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, https://agrariantrust.org/news/globalize-the-struggle-globalize-hope/

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

because

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
humbled
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).

VEPART Publishes new research brief

VEPART Publishes new research brief

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

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.

The event invitation was circulated to partners and allies of both organizations, Groundswell International and UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative

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.

Moving forward

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. 

Works Cited

1.Dalgaard, Tommy, and Nicholas Hutchings, John Porter. “Agroecology, Scaling and Interdisciplinarity.” Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment 100(2003): 39-51

2.http://www.uvm.edu/agroecology/our-approach/agroecology/

3.https://www.uvm.edu/agroecology/about-us/