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!

Member interview: ALC researcher publishes paper on Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ participation in conservation programs

Member interview: ALC researcher publishes paper on Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ participation in conservation programs

ALC graduate student Tatiana Gladkikh is the lead author of a paper that was published in January in the journal Conservation Science and Practice. In it, she and colleagues present results from a survey of Puerto Rican coffee farmers about their experience with, and willingness to take part in, conservation programs. Fellow ALC graduate student Sam Bliss interviews her here about that research and the article that’s come from it.

Sam Bliss: Your article is titled “Factors that influence participation of Puerto Rican coffee farmers in conservation programs.” Briefly, what are those factors? 

Tatiana Gladkikh: One of the main factors, unsurprisingly, was financial considerations. Conventional sun farming is associated with higher yields in the first farming years, so a transition to shade farming would need to be accompanied by a compensation for reduced yields. Interestingly, economic incentives were only the third most frequently mentioned factor. The most commonly mentioned theme was the need for increased outreach from government agencies, followed by demonstrated commitment from the government. Another factor was land use flexibility, meaning conservation programs that balance agricultural and conservation objectives. Respondents also mentioned that cooperation among farmers was important. These factors came up after we qualitatively analyzed farmers’ responses. 

SB: It seems like coffee growers want government money to be able to adopt sustainable practices, but that they’re afraid that the government will have too much control over their farming. Is that right? 

TG: Yes and no, as the importance of financial incentives is independent of land use flexibility. Some farmers in our study were concerned with land use flexibility surrounding the local Model Forest policy. Participation in this policy is voluntary yet many farmers did not perceive it as such, partially because the policy was poorly communicated to stakeholders. Some respondents perceived it as an imposition on their land management authority and they questioned the need for conserving on active farms when they saw many abandoned farms in the region.

SB: What can governments do to support farmers in making ecological choices without taking away their autonomy over decision making and land management? 

TG: I think a lot of it is outreach and effective communication strategies. For example, a lot of federal conservation programs promote their programs online and in English, yet many farmers live in remote areas with limited access to the internet, and some of them don’t speak English fluently. Another effective strategy could be model farmers; many farmers learn about existing incentives and farming practices from their peers. Some conventional farmers never practiced shade farming before and are skeptical of its profitability. Perhaps, if they could visit a shade farm of a fellow farmer they know and trust, they could directly experience this farming practice and be more open to a transition. Agencies should also include farmers in the design of conservation programs and consider farmers’ needs. In our study, some respondents noted that some shade trees species provided by the agencies created more hassle for the farmer than benefits. So some ended up replacing those shade trees with other trees that met their needs. There should be more dialogue between farmers and agencies, more conversations about what works, what is needed. This study is one example of these attempts; local environmental agencies wanted to know how they could make existing conservation programs more appealing.

SB: Do you think that making these changes to existing programs can make a big difference for the environment or for farmers? Or would it be preferable, if possible, to start over with redesigned policy?

TG: There have already been too many “start overs” in Puerto Rico with every new administration, which in turn undermines trust in the government’s stability and commitment. So I think making changes to existing programs would be more efficient. I am not sure about the impact that these changes can bring. I am not being pessimistic, I just want to acknowledge the complexity of the issue. By and large, coffee farming in Puerto Rico is not very profitable and it is very laborious. Changes to conservation programs alone are not enough to revive the local coffee farming industry. Sure, some might say that abandonment of coffee farming is beneficial to conservation objectives — in a few years, abandoned coffee farms turn into flourishing forests. In the tropics, everything grows so much faster! But economically, and culturally, coffee is very important to that region of the island. Changes to existing programs, thus, should address improvements of both environmental and economic outcomes. My suggestion would be to create some kind of certification or specialty coffee program. A few years ago, there was an attempt to create a local certification, something similar to the frog and the Rainforest Alliance. But it did not go anywhere, I am not sure why, probably lack of funding. 

SB: What does this research contribute to agroecology as a movement? 

TG: Our study reiterated the importance of local research, livelihoods, and consideration of power relationships that shape land management. In Puerto Rico, state agricultural incentives favor conventional sun farming, while conservation incentives target a transition to shade farming. So farmers are placed in a position of having to choose between these two incentives programs; some practiced sun farming just to be eligible for state incentives. Profits from small-scale coffee farming are very low, unless you have access to speciality coffee markets or income diversification strategies (such as through agrotourism and other crops). It is unreasonable to expect farmers to transition to shade-grown coffee without addressing the issue of financial insecurity. 

SB: Did you carry out any of the interviews? If so, what did you learn from talking to these coffee farmers that didn’t make it into the article?

TG: Yes, I carried out almost half of the 89 interviews we completed. We did not really touch on the issue of the coffee market in this article, but we did talk a lot about it. I learned so much about the coffee-making process and the amount of time, labor, and money involved in producing a cup of good quality coffee. We discussed competition with large-scale commercial producers and hurdles associated with the ability to access the gourmet coffee market that has higher profits.  Farmers took a lot of pride in growing local coffee but they lamented that most of the commercial coffee sold in Puerto Rico was mixed with imported coffee. This definitely changed the kind of coffee I buy: I mainly buy Puerto Rican coffee, and I always make sure that it is 100% grown and produced in Puerto Rico, rather than a commercial mix of local and imported coffee.

SB: What did the farmers think of this research project?

TG: They really enjoyed talking to us! Many treated us to a cup of coffee or fresh produce from their farms. Certainly, there was a level of skepticism about the ability of our study to make any difference, which is something I am sure many researchers have encountered. But I think participants appreciated having their stories heard.

Exploring agroecology at the Intervale from a bird’s-eye view

Exploring agroecology at the Intervale from a bird’s-eye view

María A. Juncos-Gautier
ALC Research Associate
Doctoral Candidate, York University, Toronto, CA

Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Prize winner, once explained: “In a bird’s eye view you tend to survey everything and decide on a particular point, then you swoop down and pick it up. In a worm’s eye view, you don’t have that advantage of looking at everything.” This was my experience last summer and fall when I had the privilege of facilitating a comprehensive evaluation of the principles of agroecology at the Intervale Center (IC) as part of my doctoral fieldwork. I used multiple surveying methods and followed ALC’s signature Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach to explore with the IC community the presence and implementation of agroecological principles in their daily practices. I was able to attest how a self-evaluation process using PAR and multiple methods encouraged the stakeholders to have a holistic awareness of their organization for positive, targeted actions. As one of the IC team members told me: “It kept me tuned into noticing things in a different way. It was nice to have a reminder of what’s the bigger impact of the things we are doing here, and how can I tie it into the principles.” This was music to my ears. I was helping others see the Intervale in a new light to advance understanding and action toward agroecology.

Engaging in research-reflection-action at the Intervale

The IC is a non-profit in Burlington, Vermont, with the mission of strengthening community food systems. Its 340-acre property along the Winooski River floodplain, about a mile from downtown Burlington, also houses and supports exemplary cases of organic urban/peri-urban agriculture and a food hub for local fresh produce. As Participatory Action Research (PAR) partners, the two main research questions the IC and I want to answer are:

  • Is the Intervale an agroecological organization and/or landscape?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities for being recognized as such in Burlington and elsewhere?

To answer these questions, the IC agreed to become a case study for a principles-focused evaluation[1] of agroecology. A principle is a “fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”[2] As an environmental professional I have always enjoyed working with principles because they facilitate an all-encompassing perspective of a situation. Working with principles means working with major leverage points. Any changes in the principles of a system -no matter whether organizational, political, or cultural, for example – could lead to significant shifts in the whole system.[3]

My fieldwork, in a nutshell, consisted of two lines of investigation, one practical and the other theoretical. The practical line was with a sample of thirty stakeholders for one round of interviews, and a subsample of fifteen key players for a second round. Aligning with the IC’s tagline farms, land, and people, the subsample includes farmers, land stewards, and other wonderful people who work at the IC’s multifunctional property in food distribution, gleaning, native flora conservation, reforestation, trails and landscape maintenance, community gardening, administration, business planning, and community-building, among other activities. All the interviews were semi-structured and involved using different surveying methods with visual tools to facilitate insight and discussion (see below): an infographic by CIDSE illustrating a set of fifteen principles of agroecology, maps of the property, and pictures from a photovoice exercise assigned to the subsample for the second round of interviews. The theoretical line of investigation I conducted on my own, as the researcher photo-documenting and taking field notes while engaging in both non-participant and participant (i.e., volunteer work) observation. I wanted to triangulate the practical and the theoretical perspectives and the different surveying methods.

On January 14, I wrapped up my fieldwork with a productive reflection meeting in the IC’s hayloft with the subsample of key actors and the support of the ALC’s leadership team. It was a stimulating experience to see the ALC and IC teams actively engaged in this collective deliberation process. We started with fifteen minutes allocated to browsing through a small exhibit with examples of the visual tools the actors used and marked with their input during the interviews.

The group then divided into smaller discussion groups to reflect on their experience as active participants in the process. They also appraised for the last time the strength of the presence and implementation of each principle at the Intervale on a poster illustrating CIDSE’s principles, and they saw the outcome using a bird’s eye view of the Intervale.

I then presented preliminary quantitative results of my fieldwork, to compare with their results. With minor but important differences to take into consideration, the overall trends in the preliminary results prevailed in the final group appraisal. It was rewarding and reassuring for the group to discover that the different surveying methods and perspectives provided similar results for the principles.

“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what they care about.”  Margaret Wheatley

Before the reflection encounter adjourned, the IC team members each swooped down from the bird’s eye view and picked up three principles they care about and identify as areas of opportunities, and presented recommendations for next action steps at the Intervale.It was a great way to wrap-up and move forward.

Next I will finish the in-depth qualitative analysis of all the interviews before I share any definitive answers to the research questions, as new, compelling information could modify the preliminary results.

After seven months of fieldwork, I can affirm that all fifteen principles of agroecology, as proposed by CIDSE, can be evidenced, in one way or another, at the Intervale. Certainly, some of the principles are as yet areas of opportunity for an outright agroecological transformation.[4]

I want to express my gratitude to the magnificent people who work in unison at the Intervale. I would have never been able to finish my fieldwork without their warmth and support. I anticipate that their interest in and enthusiasm for my work will be rewarded with valuable information they can use to advance their mission, vision, and goals for Burlington and beyond.

[1] Based on Patton (2018). Principles-focus Evaluation: The Guide. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

[2] Patton, 2018, p. 171.

[3]Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Premier. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing

[4] Colin, R. A.; Bruil, J.; Chappell, M.J.; Kiss, C.; Pimbert, M.P. (2019). From transition to domains of transformations: getting to sustainable and food justice systems through agroecology. Sustainability, 11 (5272).