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
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.
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
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.
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
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 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.” 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.
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.
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.
Patton (2018). Principles-focus Evaluation: The Guide. New York, NY: The
 Patton, 2018, p. 171.
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Premier. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing
 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).
Our colleagues Vic Izzo and Scott Lewins of the Vermont Entomology and Participatory Action Research Team (VEPART) have just published an update on their innovative research on leek moth and the pests relationship with allium crops. The brief outlines the most recent updates of the work VEPART has been conducting over the past 5 seasons on several farms in Vermont. Learn more here!
Engaging in New Partnerships for Agroecological Transformation
By Ava Murphey, ALC Program Coordinator
8 January 2020
Earlier this year, the University of Vermont’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with four pertinent organizations that promote agroecological and development work in various sectors. These links were fused in an effort to formalize the co-creation of knowledge via innovative partnerships, outlining the intention for collaborative movement building. The goal of such an agreement is for all parties to engage in the synergistic sharing and receiving of knowledge and ideas in order to stimulate, cultivate, and propagate purposeful transformative projects.
In maintaining partnerships that span across different sectors, spheres of influence, and geographic regions the potential for amplified impact and transformation is high. The organizations with which the ALC has recently signed an MOU are Groundswell International, EcoSur, Statistics for Sustainable Development (Stats4SD), and the Centre for Agroecology, Water, and Resilience (CAWR). To name a few, these associations represent ties between academia, public research and development projects, grassroots organizing, and effective statistical analysis. This cooperative approach to co-creation and horizontal knowledge sharing is a direct manifestation of one of agroecology’s foundational principles: transdisciplinarity. The relationship between these groups and disciplines holds the immense capacity for transformative systems change, something which profoundly aligns with and enhances the mission of the ALC and their professional partners.
Collaboration in action
One partnership worth highlighting is that with Groundswell International. In October of 2018, Groundswell contracted the ALC to support participatory monitoring and evaluation on a project focused on strengthening farmer seed systems with eight organizations in southern Mexico. A year later, on October 18th, 2019 the two organizations celebrated the result of abundant planning and coordinating in their first ever official collaborative occasion, a one-day participatory event that took place at the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Alumni House. The event, titled “Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology,” was an engaging and inspiring day that left participants feeling poised to build bridges and tackle the issues they face in their various professional sectors.
To give some context to the conversation, it is important to highlight the essence of the association between Groundswell International and the ALC. Of critical relevance in the linkage between these two groups is the study and practice of agroecology. In its simplest form, agroecology provides the lens with which to observe ecological processes and their applications to agricultural production systems1. However, agroecology encompasses much more than scientific observation; it is a transdisciplinary approach (merging ecological science with social science, local and indigenous knowledge systems, etc.) that guides research and action towards the sustainable transformation of our food system2.
Groundswell International is a non-profit organization that strengthens communities and farmers’ organizations to deepen and scale agroecological approaches with the aim of improving lives in 10 different countries around the world. Groundswell’s aim is to strengthen farmer-led innovation, and promote exponential farmer-to-farmer learning to generate widespread social and ecological change, strengthen local food systems, inform policy, and shift investment and development strategies. The work of Groundswell and its partners is inherently community-led, participatory and transdisciplinary in nature. It is within these frameworks that the most salient connection emerges with their UVM partners, the ALC.
While Groundswell International exercises its prowess in the non-profit sector, the ALC promotes complementary goals while operating within an academic setting, utilizing the principles of agroecology and Participatory Action Research (PAR) in the field with projects in New England and around the globe. The ALC is a community of practice that includes faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and a host of local and global collaborators. The mission of the ALC is to “co-create evidence and knowledge, with farmers and other actors, to cultivate socially just and ecologically sound food systems3.” Students and faculty alike conduct research and collaborate on projects that integrate academic disciplines, amplify the voices of non-research actors, and seek real world solutions to global food system challenges.
All of this came into play in October’s workshop. While the Groundswell International team met on UVM’s campus with leaders of partner organizations from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Mexico, and Nepal for their biannual global conference, the ALC team was hard at work preparing for the public event at the end of the week, “Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology.” The ALC’s practice of PAR informed the structure of the day. Instead of creating an environment in which participants received a deluge of information from various speakers, the idea was to engage participants in strongly facilitated discussions and activities in which all attendees were heard and valued as critical contributors to the conversation. Through a combination of individual and group work, participants were encouraged not only to share their experiences with a larger audience, but also to take a critical look at themselves and their specific roles within this movement. Strengthening this internal understanding, along with a healthy dose of external inspiration, can be a powerful way to deepen collective learning and augment meaningful change.
The 80 attendees ranged in their backgrounds from academics, philanthropists, allies, activists, students, farmers, and beyond. In the morning, break out groups heard from three Groundswell representatives from different countries about their strategies to tackle key challenges in promoting agroecology: farmer-to-farmer innovation; women’s empowerment; nutrition-linkages; local markets; and climate resilience. Then, key lessons were shared with the full audience through a dynamic poster fair where participants got to rotate and learn about each theme from grassroots practitioners. ALC facilitators and Groundswell staff and partners collaborated to ensure lively dialogue and learning.
The event featured speakers from all over the world who provided insight into their agroecological projects that centered on themes of climate change resilience, local markets, nutrition, women’s empowerment, and farmer-to-farmer innovation. Pictured on the right is Tsuamba Bourgou, Groundswell Regional Coordinator for West Africa
(Photos: Sara Klimek, UVM Junior Environmental Studies)
The afternoon was dedicated to a round-table workshop that centered on the metaphor of a puzzle. New groups were formed and each group came up with their response to the theme of the day: “how do we build collaboration to amplify agroecology?” They represented the answer to this question on a large puzzle piece. In closing, each group presented their piece, as the collaborative puzzle was assembled on the wall, bit by bit. One puzzle piece boasted an elaborate drawing of a cart pulled by a campesino with a rising sun that represented ancestral knowledge and wisdom; another displayed a colorful tree of traced hands that spoke to the interconnectedness and solidarity found in agroecological resilience; and yet another highlighted the importance of acknowledging power and privilege as we enter into dialogues about inciting change. The final product was beautiful- a vibrantly decorated and rustically assembled puzzle on the wall of the conference room that everyone in the room had contributed to. Yet this puzzle was just a visual expression of multiple connections and opportunities for collaboration identified by participants.
The UVM Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative facilitation team organized various individual and group work sessions reflecting on agroecology in action and as a social movement.
If we zoom out to the larger picture again for a moment, the collaborative event between the ALC and Groundswell International provides an excellent example of exactly what it proposed to have participants engage in: “building collaboration to amplify agroecology.” Groundswell International and ALC are building off of this experience to deepen collaboration, and through its MOU with various organizations, the ALC aims to expand and strengthen networks and interdependence with the ultimate goal of transformative agroecology.
Returning to the puzzle that was assembled at the end of that October day, some pieces remained blank- a representation of those that we need to work harder to include at the table, of those voices that are underrepresented, and work yet to be done. The empty spaces are also a promise. A promise to the future and all that it holds; the spark of inspiration for collaboration that has been cultivated throughout this partnership and the hope that our future embodies the potential for systematic global transformation.
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
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 theMD code of conductand cooperate with theMilk 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.
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.
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 theCIDSE 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, 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
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. 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.
You may be familiar with diversity-enhancing practices in terrestrial agroecosystems like intercropping, cover crops, agroforestry, and crop diversification, 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. 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. In China, we see some systems that integrate fish, aquatic plants, and waterfowl, but there is still little diversity within each group. 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. 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. 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. 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. The FCR on average is 12.5 for cattle, 3 for pigs, and 1.5 for poultry. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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
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.
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.
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.