Our colleagues Vic Izzo and Scott Lewins of the Vermont Entomology and Participatory Action Research Team (VEPART) have just published an update on their innovative research on leek moth and the pests relationship with allium crops. The brief outlines the most recent updates of the work VEPART has been conducting over the past 5 seasons on several farms in Vermont. Learn more here!
Engaging in New Partnerships for Agroecological Transformation
By Ava Murphey, ALC Program Coordinator
8 January 2020
Earlier this year, the University of Vermont’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with four pertinent organizations that promote agroecological and development work in various sectors. These links were fused in an effort to formalize the co-creation of knowledge via innovative partnerships, outlining the intention for collaborative movement building. The goal of such an agreement is for all parties to engage in the synergistic sharing and receiving of knowledge and ideas in order to stimulate, cultivate, and propagate purposeful transformative projects.
In maintaining partnerships that span across different sectors, spheres of influence, and geographic regions the potential for amplified impact and transformation is high. The organizations with which the ALC has recently signed an MOU are Groundswell International, EcoSur, Statistics for Sustainable Development (Stats4SD), and the Centre for Agroecology, Water, and Resilience (CAWR). To name a few, these associations represent ties between academia, public research and development projects, grassroots organizing, and effective statistical analysis. This cooperative approach to co-creation and horizontal knowledge sharing is a direct manifestation of one of agroecology’s foundational principles: transdisciplinarity. The relationship between these groups and disciplines holds the immense capacity for transformative systems change, something which profoundly aligns with and enhances the mission of the ALC and their professional partners.
Collaboration in action
One partnership worth highlighting is that with Groundswell International. In October of 2018, Groundswell contracted the ALC to support participatory monitoring and evaluation on a project focused on strengthening farmer seed systems with eight organizations in southern Mexico. A year later, on October 18th, 2019 the two organizations celebrated the result of abundant planning and coordinating in their first ever official collaborative occasion, a one-day participatory event that took place at the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Alumni House. The event, titled “Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology,” was an engaging and inspiring day that left participants feeling poised to build bridges and tackle the issues they face in their various professional sectors.
To give some context to the conversation, it is important to highlight the essence of the association between Groundswell International and the ALC. Of critical relevance in the linkage between these two groups is the study and practice of agroecology. In its simplest form, agroecology provides the lens with which to observe ecological processes and their applications to agricultural production systems1. However, agroecology encompasses much more than scientific observation; it is a transdisciplinary approach (merging ecological science with social science, local and indigenous knowledge systems, etc.) that guides research and action towards the sustainable transformation of our food system2.
Groundswell International is a non-profit organization that strengthens communities and farmers’ organizations to deepen and scale agroecological approaches with the aim of improving lives in 10 different countries around the world. Groundswell’s aim is to strengthen farmer-led innovation, and promote exponential farmer-to-farmer learning to generate widespread social and ecological change, strengthen local food systems, inform policy, and shift investment and development strategies. The work of Groundswell and its partners is inherently community-led, participatory and transdisciplinary in nature. It is within these frameworks that the most salient connection emerges with their UVM partners, the ALC.
While Groundswell International exercises its prowess in the non-profit sector, the ALC promotes complementary goals while operating within an academic setting, utilizing the principles of agroecology and Participatory Action Research (PAR) in the field with projects in New England and around the globe. The ALC is a community of practice that includes faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and a host of local and global collaborators. The mission of the ALC is to “co-create evidence and knowledge, with farmers and other actors, to cultivate socially just and ecologically sound food systems3.” Students and faculty alike conduct research and collaborate on projects that integrate academic disciplines, amplify the voices of non-research actors, and seek real world solutions to global food system challenges.
All of this came into play in October’s workshop. While the Groundswell International team met on UVM’s campus with leaders of partner organizations from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Mexico, and Nepal for their biannual global conference, the ALC team was hard at work preparing for the public event at the end of the week, “Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology.” The ALC’s practice of PAR informed the structure of the day. Instead of creating an environment in which participants received a deluge of information from various speakers, the idea was to engage participants in strongly facilitated discussions and activities in which all attendees were heard and valued as critical contributors to the conversation. Through a combination of individual and group work, participants were encouraged not only to share their experiences with a larger audience, but also to take a critical look at themselves and their specific roles within this movement. Strengthening this internal understanding, along with a healthy dose of external inspiration, can be a powerful way to deepen collective learning and augment meaningful change.
The 80 attendees ranged in their backgrounds from academics, philanthropists, allies, activists, students, farmers, and beyond. In the morning, break out groups heard from three Groundswell representatives from different countries about their strategies to tackle key challenges in promoting agroecology: farmer-to-farmer innovation; women’s empowerment; nutrition-linkages; local markets; and climate resilience. Then, key lessons were shared with the full audience through a dynamic poster fair where participants got to rotate and learn about each theme from grassroots practitioners. ALC facilitators and Groundswell staff and partners collaborated to ensure lively dialogue and learning.
The event featured speakers from all over the world who provided insight into their agroecological projects that centered on themes of climate change resilience, local markets, nutrition, women’s empowerment, and farmer-to-farmer innovation. Pictured on the right is Tsuamba Bourgou, Groundswell Regional Coordinator for West Africa
(Photos: Sara Klimek, UVM Junior Environmental Studies)
The afternoon was dedicated to a round-table workshop that centered on the metaphor of a puzzle. New groups were formed and each group came up with their response to the theme of the day: “how do we build collaboration to amplify agroecology?” They represented the answer to this question on a large puzzle piece. In closing, each group presented their piece, as the collaborative puzzle was assembled on the wall, bit by bit. One puzzle piece boasted an elaborate drawing of a cart pulled by a campesino with a rising sun that represented ancestral knowledge and wisdom; another displayed a colorful tree of traced hands that spoke to the interconnectedness and solidarity found in agroecological resilience; and yet another highlighted the importance of acknowledging power and privilege as we enter into dialogues about inciting change. The final product was beautiful- a vibrantly decorated and rustically assembled puzzle on the wall of the conference room that everyone in the room had contributed to. Yet this puzzle was just a visual expression of multiple connections and opportunities for collaboration identified by participants.
The UVM Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative facilitation team organized various individual and group work sessions reflecting on agroecology in action and as a social movement.
If we zoom out to the larger picture again for a moment, the collaborative event between the ALC and Groundswell International provides an excellent example of exactly what it proposed to have participants engage in: “building collaboration to amplify agroecology.” Groundswell International and ALC are building off of this experience to deepen collaboration, and through its MOU with various organizations, the ALC aims to expand and strengthen networks and interdependence with the ultimate goal of transformative agroecology.
Returning to the puzzle that was assembled at the end of that October day, some pieces remained blank- a representation of those that we need to work harder to include at the table, of those voices that are underrepresented, and work yet to be done. The empty spaces are also a promise. A promise to the future and all that it holds; the spark of inspiration for collaboration that has been cultivated throughout this partnership and the hope that our future embodies the potential for systematic global transformation.
Ava Murphey of UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) and Fatou Batta, Groundswell International West Africa consultant and project partner, share insights from community dialogue at ALC & Groundswell’s “Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology Conference.” (Photo: Sara Klimek)
What do two community development professors, a business analyst for a value-added processing firm in Burlington, a saffron grower from Iran, a community supported agriculturalist from Ecuador, and a third year University of Vermont student have in common? A place at the table.
At this year’s Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology Conference, hosted by Groundswell International and UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), I was given the opportunity to meet with a variety of stakeholders for a discussion about what integrative agroecology frameworks actually look like. The conference, held at the UVM Alumni House, celebrated the work different agroecologists from around the world are doing to promote sustainable, bio-regenerative agriculture, and improve the livelihoods of all who are involved in the food system.
Representatives from Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Mali, and seven other countries shared how their programs were meeting market demand for products, advancing gender equity, improving community access to nutrition, and addressing global climate challenges. Their stories showed how agroecology, which incorporates ecological and other principles into agricultural production systems, can build more sustainable and equitable food systems from the ground up.
During an afternoon roundtable session, I had the opportunity to meet with a diverse group of individuals to reimagine and redefine what a robust agroecology framework might look like. We were tasked with answering questions about what ecological, economic, and social motivations are embedded within agroecology and how we, in our various roles, can collaborate to advance our shared values and missions.
As someone who does not come from a particularly rich background in practical agroecological applications, I at first struggled to ground myself around a table of people with decades of experience in the field. After all, what could a UVM student contribute to a technical discussion on the nuances of how to define agroecology?
In short, quite a lot. But I gained even more.
Not only did I learn about the projects that other people in my group had worked on, such as the marketing of sugarcane in Honduras to selling Peruvian potatoes to Pepsi Co., but I learned more about the importance of changing how we think about the value of food.
Our group began our discussion of why agroecology was different than traditional agricultural practices with a brief overview of the problems of a global, disconnected food system. We were relatively quick to diagnose many of the problems within our food system as the result of a disconnect between the people who grow the food and the people who consume the food. One of my fellow group members who operates a CSA in his home country commented that, “relationships are the potential.” In a time of geopolitical instability, his CSA was able to feed nearly 40 families and also bring a sense of identity back to his local food system. Instead of monetary trade, he developed a bartering system with those in his community- a value he deems as “immeasurable.”
In a world that stresses the importance of automation and economic efficiency, it is no surprise that we have lost the social capital invested in our food system. Agroecology strives to invest social capital back into food systems through meaningful interactions between community partners, organizations like Groundswell International, and academic institutions like UVM. While the traditional agricultural and economic paradigms have sought to standardize the process by which people interact with their food, agroecology seeks to exchange knowledge, stories, and relationships to optimize success for all.
It’s clear that none of us have the answers alone about how to solve the complex issues of the food system, but by cultivating collaboration and empowering local farmers, we have the potential to transform our current food system into one that is more sustainable and socially just. Within the short conversation I had at my roundtable, with people who were clearly invested in bringing relationships back into the food system, I was challenged to think more critically about what it means to be both a steward of the planet and a student interested in the agroecology field. I was able to connect with people who brought immense diversity in ideas, methodology, and training to the conference, and left with new connections and renewed commitment to the agroecology movement.
Conferences like Amplifying Agroecology offer the unique opportunity to assess the progress that has already been made to invest in the social capital of food systems, and also build a roadmap for what the next chapter will look like.
Sara Klimek is a junior environmental studies major with minors in food systems and nutrition and food science at UVM.
ALC member highlight: Alissa White and Alisha Utter gain recognition for their work and research
In the past month two members of the ALC (Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative) community of practice have been featured in various media streams. It is a true honor to be able to share the incredible work these two women are doing.
Alissa White is a PhD student in the Department of Plant and Soil Science. Using participatory action research methods, she explores the potential for farmer networks to support the adaptive capacity of farmers in the face of a changing climate. Alissa was recently featured in an episode of the Eastern New York Veg News Podcast expanding more upon her work surrounding climate change adaptations for growers in the Northeast.
Alisha Utter is also a PhD student in the Department of Plant and Soil Science. Alisha explores the relationships between veganic farming, agroecology, and regenerative agriculture. She does this not only through the research associated with her PhD but also by managing a farm of her own, Arbor Farmstead, with Kyle Bowley. In a recent episode of the USDA’s weekly blog Fridays on the Farm, Alisha and Arbor Farmstead were the main feature. See the story here.
Congratulations to these two amazing leaders of agroecological research and practice. Thank you, Alissa and Alisha, for the inspiring work that you are committed to!
ALC visualizes and displays its community of practice
Last week, the ALC community developed a new display board to highlight their work and research around the globe. Every member created a profile including a brief bio and description of their work and academic interests. The profiles were displayed concentrically surrounding a world map with strings and pins connecting research locations with the ALC members carrying out the research. This visual was decided on by the community of practice as an effective way to highlight the global reach of collaboration and research within this group. The diversity of insight that this perspective brings to our community is invaluable. In all, the ALC members that participated totaled 23 and represented 8 nationalities from around the world, including the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Finland, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and Italy.
In creating this display board, we felt that not only were we informing and educating the greater UVM community about our work and interests but we also got to know each other even better. There are a few new faces in the ALC community and it was an important exercise in inclusion and welcoming for all those involved. Come take a look at our impressive community of practice and our new display, outside of Jeffords 232!
In his role as agroecology advisor to the CCRP, ALC director Ernesto Méndez joined the CCRP’s West Africa CoP for their annual meeting, held in Niamey, Niger, February 26-March 3. This year, the CoP brought together 14 research projects, which are being implemented in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Project themes range from improving varieties of sorghum and millet, to the use of agroforestry, and the co-creation of agroecological knowledge between farmers and scientists. In addition to learning and interacting with participants, Méndez led a workshop on ‘Frameworks to Assess Agroecological Perfomance’, where participants applied the use of agroecological frameworks in their projects. He was joined by ALC collaborator Steve Brescia, Executive Director of Groundswell International, who discussed agroecology as a science, a movement and a practice. During the workshop, participants engaged with different agroecological frameworks and principles by project, and discussed actors, opportunities and recommendations, by country, in terms of agroecological science, movement and practice.
In January, ALC Master’s student, Alissa White, presented at the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. White writes, “I joined about 2,000 people who are mostly weather scientists and climate physicists for their 98th annual meeting. This long-standing scientific community made the theme for this year’s meeting “Transforming communication through co-production”. There was a clear acknowledgement that the science they have been working on for so long is now extremely politicized by climate deniers. This leads to many challenges in communicating climate science, but social science research which indicates that co-producing climate knowledge overcomes those communication challenges. So these traditional scientists are aware that they need to learn how to invite stakeholders into the research process.”