matt Kolan and Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees paper on the intersections of sustainability, diversity, privilege and power here.

ALC members attend 1st USFSA Political Education Course

ALC members attend 1st USFSA Political Education Course

By Martha Caswell, in collaboration with Nils McCune, Megan Browning, and Efren Lopez

In the days right before we were asked us to stay home, the US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) held their first national political educational course in Apopka, Florida. We were hosted by the Farmworker Association of Florida and the course was designed following  a methodology of political formation developed in Latin America through the efforts of La Via Campesina (LVC) member organizations including the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), Organización Boricuá of Puerto Rico and the Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo (ATC) of Nicaragua, and others, which calls for an education of the mind, body and spirit. Participants came from the US, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada. Each drawn by the possibility of what we could create and learn by spending a week together focused on the history and future of food sovereignty in the US, and wanting to build a common political analysis of the food system that would lead us forward.

According to a 2018 publication from the European Coordination of La Via Campesina, food sovereignty is a ‘concept in action’ that  “…offers itself as a process of building social movements and empowering peoples to organise their societies in ways that transcend the neoliberal vision of a world of commodities, markets and selfish economic actors. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the myriad of complex problems we face in today’s world. Instead, Food Sovereignty is a process that adapts to the people and places where it is put in practice. Food Sovereignty means solidarity, not competition, and building a fairer world from the bottom up.” 

So, there we were, nearly 40 of us – gathered in the cabins and grounds of a summer camp, to listen, learn, unlearn, and strategize. We came as farmers, activists, members of coalitions, and representatives of front-line organizations, each trusting that this was a critical step in our movement forward. Though neither of us was officially there representing the ALC, both Nils and I were there – Nils as a delegate of LVC and I on behalf of the Agroecology Research Action Collective. The ambitious agenda of the week left less time for individual connections than everyone hoped, but we covered a lot of ground, and uncovered/rediscovered a lot of truths. Our food system is broken. It has been built on a base of exploitation of land and peoples, and yet that narrative has been carefully and intentionally covered up. Our work is to interrogate both our past and present, to recognize where we are complicit and bravely face the discomfort of seeing ourselves in what is wrong. Only then, and through building solidarity with others, will we be able to achieve the transformation we seek. This blog from Agrarian Trust’s Megan Browning catches the essence of the week,

One of the closing observations of the event was that to make this transformation we will need revolutionary discipline and revolutionary healing. So, surround yourselves with good revolutionary people (even if only virtually), and follow Adrienne Marie Brown’s advice that joy is a form of resistance. Megan ends her post with a poem written by Efren Lopez, one of the incredible youth participants representing the Community Agroecology Network . I’ll do the same – it deserves more than one reading.

the tools that those frogs spoke about by the fire ~efren lopez

cool pools form on victory
missing the wet steps i took
from my casita to the library
it’s a foggy feeling, but
the warmth from the pier by the pond
it was part of the healing

the snap back raised my head
chin up! this fight isn’t a bed
back and calm and partially better
only then did i realize the weather

one huge storm!
from street to street
from coast to coast
from sea to sea
from pole to pole
one huge storm!

while our methods to bare
might reappear invisibly
i recall that other feeling
that hasn’t fleeted
explaining why we made the effort
to come together in the first place


it really takes a heart for the land
to understand
that the resistance to the forces
before us
the ones who hate our guts
calls us ruts
deprives our dignity
lack of pity

have no chance
when the seeds we sow
food we cultivate
has our hands not pointed
but loosely gripped
to the tools that we made
for each other
passing them to one another

circling our
collective battles
we sit
their resiliency
our resistance
in joy!
in joy!!
in joy!!!

New project launch: ALC takes on new grant from the McKnight Foundation

New project launch: ALC takes on new grant from the McKnight Foundation

The new cross-cutting Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) grant – Agroecology Support to the CCRP, or AES, is in motion (as is its new official website!) The grant will be executed by a team from the University of Vermont’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC). The ALC, using its approach of transdisciplinary research and education and participatory agroecology, will work closely with teams from across the CCRP, and the three Communities of Practice (Andes, East & Southern Africa, West Africa), to deepen co-learning in agroecology, advance agroecological performance assessment and monitoring, coalesce support teams around agroecology, and engage diverse actors in a dialogue that advances agroecology globally. Read more about the team and their efforts here.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Puerto Rico’s Food Sovereignty

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Puerto Rico’s Food Sovereignty

By Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz

(ALC member Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz recently published this Op-Ed piece in the Puerto Rican publication “El Nuevo Día.” It highlights the importance of food sovereignty during this moment of global crisis. Below is his translation of the article into English, which can also be found here. The original version in Spanish can be found here.)

Puerto Rican farmers and fisherfolks, beyond safeguarding our natural and agricultural resources, are key agents in strengthening our food security. Sadly, they have not been taken into account during the emergency we are going through. The COVID-19 pandemic should increase our awareness of our vulnerable island food security, and drive us to actualize actions that have a positive impact on our food system.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations highlights that food security is frail in island food systems. Given their small territories and economies, and higher exposure to extreme weather events, islands often do not have the resources needed to cope and recover quickly from impacts. Furthermore, their high dependence on imports is another obstacle towards achieving food security.

Puerto Rico imports around 85% of its food, and most of it is shipped from the port of Jacksonville in Florida. Moreover, the majority arrives at the port of San Juan. The escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic could heavily impact our supply chains. Thus, it is crucial that we have a strong local food system that can provide us a significant quantity of the food we need.

Before Hurricane Maria made landfall in 2017, our farmers and fisherfolks were seeing positive opportunities. Local production was increasing in a time of fiscal crisis. It was like we were slowly gaining awareness about the importance of food sovereignty. Puerto Rico, and its farmers and fisherfolks, need the power and control to produce the food that nourish us. Moreover, food sovereignty makes us aware of the political and power dynamics that govern our food systems. There cannot be food security without food sovereignty. We in Puerto Rico know very well what happened after Maria. Our food system is still recovering.

Farming in Puerto Rico is hard. Our farmers and fisherfolks, most of which are 50 or older, have to compete with cheap imports. They often do not have access to local markets, and the government does not facilitate them support to go through the bureaucracy the government itself imposes. Additionally, most of our farmers and fisherfolks are small-scale producers. They sell their products independently, through farmers’ markets, within their communities, and through small businesses. Though the curfew imposed by the governor of Puerto Rico does not apply to big producers, and wholesalers like supermarkets, it applies to street sellers, placeros, farmers’ markets, and other alternative venues. That negatively impacts farmers and fisherfolks.

The Secretary of Agriculture said this week that family markets will be canceled―an initiative that allow farmers to sell in municipal plazas to participants of the Nutritional Assistance Program―, and that he anticipates losses in local production. Furthermore, the media has reported improper police interventions with farmers (regarding the curfew), and with businesses important for farmers and fisherfolks’ to sell their products (e.g. restaurants). Yes, social distancing is crucial to decrease the spread of the coronavirus. But, did the governor took into account how the curfew would impact our farmers and fisherfolks? Was it considered how limiting local production would impact our food security, given our high dependence on imports?

As long as we continue to depend on supply chains that we cannot control due to the Jones Act and other federal and local measures, nor do we carry out policies that give political agency to our farmers and fisherfolks, our food system will not be prepared to feed us. We do not have the required food sovereignty to build a new food system that provide us the food security we deserve as islanders. If something the past disasters have taught us, through the political and bureaucratic pitfalls that our farmers and fisherfolks faced, is that we cannot reduce the vulnerability of our food system to a “production issue”. May this pandemic make us more aware of the importance of developing food sovereignty to feed ourselves.

VEPART featured on UNH Extension “Over-Informed on IPM” Podcast

VEPART featured on UNH Extension “Over-Informed on IPM” Podcast

The episode, called “PAR for Leek Moth” highlights our core team members, Vic Izzo (ALC Education Coordinator) and Scott Lewins (ALC Extension Coordinator), and their leek moth research project under the VEPART (Vermont Entomology and Participatory Action Research Team) umbrella. They detail issues the leek moth pest poses for farmers in the Northeast, control methods including Trichogramma wasps, the PAR (participatory action research) approach they take when working with farmers, and much more! Check it out here.

ALC hosts agricultural policy panel

ALC hosts agricultural policy panel

This week, we invited a host of inspiring actors in the food and agriculture scene here in Vermont to present on a panel in our weekly lab meeting. 

Thank you to Elijah Massey of USDA – Rural Development, Grace Oedel of NOFA-VT, Graham Unangst-Rufenacht of Rural Vermont, and Jeannie Bartlett of the Franklin County Conservation District for providing insightful perspectives into agricultural policy work and the intersections of advocacy, food policy, farmer livelihood support, education, outreach, environmental stewardship, and beyond. 

Our guests spoke to the collaborative nature of their work in that they are constantly sharing resources and co-creating the best ways to promote their programs and access producers and consumers across the state. This interconnectedness resonated with the ALC, a community of practice that also prioritizes collaboration and the co-creation of knowledge across disciplines and stakeholders.

We deepened the conversation about how to best strengthen collaborations between academia, research, and the work of organizations such as these. Calls were echoed among the group for continued applicable and participatory research and the development of meaningful scholar to non-profit/government entity linkages. We look forward to continued exchanges with these partners and others across Vermont.

Thank you all for the open dialogue and powerful momentum you all bring to this work!