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.
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
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.
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 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).
Ava Murphey of UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) and Fatou Batta, Groundswell International West Africa consultant and project partner, share insights from community dialogue at ALC & Groundswell’s “Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology Conference.” (Photo: Sara Klimek)
What do two community development professors, a business analyst for a value-added processing firm in Burlington, a saffron grower from Iran, a community supported agriculturalist from Ecuador, and a third year University of Vermont student have in common? A place at the table.
At this year’s Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology Conference, hosted by Groundswell International and UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), I was given the opportunity to meet with a variety of stakeholders for a discussion about what integrative agroecology frameworks actually look like. The conference, held at the UVM Alumni House, celebrated the work different agroecologists from around the world are doing to promote sustainable, bio-regenerative agriculture, and improve the livelihoods of all who are involved in the food system.
Representatives from Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Mali, and seven other countries shared how their programs were meeting market demand for products, advancing gender equity, improving community access to nutrition, and addressing global climate challenges. Their stories showed how agroecology, which incorporates ecological and other principles into agricultural production systems, can build more sustainable and equitable food systems from the ground up.
During an afternoon roundtable session, I had the opportunity to meet with a diverse group of individuals to reimagine and redefine what a robust agroecology framework might look like. We were tasked with answering questions about what ecological, economic, and social motivations are embedded within agroecology and how we, in our various roles, can collaborate to advance our shared values and missions.
As someone who does not come from a particularly rich background in practical agroecological applications, I at first struggled to ground myself around a table of people with decades of experience in the field. After all, what could a UVM student contribute to a technical discussion on the nuances of how to define agroecology?
In short, quite a lot. But I gained even more.
Not only did I learn about the projects that other people in my group had worked on, such as the marketing of sugarcane in Honduras to selling Peruvian potatoes to Pepsi Co., but I learned more about the importance of changing how we think about the value of food.
Our group began our discussion of why agroecology was different than traditional agricultural practices with a brief overview of the problems of a global, disconnected food system. We were relatively quick to diagnose many of the problems within our food system as the result of a disconnect between the people who grow the food and the people who consume the food. One of my fellow group members who operates a CSA in his home country commented that, “relationships are the potential.” In a time of geopolitical instability, his CSA was able to feed nearly 40 families and also bring a sense of identity back to his local food system. Instead of monetary trade, he developed a bartering system with those in his community- a value he deems as “immeasurable.”
In a world that stresses the importance of automation and economic efficiency, it is no surprise that we have lost the social capital invested in our food system. Agroecology strives to invest social capital back into food systems through meaningful interactions between community partners, organizations like Groundswell International, and academic institutions like UVM. While the traditional agricultural and economic paradigms have sought to standardize the process by which people interact with their food, agroecology seeks to exchange knowledge, stories, and relationships to optimize success for all.
It’s clear that none of us have the answers alone about how to solve the complex issues of the food system, but by cultivating collaboration and empowering local farmers, we have the potential to transform our current food system into one that is more sustainable and socially just. Within the short conversation I had at my roundtable, with people who were clearly invested in bringing relationships back into the food system, I was challenged to think more critically about what it means to be both a steward of the planet and a student interested in the agroecology field. I was able to connect with people who brought immense diversity in ideas, methodology, and training to the conference, and left with new connections and renewed commitment to the agroecology movement.
Conferences like Amplifying Agroecology offer the unique opportunity to assess the progress that has already been made to invest in the social capital of food systems, and also build a roadmap for what the next chapter will look like.
Sara Klimek is a junior environmental studies major with minors in food systems and nutrition and food science at UVM.
ALC member highlight: Alissa White and Alisha Utter gain recognition for their work and research
In the past month two members of the ALC (Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative) community of practice have been featured in various media streams. It is a true honor to be able to share the incredible work these two women are doing.
Alissa White is a PhD student in the Department of Plant and Soil Science. Using participatory action research methods, she explores the potential for farmer networks to support the adaptive capacity of farmers in the face of a changing climate. Alissa was recently featured in an episode of the Eastern New York Veg News Podcast expanding more upon her work surrounding climate change adaptations for growers in the Northeast.
Alisha Utter is also a PhD student in the Department of Plant and Soil Science. Alisha explores the relationships between veganic farming, agroecology, and regenerative agriculture. She does this not only through the research associated with her PhD but also by managing a farm of her own, Arbor Farmstead, with Kyle Bowley. In a recent episode of the USDA’s weekly blog Fridays on the Farm, Alisha and Arbor Farmstead were the main feature. See the story here.
Congratulations to these two amazing leaders of agroecological research and practice. Thank you, Alissa and Alisha, for the inspiring work that you are committed to!
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.”
ALC and Groundswell International Co-Host Agroecology Conference at the University of Vermont (UVM)
The ALC and Groundswell International are co-organizing the global conference on “Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology“. This event is the result of the formalization of a partnership between UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), in the UVM Plant and Soil Science Department (PSS), and Groundswell International. For several years, Groundswell and the ALC have been collaborating and working on strengthening our partnerships. Both organizations are committed to using agroecology to better understand and transform our current food systems into ones that are more sustainable and socially just. ALC has strengths in agroecology and participatory action research (PAR), while Groundswell conducts bottom-up, local agroecology projects with farmers and communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
This event will showcase some of Groundswell’s projects and people, and engage participants in a dynamic and reflective methodology to discuss how to deepen our collaborations in agroecology-related work. We hope participants will be able to collectively learn, network and genuinely connect with each other.