BLOG: Designing functional PAR processes: the perspective from NFNA

Designing functional PAR processes: the perspective from NFNA

By Martha Caswell, ALC Co-Director

One of the most important components of participatory action research (PAR) is the Action. Where it falls in the cycle varies: sometimes the action can emerge as a result after careful analysis of the data; or it can be a catalyst earlier in the process, centering the value proposition that both the researchers and community members should be receiving real benefit from the effort. 

On a sunny Thursday morning in June, at the New Farms for New Americans (NFNA) farm near the Ethan Allen Homestead, Action rolled in. There it was, hitched to the back of a red pickup. To most eyes, it looked like a simple structure. A shed maybe? Or, as one farmer remarked walking by, “a break room?” But, as with most things, there is more to this structure than meets the eye.

Carpenter Linsey Brunner (left) and NFNA Program Specialist Alisha Laramee (right), discuss the best placement for the shade structure (Photo credit: Martha Caswell)

For the past three years, Alisha Laramee, program specialist for NFNA, has been participating in the Urban and Peri-Urban Agroecology initiative with UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC). We are currently in the second year of a USDA Hatch grant to explore the expression of agroecological principles in urban and peri-urban spaces in Burlington. Our partners include NFNA, the Vermont Community Garden Network, UVM’s Catamount Farm, and the Intervale Center. Alisha has been cautiously interested in this project but is also judicious with her time and energy. She gives all she has to the farm and farmers. When we have been able to fit into that equation, it’s been great. But Alisha has been a strong advocate for her priorities, and there isn’t a lot of room for theoretical conversations about whether or not what’s happening on the farm counts as agroecology. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, New Farms for New Americans (NFNA) is an agriculture program for refugees and immigrants based in Burlington, VT. NFNA supports farmers and gardeners to grow culturally significant crops, increase access to food, land, and agricultural resources, and learn about growing food in Vermont. They facilitate ongoing work with over 275 refugee clients from various countries in Africa and Asia. NFNA has sites in multiple locations, including the Ethan Allen Homestead (2.5 miles from downtown Burlington) and the Intervale (among others), representing mostly peri-urban contexts.

The Ethan Allen site is a secluded, peaceful spot along the Winooski River, with full sun and the rich alluvial soils that come from being in the flood plain. The drawbacks of this site include a high risk for floods and the fact that it is difficult to access without your own transportation. Early on, Alisha mentioned the problems they faced with flooding, pointing out the eroding riverbank, asking if buffer strips or hedgerows might be effective adaptations to consider. As conversations continued, we worked to align what Alisha was identifying as needs with the dimensions of agroecology as defined through the CIDSE principles, and discussed two priorities: the first was improving pollinator presence (an environmental consideration), and the second was the need for a shade/supply area to encourage gathering and sharing tools/knowledge (socio-cultural consideration). 

Partnering with co-PI Stephanie Hurley and ten of her students from the Ecological Landscape Design course in the Plant and Soil Science Department worked with Alisha and developed designs for the NFNA farm site and its surroundings. Student designs included options for creating riparian buffers, floodplain wetlands and earthworks to increase flood resilience; pollinator gardens provide nectar and pollen to a biodiverse array of pollinator species and potentially increase crop production; and ideas for structures to provide much-needed shade for the farmers, and to be multifunctional for equipment storage, group gatherings and a safe place for children to play. 

Alisha reviewed the design options considering which would meet the criteria that the community had shared; they wanted shade, but since many of the participants carry trauma from their time in refugee camps visibility (being able to see what was going on inside of the structure at all times, from all sides) was also critical. The potential cost of a shade structure with these many benefits was a significant concern. The Winooski Park District required that the structure be mobile, for seasonal use and in the event of floods. Graduate Student Josh Taylor, has been working closely with Alisha as part of his dissertation research, and he and Alisha applied for and were awarded a City Market Seedling Grant to support the construction of the shade structure. That’s when the wheels really started rolling. Originally the project was going to be a community build with the farmers, but COVID-19 removed that possibility. In an effort to see the shade structure through to completion, Alisha contracted RG Builders LLC, a small, local business to complete the build. Carpenter Linsey Brunner (pictured above) donated all of the hours she dedicated to this project, and after recently completing the UVM Master Gardeners program, is eager to consider other ways she can contribute to NFNA’s mission. 

Farmers picking up donations from Red Wagon Plants (Photo credit: Martha Caswell)

Sounds good, you might say to yourself, but how does this connect to research? There are several answers to this. The first is that we have found that the most important research question isn’t always the first to emerge. I was visiting Alisha on the day when the shade structure was delivered, but instead of talking about the shed, we talked about the devastation farmers were facing from pest and disease pressures in their plots. We realized that VEPART could potentially work with NFNA to identify ecological and integrated pest management (IPM) strategies that would help them be more resilient to the threats they are facing. We also hopeful that the shade structure will be a site for future workshops and focus groups, which will give us the opportunity to assess participant opinions about how the structure impacts their time at the farm. Because of all of this, we see this Action as a catalyst, that has been participatory, and has provided us good cause for reflection and reassessment of our research directions.

We also value in the co-production of knowledge that has happened among all of us throughout this process. NFNA has just been awarded a highly competitive USDA Urban Agriculture Grant and in the coming year, they will partner with VCGN to develop a leadership and mentorship program. We see lots of potential for continued cross-pollination among people and ideas as this PAR process continues to unfold. It’s not unusual for PAR projects to diverge slightly from their original paths. As noted in a recently published paper “…participatory research projects, which aim at transformative impacts in complex settings beyond knowledge products and learning, need to sustain high intensities of actor interactions in knowledge coproduction throughout all research phases to achieve their sustainability impact goals.”1

That’s our end goal. Prioritizing research, and learning alongside our partners, but never at the expense of the community. Alisha says working with the ALC and thinking about agroecology helps her to ‘see with new eyes’, and she also continues to say – “call it what you want, I just want to do right by the farmers.” 

1 Tribaldos, T., C. Oberlack, and F. Schneider. 2020. Impact through participatory research approaches: an archetype analysis. Ecology and Society 25(3):15.

NEWS: ALC Antiracism and Justice Statement

ALC Antiracism and Justice Statement

Being part of the ALC means committing to a process of inquiry and reflection that is both individual and collective. For several years, we have worked as a community of practice (CoP) to define norms, interrogate our own positionality and responsibilities, and make commitments to be agents of change both in our personal and professional realms. Given the growing awareness about systemic racism, we thought it was a good time to write a public statement about our position on broad issues of justice. We wrote the following statement together, as a community of practice, which reflects our values and articulates our commitments.

The Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative is a community of practice where we strive to understand systems and, in this work, we are confronted with our individual and collective roles in oppression and destruction. We hold ourselves and each other accountable as we work to transform and heal our agrifood system – using collaboration to find co-liberation. This requires us to confront our discomfort and set aside our egos, with the goal of living our values instead of just talking about them. We know this takes time, energy, effort, humility, and, above all, deep listening and reflection. 

 We center anti-racist work while challenging all forms of oppression. We commit to following the lead of our BIPOC members, supporting the collective protagonism of those that have historically been excluded or marginalized, responding to the demands and calls for social change, showing up in solidarity, and striving to be accomplices in this long-overdue transformation of society. We will learn, unlearn, and imagine with genuine curiosity and care, we will remember that joy and struggle must accompany each other, and we will stay true to this process recognizing that it is not a destination, but a journey.


NEWS: ALC Coffee Diversification Project featured by the UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS)

For Coffee Farmers, Diversification Key to Sustainability​​

The UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), recently featured the work of the ALC’s project ‘Assessment of Diversification Strategies in Smallholder Coffee Systems of Mesoamerica’, a Participatory Action Research (PAR) and agroecology process, in collaboration with a diversity of partners from Mexico, Nicaragua and the U.S. Please visit the CALS website to read more.

Statement and Petition in Support of the Movement for Black Lives from The Agroecology Research-Action Collective (ARC)

Statement and Petition in Support of the Movement for Black Lives from The Agroecology Research-Action Collective (ARC):

The ALC has had a relationship with the Agroecology Research-Action Collective (ARC), since its early beginnings around 2016. ARC and ALC share very similar missions and principles. We join our ARC colleagues today in expressing our grief and solidarity with the racial and social injustices against people of color in the United States and the world. These feelings are eloquently presented in the recent statement and petition by ARC “In Support of Black Lives”. We invite you to read the essay and sign the petition in the ARC website by clicking on the link below:

Blog on the ALC’s ‘Assessment of Diversification Strategies in Smallholder Coffee Systems of Mesoamerica’ project

Blog on the ALC’s ‘Assessment of Diversification Strategies in Smallholder Coffee Systems of Mesoamerica’ project

ALC Coordinator Martha Caswell and the ‘Coffee Diversification’ team just published a blog on the website of the French Agropolis Foundation, one of the funders of the project under the umbrella of the ‘Thought for Food Initiative’ Check it out here

The ALC has been working with a diversity of partners, including coffee cooperatives in Mexico (CESMACH) and Nicaragua (PRODECOOP), the Community Agroecology Network (CAN), a grassroots NGO based in California, and faculty and students from the following universities: 1) the ALC at the University of Vermont; 2) Santa Clara University, in California; 3) members of the Agroecology Group at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Chiapas, Mexico; and 4) the Universidad Nacional Agraria (UNA) in Nicaragua. Using a Participatory Action Research Approach (PAR), we are collectively working and co-creating knowledge on how different diversification strategies may affect food security, climate change resilience, livelihood performance and gender inequity at the household, community and regional scales.

Voices from the Fall 2019 Advanced Agroecology Class- Fourth delivery

Voices from the Fall 2019, Advanced Agroecology Class, at the University of Vermont (UVM)- fourth delivery

Every fall, for the last 10 years or so, I have been learning with the Advanced Agroecology class, at the University of Vermont (UVM). The course seeks to engage students in a diversity of learning experiences, ranging from scientific reading to farm work. One new addition this semester was to ask students to write a blog on an agroecology topic. In the next few weeks we will be sharing selected blogs from the class, providing an opportunity to glean into the bright minds and opinions of the young people that engaged with agroecology this semester. In this last contribution, Brianna Arnold  engages the movement dimension of agroecology and discusses the Milk with Dignity initiative, in Vermont, which focuses on supporting farm worker rights in the dairy sector.  Enjoy !!

Ernesto Méndez, Professor of Agroecology and ALC Co-Director, Department of Plant and Soil Science and Environmental Program

Got Milk with Dignity? Local Program Demonstrates Importance of Agroecology as a Movement

By Brianna Arnold, Plant Biology major and Anthropology minor

You may feel good about your dairy products coming from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows. But the cows don’t milk themselves. For decades, migrant dairy workers in Vermont have been overlooked and ignored. Migrant Justice is working to get their voices heard.

A crowd of about 50 gathered in Leddy Park on Thursday, October 3rd to celebrate and expand Migrant Justice’s Milk With Dignity (MD) – or Leche con Dignidad – campaign. Among those gathered were migrant dairy workers, dairy farmers, Migrant Justice employees, and supportive Vermonters and students. Several migrant workers, with the help of interpreters, praised the two-year old program for its accomplishments, including transitioning Ben & Jerry’s entire supply chain to operate according to the MD code of conduct and cooperate with the Milk with Dignity Standards Council (MDSC). The speakers also reminded us there is still much work to be done, namely getting more buyers of dairy products to participate in the MD Program. With that goal in mind, on the second anniversary of Ben & Jerry joining the program, Milk with Dignity announced its new campaign for Hannaford to sign on, too. So far, Hannaford CEO Mike Vail has made no response.


On October 3rd, 2019 a crowd united in front of Hannaford Supermarket to pressure the company to join the Milk with Dignity Program (Photo by Jacob Dawson/VTDigger).

So, why is the MD Program necessary to begin with? Too many migrant dairy workers in Vermont are overworked, underpaid, and underserved. According to Migrant Justice’s website, a survey of nearly 200 workers conducted in 2014 reveals that the average worker labors 60-80 hours per week and 40% of workers are not given any days off. 28% work for seven hours or more without having a break to eat and 15% are not afforded eight hours off work to sleep and rest. 40% of workers are paid less than Vermont’s minimum wage of $10.78 per hour and 20% have their paychecks withheld illegally. Inappropriate and irresponsible housing conditions is another major issue for migrant workers; 15% live in overcrowded housing and 15% lack adequate heating. At the Milk with Dignity event on Thursday, farmworker Jose Luis Cordova Herrera explained that he used to share a room with 2-3 other men in a house that hardly had any space to cook, eat, or rest. Though he wished to express his concerns to his boss, he was afraid that if he spoke up he could lose his job. Now, supported by the MDSC, farmworkers like Herrera are able to advocate for themselves without fearing persecution.

A diagram by Migrant Justice breaks down how Milk with Dignity operates through building working relationships with various actors while amplifying the voices of migrant farmworkers.

Unfortunately, the problems migrant workers face don’t end at the farm’s edge. In fact, for many, they get worse. Countless family members of farmworkers rarely or never leave their homes for fear of dealing with an unfamiliar world, failing to communicate effectively, and potentially getting detained or even deported. One woman I met recently told me that she never leaves her house, which, like many other migrant homes, is located right on the dairy farm. You can see the cows lined up in stalls from her kitchen window. Her husband does all the shopping and brings home groceries and any needed household items. Although this woman has lived in Vermont for nearly half a year, she’s not familiar with any of the surrounding area, and she’s not the only one. A friend of mine who visited a different migrant family’s home said the mother knew nothing about Burlington and was unaware that the University of Vermont even existed. The isolation migrant workers and their families experience is tragic, especially in a state that prides itself on its inclusivity for people of diverse backgrounds.

Though I’m sure there are exceptions, I would not describe most large dairy farms in the US as agroecosystems. They often lack diversification, fail to prioritize workers’ wellbeing, and are generally not all that sustainable. That being said, we can still use agroecological values to critically evaluate how such farms operate in order to locate opportunities for them to evolve. According to the CIDSE Principles of Agroecology, the socio-political movement dimension of agroecology encourages us to consider impacts of the production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food on both nature and society. It’s not enough to analyze dairy farming practices from ecological or economic perspectives; we must also pay attention to and support the lives and livelihoods of those most directly involved in and impacted by the industry. By creating safe spaces to hold conversations about farmworkers’ rights, advocating for improved worker livelihoods, and taking action within the migrant community and greater Vermont community, Migrant Justice is doing just that.

Voices from the Fall 2019 Advanced Agroecology Class- Third delivery

Voices from the Fall 2019, Advanced Agroecology Class, at the University of Vermont (UVM)- third delivery

Every fall, for the last 10 years or so, I have been learning with the Advanced Agroecology class, at the University of Vermont (UVM). The course seeks to engage students in a diversity of learning experiences, ranging from scientific reading to farm work. One new addition this semester was to ask students to write a blog on an agroecology topic. In the next few weeks we will be sharing selected blogs from the class, providing an opportunity to glean into the bright minds and opinions of the young people that engaged with agroecology this semester. In this third contribution, Zach Merson discusses the application of agroecological principles to aquaculture.  Enjoy !!

Ernesto Méndez, Professor of Agroecology and ALC Co-Director, Department of Plant and Soil Science and Environmental Program

Feed Fish to Feed Folks: Agroecological Principles in Aquaculture

By Zach Merson, Natural Resources major

I love fish: they are beautiful, they are nutritious, and they are so fun to learn from. I hold a deep interest in aquaculture, the domestication of fish for food, because of the potential to take pressure off of vulnerable ocean fisheries. However, when you read through the latest literature, most agroecological studies focus on terrestrial crops. Aquaculture is critical to the global food system because approximately 3 billion people, almost half of the world, rely on seafood as their primary source of protein, and farmed aquatic organisms contribute to nearly half of the global supply.[1] While aquaculture can reduce overfishing and habitat damage in wild fisheries, it can also be ecologically detrimental. In aquaculture farms, feed inputs and waste are often concentrated into one area of a river or coastline, degrading water quality and stimulating algae blooms. Fish populations, or stocks, are typically genetically uniform and have high rates of disease, which can spread to wild stocks. While there are groups that make recommendations on farmed seafood for consumers, I haven’t seen a clear and publicized set of principles adopted internationally for aquaculture, like agroecology has for land-based food systems.

Agroecology as a practice aims to reduce environmental damages of agriculture while enhancing social and economic vitality. International governance bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) seek to share knowledge about and facilitate implementation of agroecological practices. The FAO’s 10 elements of agroecology are clearly targeted towards terrestrial crop and livestock systems, but I will use them as a framework to view how aquaculture can be more ecologically sustainable. Because aquaculture is still a form of farming, I believe the cultural and social elements remain unchanged between land and water, so I’m choosing to focus primarily on the FAO’s ecological elements. Specifically, I’m using the elements of diversity, efficiency, and recycling to examine contemporary challenges in aquacultural systems.

Example of an aquaculture system (photo by the Monterey Bay Aquarium)

You may be familiar with diversity-enhancing practices in terrestrial agroecosystems like intercropping, cover crops, agroforestry, and crop diversification,[2] but these practices can’t be expressed in the same manner in aquaculture. Many farms on land still only incorporate a single species (think big corn fields in the Midwest) and aquaculture is no exception. Within species, especially fish, little is done to preserve genetic diversity; often millions of fish are bred from just one pair.[3] Certainly, there are technical challenges to implementing diversity in aquacultural systems that don’t apply to terrestrial crops. For example, each species often requires different infrastructure to breed, grow, and harvest, and incorrectly constructed farms are the most common causes of aquaculture failure.[4] In China, we see some systems that integrate fish, aquatic plants, and waterfowl, but there is still little diversity within each group.[5] Concentrated and genetically uniform stocks eventually suffer health and growth impacts, which reduces productivity and yield for the farmer. Reared fish can also escape, degrade the genetics of wild stocks, and spread disease.[6] Diversity is one agroecological element that is noticeably lacking in nearly every aquaculture system. I would argue that aquaculture could benefit from diversity in the same manner as terrestrial farms: improving resilience, enhancing diets, reducing ecological harms, and increasing productivity.

Efficiency refers to practices and technology that maintain or increase productivity while decreasing external inputs, such as agrochemicals.[7] I believe that recycling is a necessary and integrated component of efficient food production, and both elements in aquaculture are linked to similar challenges, so I cover FAO’s recycling element along with efficiency. Recycling is when waste or excess products are reallocated to close input and output cycles.[8] Similarly to terrestrial farms, the inputs and waste products of aquacultural systems depend on the species grown. When comparing livestock and farmed fish, feed conversion ratio (FCR) is one metric that measures the required input materials per unit product.[9] The FCR on average is 12.5 for cattle, 3 for pigs, and 1.5 for poultry.[10] Many fish have an FCR below 2 (i.e. 2 kg of feed to grow 1 kg of fish meat), and some are very close to an FCR of 1.[11] On just FCR alone, you may think “wow! Fish are such an efficient food conversion stock!” And while it’s true that fish are more efficient per kilogram of input, what the input consists of should also be an important consideration.

A lot of fish feed is made from other fish: up to 80% fish products in addition to vegetable proteins and pigments.[11] The fish that go into feed are usually those not used for human consumption. Called reduction fisheries, they include species like herring, anchovies, and menhaden. Reduction fisheries are big business because they may account for up to a sixth of captured wild fish. These fish are usually lower down in the food chain, so overfishing them can reduce the food available for important top predators like tuna.[12] In short, it’s important to be aware of what farmed fish are fed. However, there are some alternative food sources that embody the agroecological element of recycling. One company turns agricultural waste, specifically rotting or damaged fruit, into fish food that’s as nutritious as standard feed.[13] Innovative solutions and restructured cycles are what we need to turn around some of the negative impacts of farmed fish and move towards a sustainable and healthy food system. Fish do most of the efficiency work themselves through their low feed conversion ratio, so now it’s up to use to make sure we give them the best and most sustainable inputs we can.

We’ve seen that aquaculture somewhat exhibits the ecological principles of agroecology already, but also has much room for improvement. I think the Food and Agriculture Organization or another well-known agricultural group should publish an international set of principles and practices that embody ecological steward, societal wellbeing, and economic vitality in aquacultural systems. I’ve seen on working farms how agroecology aligns the farm as a landscape with the farm as a livelihood. The same revolutionary approaches can feed the fish that feed us in a healthier, more resilient, and more synchronized way with the natural world.

For more information on sustainable seafood, check out Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch or the Marine Stewardship Council’s Fisheries Standards.

Cited Sources

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Voices from the Fall 2019 Advanced Agroecology Class- Second delivery

Voices from the Fall 2019, Advanced Agroecology Class, at the University of Vermont (UVM)- second delivery

Every fall, for the last 10 years or so, I have been learning with the Advanced Agroecology class, at the University of Vermont (UVM). The course seeks to engage students in a diversity of learning experiences, ranging from scientific reading to farm work. One new addition this semester was to ask students to write a blog on an agroecology topic. In the next few weeks we will be sharing selected blogs from the class, providing an opportunity to glean into the bright minds and opinions of the young people that engaged with agroecology this semester. In this second contribution, Lena Connolly offers us a glimpse of her experience with the Intervale Community Farm, located in Burlington, Vermont. Enjoy !!

Ernesto Méndez, Professor of Agroecology and ALC Co-Director, Department of Plant and Soil Science and Environmental Program

Community Resilience: Social Dimensions of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty at the Intervale Community Farm

By Lena Connolly, Environmental Studies major

During my second February, my family moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to Burlington, Vermont. After a harrowing first winter in the Northeast, one of the first things we did, when summer came, was join a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) at the Intervale Community Farm (ICF). This membership provided access to a full season of produce and value-added products to be picked up weekly from the Intervale’s lush peri-urban location, nestled between Winooski and Burlington on the banks of the Winooski River. Each week at pick-up, my family would bike, walk, or drive the half-mile commute from our house in the Old North End of Burlington to the vibrant haven of the Intervale. After making our way down a dirt road, dotted with signs stating “Dusty Road!” and “Drive Slow: Farmers Can’t Breathe!” we’d be greeted by the friendly faces of our farmers and the bustling community of ICF. There were tables of beautiful produce, a rainbow of colors. Ripe tomatoes, fresh french bread. There were families of all shapes and sizes. Children were playing on upcycled toys in fields of black-eyed susans and sunflowers. To a freshly transplanted family, this space not only provided locally grown food, just blocks away from our home, but it offered community. Through potlucks, dinners, parties, and play-dates during pick up hours, the Intervale quickly became a sanctuary for my family and me; it was the first seed in developing our new home and our place within this community. 

The Intervale Community Farm (ICF) shed (photo by Lena Connolly)

As a child growing up in a semi-urban town, the Intervale provided a place where I could get my hands dirty, climb trees, see how carrots grew, and watch bees pollinate flowers. Without knowing it, the Intervale taught me the fundamentals of ecology and agriculture; it taught me how the natural world works. The Intervale provided conversations with friends, or fiddle music on a warm summer day. Most of all, it provided the feeling of nourishment through both land and community–something that remains essential in a rapidly industrialized human world. Spaces like this–that remind us how the world works, and that vibrant communities grow from the ground up–are a crucial element of a resilient society as we move into a more climate-intense, anthropocentric future. Throughout the twenty years of my family’s membership at ICF, I have left pick-up each week feeling grounded, hopeful, and united within my community of people and within my sense of place in Burlington.  

As I have grown older, ICF continues to hold great importance in my life, and through my experiences in academia, studying environmental studies and human ecology, I have realized just how special the Intervale is. By taking courses like Advanced Agroecology, I am more able to understand the unique aspects and methods of community building that ICF implements. Within the social dimensions of Agroecology, there are several key principles that I have noticed at ICF: co-creation and sharing of knowledge, diversity, human and social values, culture and food traditions, and resilience. While ICF does promote and utilize agroecology in their farming practices, I have been more aware of and immersed-in the social dimensions of agroecology that are represented on the farm. 

Basket of fresh, colorful bounty, from the Intervale Community Farm (photo by Lena Connolly)

Agroecology is a concept that is rooted in applied local knowledge systems; in this, it depends on horizontal pedagogies of sharing knowledge and skills about communities and agriculture. This implies communication on multiple scales of the food system, mainly between producers and consumers. At ICF, this aspect of Agroecology is one of the first that comes to mind. The farmers at ICF regularly interact with the consumers; it is clear that the community is based on this type of communication and collaboration. Whether that is through farmers checking-in CSA members, restocking vegetables, or answering questions about the best ways to prep that week’s produce, it is clear who the people behind the food are. 

One of the core facets of any resilient system is diversity, which is another value that is apparent at ICF, within both the products and the community. The ICF community is home to many different identities. There are many families like mine, but there are also college students, newly immigrated Americans, older folks, children, and a number of other types of people. This diversity leads to numerous opportunities for co-creation, sharing of knowledge, and other types of communication as well as community building within different social groups in Burlington. The diversity at ICF also addresses issues of access and exclusivity in the local and organic food movement, which tends to only cater to people of higher socio-economic backgrounds. ICF seeks to bring local, organic food to every plate at the table and has community partnerships with gleaning organizations and other food-access groups in order to make this happen, which touches on another core element of agroecology: human and social values. 

Another component of Agroecology that ICF encourages is culture and food traditions. One of the core facets of a culture and community is gathering over food. Not only does ICF provide delicious local foods, a reason for any family to gather over the table, they also host a number of social events throughout the year including pizza parties and end-of-season dinners. One of my favorite traditions that has stemmed from my share at ICF is gathering friends, right around the first week of school, to bike down to the farm, pick up my share, and make a big dinner with our bounty. Local foods are the avenue for increasing community involvement with each other and in the local food system. It also encourages members to cook with seasonally appropriate, locally-oriented products; contributing to a sense of place in the food system. 

Finally, one of the most essential components of Agroecology that I have noticed at ICF is resilience. Resilience is the capacity of a system to bounce back to its original state after experiencing disturbance. In its ecology, ICF is an incredibly adaptable and resilient system, as it lies in the flood plains of the Winooski River and experiences seasonal fluxes of disturbance, meaning farmers have to alter their farming practices in order to accommodate environmental factors. The Intervale property, as a whole, also demonstrates resilience because it has gone from being a natural area, to a public and industrial waste site in the early 20th Century, to then being the largest agricultural area within the Burlington City Limits. The Intervale currently exists in a hybrid state of multiple uses, being a natural area, a public recreation site, and farmland. The ICF community also fosters resilience for its members. I have talked with a number of other CSA members who have all reported that ICF gives them hope for the future; that despite the formidable threats of climate change, political frustrations, or tumultuous home lives, the Intervale provides a space of community as well as a calm breath away from the chaos of life. It’s a simple reminder of the powerful and grounding effects of community, agriculture, and, most notably, cultivating roots in a place. 


“10 Elements of Agroecology.” 10 Elements | Agroecology Knowledge Hub | Food and Agriculture  Organization of the United Nations.


Voices from the Fall 2019 Advanced Agroecology Class

Voices from the Fall 2019, Advanced Agroecology Class, at the University of Vermont (UVM)

Every fall, for the last 10 years or so, I have been learning with the Advanced Agroecology class, at the University of Vermont (UVM). The course seeks to engage students in a diversity of learning experiences, ranging from scientific reading to farm work. One new addition this semester was to ask students to write a blog on an agroecology topic. In the next few weeks we will be sharing selected blogs from the class, providing an opportunity to glean into the bright minds and opinions of the young people that engaged with agroecology this semester. This first blog is by Isabella Alessandrini and focuses on heirloom seeds. Enjoy !!

Ernesto Méndez, Professor of Agroecology and ALC Co-Director, Department of Plant and Soil Science and Environmental Program

Heirloom Seeds for the Future of Food Security

By Isabella Alessandrini, UVM Dietetics, Nutrition and Food Science major

Walk into a grocery store at any time of the year and the amount of choices can be borderline overwhelming… Massive pyramids of glossy apples, stacks of ginormous strawberries, thick bundles of dark leafy greens, bags of smooth baby carrots all neatly trimmed the same way. What more could a shopper ask for?! Yet in this time of seemingly excessive abundance, there are hundreds of plants we used to eat being excluded from the table. 

As agriculture and transportation have become more industrialized to grow food on enormous scales, many varieties of plants have been edged off our plates in favor of types that can withstand being transported long distances and look the same pretty much anywhere for shoppers everywhere. The tomato seems to be the emblem of the sacrifices that came with this transition because from a prized treat smacking of late summer, it has morphed into a round, tomato-like commodity encountered in supermarkets that yes, is still red, but has lost every other part of its identity in favor of shelf longevity. These gas-guzzling world travelers survive the endurance marathon from farm to produce aisle, but they often arrive without much flavor, freshness or nutrients to spare. 

Most fruits and veggies we buy have gone through a similar tract since the 1800s, leaving only the sturdiest varieties to stock the shelves and hundreds of others out in the cold. Just imagine the display if produce aisles were filled with all the ones we used to grow– frilly Redbor purple kale, charismatic red warty thing squash, lavender striped Rosa Bianca eggplants, deep indigo cobs of corn, teeny tiny cherry bomb peppers, each one ripening to the fullest before being consumed. We can all be advocates for plants by growing heirloom varieties. 

 Heirlooms Explained 

So what is an heirloom anyways? A porcelain tea set that came with your house? That wooden rocking chair beloved by Grandpa Joe? The vegetable world version of your great-great-great aunt’s brooch collection? Kind of, but way more useful, and they don’t take up nearly as much space in the attic. 

Heirloom corn seeds from Chiapas, Mexico (Photo by Margarita Fernandez).

Heirloom seeds are like the precious family jewels of humanity that fit in a seed packet and everyone has the right to inherit. Growing heirlooms is a delicious way to rebel against the bland and support what you want to protect. And! It’s only a one-time investment as seed-saving gives time and time again.

Heirloom seeds yield more than just food– they sprout resilience and protection of our history and the future. It has been proven historically that relying on a couple of crops to sustain us just does not work; it leaves us vulnerable to disasters like the Irish potato famine, fungal wipe-out of the banana industry and stem rust threatening wheat and barley crops.

Consider the Gilfeather turnip, our state vegetable. A large root with a sweet, rutabaga like flavor and lovely purple shoulders, the Gilfeather turnip was developed by John Gilfeather who intended for the variety to die with him. But a few seeds were thankfully squirreled away by someone who got the plant officially registered as an heirloom variety and now a part of the world’s edible history forever. 

The intention of this post is not to say that everyone must only ever buy produce like those strikingly lobed multicolored local heirloom tomatoes being sold for $6.99 a pound, as they can definitely be cost-prohibitive. If prices of heirlooms in farmers markets are too steep, seed catalogs and swaps are filled with lovely varieties that can easily thrive in community gardens, a porch, a window sill– anywhere they can be given attention and nutrients to keep on keeping on.

A great thing about our era of stunningly widespread global trade and hyper-interconnectedness is that we have so much more knowledge to exchange along with all those goods being shipped around.  For example, many of our favorite tomato varieties like Black Krim, Cosmonaut Volkov, and Red Siberian were bred in Eastern Europe over on the Crimean peninsula as sturdy plants that can brave a short growing season like Vermont’s. Imagine if the seeds weren’t saved one fateful growing season and the last tough yet flavorful tomato variety left couldn’t bear this zone, forever dooming us to tomato-like impersonators shipped from elsewhere… I don’t even want to go there. 

Social justice is a core pillar of the heirloom movement, as it seeks to involve and benefit everyone in the food system not just foodies concerned about flavor. One can purchase seeds of corn from Chiapas in solidarity with Zapatista farmers to show support of their traditional growing practices and resistance to the spread of GMOs. Or why not try finding out what crops were grown by the indigenous peoples who first lived on the land you call home and grow those to cultivate a sense of place? Initiatives like this enrich our meals, connect us with others’ experiences and often gives financial support to the farmers who are stewarding humanity’s future. 


IPES-Food (2016) From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems (IPES-Food). 


An Afternoon at UVM’s Horticulture Research and Education Center

An Afternoon at UVM’s Horticulture Research and Education Center

By Ernesto Méndez (ALC/PSS) and Rachel Leslie (CALS)

Many UVM students take pride knowing that over 25% of campus food comes from local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources. What they may not know is that a portion of that food is cultivated by UVM students just a few miles from campus at UVM’s Horticulture Research and Education Center (HREC).

Last Friday, the Department of Plant and Soil Science hosted a tour of HREC, bringing students, facility and other visitors from across campus to see the facility in action and learn more about its various education and research programs. 

“I was surprised by the variety of plants and size of the farm, considering the location,” said plant biology major Mackenzie Laverick, who attended the HREC tour.


Nestled in the peri-urban/suburban landscape of South Burlington, VT, the nearly 100-acre facility revolves around a three-pronged mission of fostering research, education and specialty crop production. Having been purchased by UVM in 1952, the facility has a rich history of research and education in agronomy, horticulture, and more recently, in ecological agriculture and agroecology.

There are 15 research projects underway this year, including research on invasive pests and diseases that affect apples, grapes, and vegetables. For education, the HREC hosts the Farmer Training Program (FTP), a 6-month intensive program for aspiring farmers and food systems advocates, and several undergraduate courses use the farm as an outdoor classroom. Apples, grapes, organic vegetables and broiler chickens comprise the production portion – sold through a CSA, a farmstand, the Old North End Farmers Market and UVM dining halls.

“I know about CSAs, but I didn’t know that a UVM farm had one,” said Molly Mathes, a food systems major who first learned about the HREC through one of her courses and had never been to the facility before the tour. “I think taking a class there would be fun,” she said.

Upon arriving for the tour, HREC director and plant and soil science research assistant professor Terence Bradshaw introduced the farm and its mission. After enjoying fresh apples and carrots grown on the farm, the visitors learned about some of the research projects underway, including plant and soil science lecturer Annie White’s work establishing pollinator habitats at the farm.

Farmer Training Program co-director Rachel Stievater discussed the farm’s educational mission. The Catamount Educational Farm, which comprises approximately 10-acres of the HREC facility, offers students and faculty the opportunity to learn and research hands-on specialty crop production and marketing. Through summer courses at the Catamount Educational Farm, UVM undergraduate students work side by side with students in the Farmer Training Program gaining hands-on experience in organic farming, crop planning and diversified farm management – the foundations of agroecology. Bradshaw concluded the tour with an educational walk through the grape and apple research plots. 

“The objective of the tour was to show the farm, and the educational and research opportunities it offers, to members of the UVM and Burlington community who might not know of it,” said Bradshaw. “We were pleased to have students and faculty in attendance from many UVM programs and colleges.”

The Plant and Soil Science Department is working hard with Bradshaw, Stievater, and Farmer Training Program co-director S’ra DeSantis to strengthen programs at the farm.

“We want to continue the good work, but also expand and support other UVM research and education endeavors related to agroecology, sustainable food systems, and landscape management,” said Ernesto Mendez, chair of the department. “More specifically, we believe the HREC provides ample opportunities for High Impact Educational Practices (HIEPs) as well as outreach and non-credit programs.”