BLOG: Designing functional PAR processes: the perspective from NFNA

Designing functional PAR processes: the perspective from NFNA

By Martha Caswell, ALC Co-Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BLOG: Querencia y Comida: Nuevomexicanx Tradition as a Model for Food Resilience

Querencia y Comida: Nuevomexicanx Tradition as a Model for Food Resilience

By Camilla Bustamante

Camilla was a participant in this years Introduction to Agroecology course (PSS 311), part of our Certificate of Graduate Study in Agroecology (CGSA), and wrote this piece as an ALC guest author.

Querencia as “love of home, love of place” is described by American author and founding father of Nuevomexicano Chicano literature, Rudolfo Anaya, in his foreword to Querencia: Reflections on a New Mexico Homeland (University of New Mexico Press).  And it is this querencia for northern New Mexico- El Norte- that is inextricably tied to the land and how the practices of cultivation have defined both place and people.  This querencia extends to the wisdom of Native and colonist antepasados whose Indo-Hispano heritage is rooted in La Madre Tierra, from the headwaters that serve the oldest acequia systems in the United States, to the adobe walls that envelop familia, to the parciantes on these acequias who collaborate to share water to grow for the needs of the community.  It is these food traditions that have assured food security in northern New Mexico for centuries.  Continued colonization and development of irrigable land move away from these practices and threaten the livelihood of these agroecological systems. 

Historic acequia waters channeled to farmland (Photo credit: Camilla Bustamante)

“…from centuries past to present, the wisdom of the ancestors alive, and I listening.”- R. Anaya

The villages of northern New Mexico (El Norte) are home to the descendants of prehistoric Native Pueblo and Spanish colonist peoples who established communities along the headwaters and streams flowing into the Rio Grande in an otherwise arid land.  Access to these waters, joined with indigenous wisdom and colonist understanding created that which is sacred and has fostered ceremony, community and familia.  Seasonal and companion planting, such as the Three Sisters being squash, corn, and climbing beans; the use of the alkaline in soil to preserve dried maiz concho (corn) so it would be available in the winter for posolé and frijole con chico, that would be part of many family meals. Still today, though threatened by the affliction of greed, the food systems in El Norte cultivate an earnest respeto y permiso (with respect and permission) for the land and people.  

In a conversation with old-timers in northern New Mexico a rancher who was 86 in 2005 told me that the land degradation didn’t start “until the fences came in with the Forest Service.” He reflected on the days when livestock were rotated to new locations each season to keep the underbrush and risk for overgrazing down. He noted that the rotation of livestock was in its own way, fire management.  It was also the rotation of vegetation crops that maintained the quality of the otherwise sandy loam soil. Communities planned their crops and exchanged their harvests that supported a more balanced diet. Once I was referred to derogatorily by an employer as a beaner, referencing my Chicana heritage. It was shortly after that when the Food and Drug Administration revised the Food Pyramid, placing legumes at the top. Proudly I can note that the people of El Norte, and many other indigenous communities, have known what is healthy for them.

Community, by nature, is self-defined, fluid in the outcome of shared values with each generation contributing to its ongoing identity.  The communities of El Norte have long been formed by those who share a mutual respect for the relationship between water and land, sharing in the identity of El Norte.  It is here in El Norte, where nature is a sacred member of the community, where seeds are family, and where days for planting and harvest are aligned with those of patron saints and phases of the moon.  The food traditions of El Norte were born from the wisdo

m of the ancestors establishing an unwrote discipline that has been practiced for centuries.  Greed, contemporary and historic, has often challenged the balance of life in this area.  It has been in revisiting the folkore of our ancestors, and alignment with natures systems, where we have often found solutions to our modern-day conflicts.  

“…we learned a deep, enduring love for the sacredness of the earth, for the unity of life, a harmony that brings peace and happiness. Querencia means vecinos.” -R. Anaya

Acequia with pool (Photo credit: Camilla Bustamante)

Nature as a sacred community member is ever evolving and adapting to the influences of its vecinos.  From the headwaters that are driven to nourish the fields, orchards and livestock, agua es vida – life wants to live.  Nature’s course is to nourish, and traditional farming methods were seemingly aware of this fact.  It is in El Norte where querencia is born of indigenous knowing and cultivated in a manner that cannot be disputed, and are supported by science.  It is in these local practices where a sense of place and identity are formed and shared with our vecinos.  When we are in disharmony, nature will seek to create balance.  To live as a parciante on an acequia means to abide by a system that seeks to assure that all vecinos are served equally.  When we contest natural laws, nature will hold its course and time will reveal the victor.  When discord disrupts balance, our sense of unity and harmony is compromised.  The lessons of our ancestors teach us to work with and respect natural systems and hold natural laws as sacred. 

It has been said that the remains of ancestors that billow when the wind picks up the land.  It is this land where seeds are planted and provide nourishment as they have for the ancestors and will for future generations.  For farmers whose use of the land has become tradition, and the tradition is to produce food, the connection becomes integral to identity – if “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” then there is profound meaning in connection to the land.  In El Norte there are communities whose identities are based on the connections to the land and the ancestors who billow in the seasonal winds.  It is not uncommon that seeds are identified by a family name and referenced by the grandmother who acquired it for a family or community.

As the local communities have transitioned from the barter to the cash economy, the local food system has become a complex dynamic of access, economics, tradition, and identity.

Our sense of place, with unique geographic elements, customs, practices and people, conforms only to the natural environment that surrounds it.  In historic communities with pre-historic roots, such as in El Norte, the foods are unique to place.  Some foods have been derived from indigenous tradition and others have been adapted from European influence to accommodate ingredients available to the area.  It is here where the influences of the natural environment on food culture contribute to both personal and community identity.  Shared experience contributes to community identity, and sense of place contributes to how we see ourselves in our community.  External influences on the traditional people of El Norte have only in the last century had a profound influence on the economics and perception of wealth, as well as the desire for convenience.  Labor on the land is less desirable when comfort and convenience can be purchased. Community food traditions are threatened by imported food commodities and systems and the threat to community health prevails.  As our traditional community food systems are challenged, so is identity.  Knowledge of oneself and sense of community is necessary for mental and spiritual health, and when nature is part of our community, our physical health is a benefactor.  The messages of our ancestors remain constant and the traditions contribute to the livelihood of the lands and its peoples. 

To learn more about the New Mexico Acequia Association  Donate

NEWS: ALC Antiracism and Justice Statement

ALC Antiracism and Justice Statement

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

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

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


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

For Coffee Farmers, Diversification Key to Sustainability​​

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

NEWS: ALC member featured in Seven Days article on VT mutual aid

ALC member featured in Seven Days article on VT mutual aid

From left: Austin Kahn, Sam Bliss and Emma Schoenberg of Food Not Bombs – JAMES BUCK

ALC graduate student, Sam Bliss, has been working tirelessly with Food Not Bombs for years. Their work, and that of many other VT organizations, are featured in this Seven Days article, highlighting their efforts since the onset of the COVID pandemic.

Member interview: Nils McCune on Puerto Rican coffee farmers, pandemic response and resilience, community building, and beyond

Member interview: Nils McCune on peasant balances, Hurricane Maria, the power of popular movement building and beyond

Nils McCune, a research fellow at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Mexico, is the newest member of the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative. To welcome him to our community of practice, ALC graduate student Sam Bliss interviews him here about an article he got published a year ago in the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. 

This research is about Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ responses to the crisis triggered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. It continues a recent theme on the ALC blog: in February, Sam interviewed ALC grad student Tatiana Gladikh about her research on Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ participation in government conservation programs; and in March, ALC grad student Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz wrote about how the Covid-19 pandemic impacts food sovereignty in Puerto Rico. Both argued that current policy stands in the way of making the island’s agri-food food systems more just, ecological, and resilient. In what follows, Nils talks about how Puerto Rican peasant farmers are already coming together to construct sovereign food systems, from the understanding that people must build power collectively to make change for the better because those in positions of power will not.

Sam Bliss: The article you published last year was titled, “Peasant balances and agroecological scaling in Puerto Rican coffee farming.” What are peasant balances?

Nils McCune: Every day we make decisions about how to use our time and energy. These decisions involve combining different kinds of values, as well as considerations of the present and the future. A good example is the way the quarantine is hitting those people who are able to work from home, in the presence of their family or in their community, and who must balance an economy of care with a needed level of income. How important is it that I play with a child instead of letting him look at a screen all day? Can I balance that needed playtime with getting my salaried work done? Are there certain key tasks that, once completed, let me then switch the use of my time and energy and just focus on taking care of my family or my community? These are ways that all people make sense of the different systems of values that make up our social and cultural reality. We learn to strike many invisible balances, and we sometimes drop the balance for periods of time, in order to focus on one particular need– like writing a thesis–, but eventually we must find the balance again, before our hair falls out and we go mad.

In the early years of the Soviet Revolution, there was an enormous debate about how to end poverty and hunger in Russia. Socialism was supposedly based on an industrial model, but Russia was a country of poor peasants and rich landlords. So the question was how to carry out a land reform that could guarantee food production, but also develop a social consciousness, a revolutionary sense of social responsibility. At the time — like today — many thought that peasants represented inefficiency, backwardness, poverty, and ignorance. However, a prominent agricultural economist, Alexander Chayanov, noticed that peasants were in fact operating a sophisticated system of labor-based, non-market economies. Today we might call them circular, sustainable economies. A peasant family worked extremely hard until it had guaranteed that everyone would have enough to eat, and then it stopped working and began holding cultural activities, harvest festivals, or simply resting. Chayanov called this the consumer-drudgery balance.

Rather than a capitalist economy, where profit-maximizing is the goal, the peasant economy is built upon balances that ensure health, promote local traditions and provide for future well-being. What makes it all unique is the fact that peasants are able to build this autonomy even while being pushed on all sides by capitalist relations — labor markets, land sales, commercial seeds, fertilizer and pesticide marketing schemes, credit programs, commodity prices, migration, and so on. Peasant balances are the duck-and-weave, the dance of long-term survival on the land, despite living within a predatory economic system. As such, building peasant balances means carving out non-capitalist spaces even while surrounded by a global capitalist system.

SB: Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico right in the middle of your interviews with farmers, organization representatives, and government officials. How did that change your initial research questions and plans?

NM: Well, it immediately introduced serious ethical implications to my work. Absolutely everyone I had met in Puerto Rico was thrown into a very serious disaster situation: damaged houses, roads and farms, tangled electrical wires everywhere, many communities cut off from towns. In Utuado, where our project was based, people were walking for hours in order to drink water from the rivers.

We all know that the roots of the crisis are in the colonial relationship that the United States has with Borikén (colonially known as Puerto Rico). That relationship, plus the deindustrialization of the US and the rules of the global financial system created a fictitious debt crisis, i.e. the people of Puerto Rico “owe” much, much more than they ever borrowed or received. Before the Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, there was already a very complex pseudo bankruptcy taking place that included the installation of a foreign economic council (“la Junta”) with the capacity to override Puerto Rican law in order to cut public services, in line with neoliberal theory that attacking the public sector would be the way for Puerto Rico to pay the Wall Street hedge funds that currently hold its debt. A preposterous arrangement, because the debt is unpayable even if every last public service were cancelled on the island, even if they privatized all schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, water, firefighters, and every other government institution. Plus privatizing services make it more difficult for Puerto Rico to have a functional economy capable of servicing debt payments. And remember that the hedge funds purchased that debt for fractions of a cent on the dollar, so they would be reaping profits of up to 10,000% if somehow the Puerto Rican people did pay the full official amount of the debt. 

So before the terrifying destructive power of Maria, there was already an extreme case of disaster capitalism, with debt vultures circling over the heads of the Puerto Rican people. There was already an ethical situation of how I, with a salary coming from the United States, could responsibly carry out a research project in a situation where such a huge economic crime is taking place. With the scale of the catastrophe created by Maria, I had a very difficult time figuring out how to ethically participate in the research project. There was an academic rush on Puerto Rico in that context– disasters make for good science — and I felt very torn about taking data from farmers who were facing enormous material losses, depression issues, and sometimes personal tragedy. I tried to be congruent with my values, spending time with farmers, bringing them tiny solar-powered lamps (which would appear for a couple days at a time in local stores), and checking in constantly with Organización Boricuá, the Via Campesina member organization, to hear their perspective on the local situation and my work. In the end, everything I have published on Puerto Rico has been with the co-authorship of Boricuá members. 

I also worked with Organización Boricuá on a month-long reconstruction brigade, which was a phenomenal experience. In a group of 20 to 30 people from several countries, popular organizations and cultural traditions — but spearheaded by the Black Dirt Farm Collective of African-American small farmers and peasants — we traveled from farm to farm, from Toa Alta to Vieques, spending two to four days in each place, sleeping in tents and doing construction work during the day, along with a lot of political and cultural activities. To me, there is a very interesting dialectic there. We’re dealing with a situation that obviously requires structural change, but rather than wringing our hands on the sidelines, or taking a “neutral”, academic, data extractivist approach, we participated in mutual aid brigades. These work brigades are not self-care; they are physically tough, transformative, collective experiences that dramatically change the situation for farmers. A farmer who has spend two months just looking at their destroyed farm– uprooted trees, broken sheds, twisted greenhouses– and all of a sudden a group of 20 people comes over with a bunch of power tools and celebrates a work party with them: rebuilds the shed, rebuilds the greenhouse, rebuilds the terraces, pulls the weeds, chops the broken trees into firewood, and plants the fields. By the time the brigade leaves, the farmer and the brigade are family. It is magical and possible at the same time; I think that the work brigade model is how we need to move forward with agroecology in every country, making adjustments as we go and respecting the fact that a Boricuá volunteer work brigade on the Isla del Encanto is a tough act to follow.

SB: You and your coauthors write that agroecological brigades traveled the countryside after Hurricane Maria helping what you call “unconventional” farmers repair infrastructure and restore their fields. How did these roaming collective work parties come together?

NM: They came together thanks to the excellent organizing work of several key people. Let me take a step back. Across the world, there is a tradition of people farming together. Enslavement-based plantation agriculture, then modernized agriculture, global free trade, the Green Revolution, consumerism, neoliberal politics, all of it is about breaking with these traditions to pursue an individualist, utilitarian myth of upward mobility, the nuclear family, living through our commodities. The Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica was formed in the late 1980s by independence activists who realized that without food sovereignty, Puerto Rican independence was an illusion. So they went up into the mountains and taught each other to farm. And Boricuá was founded through just this kind of work brigade. The model became important again in the economic crisis that has taken hold since 2014, and then even more so after the hurricanes of 2017. On the day after Hurricane Maria, there were already Boricuá brigades plowing and planting fields of Boricuá member farmers, in preparation for the food crisis that was about to begin. Sit on that for a second.

As the Puerto Rican social movements have continuously improved this model of work brigades– in the cities but especially in the countryside– organizations from many countries have taken notice. So immediately after the hurricanes, several organizations, led by Organización Boricuá, Black Dirt Farm Collective and the Climate Justice Alliance, along with allies such as WhyHunger and others, organized international brigades in addition to the permanent local brigades.  

SB: Why didn’t conventional farmers draw on their communities to rebuild?

NM: There is a labor scarcity in Puerto Rican agriculture, parallel in some ways to how US agriculture has been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. Simply put, farm prices do not allow farmers to pay decent salaries, because cheap, subsidized food floods Puerto Rican supermarkets. So, using a conventional economic farming model, nearly all farmers in Puerto Rico are losing money. It is only when farmers creatively use peasant balances, combining their own labor and know-how with solidarity networks, reducing external inputs and developing a relative autonomy from the market, that farming becomes a viable life activity. Many farmers are figuring this out, but like agriculture around the world, there is a major generation gap that separates elderly farmers from the youthful energy of the agroecological movement. Some young people really understand this problem and are making a strong effort to engage with non-agroecological farmers, basically in order to save Puerto Rican agriculture from the collapse of the conventional model. But Coca-Cola and Monsanto-Bayer are also major players in Puerto Rico; both own and rent a lot of farmland, and control markets, so there are big stakes. The big corporations in Puerto Rico basically play the same role that drug cartels play in Mexico, Colombia and several other countries: they monopolize and militarize when small-scale agriculture gets stuck in market economies where it is meant to lose.

SB: What does the experience of small farmers rebuilding after these recent hurricanes have to teach us about how to respond to and recover from the current crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic? 

NM:  Look, for quite some time now, it has been clear to the world’s decision makers that globalized food systems are totally unsustainable and have high vulnerability built into them. Since at least the food price crisis of 2007-08, governments, corporations, and international bodies such as FAO have known that food sovereignty– the right of people to control and defend their own farming, grazing, fishing and food systems using agroecological principles– is the only responsible way to move away from climate catastrophe and toward resilient food systems. But here is the lesson: the world’s leaders are not going to do anything about it. They will absolutely lead us off the climate cliff, with starvation, war, mass migration, and a lot of fascism to come.

Only the people will solve this. And if we can’t produce our own food, we will not be able to survive the coming storm. What I mean is that right now — not after the November elections, not after they find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, not after the next crisis, not after Rapture — right now, we can build food sovereignty by practicing agroecology and continuously pushing for justice in every walk of society, from the prison-industrial complex to the heroin epidemic to homelessness, from the banking system and the blatant racism of the Republican party to the unwavering imperialist foreign policy of both major parties. If we are not building a robust popular movement that reflects our values, we’re not being responsible to ourselves, much less the planet and those who will inherit what we leave behind. So our day-to-day can reflect that understanding, and a lot of humble efforts to build on one another’s ideas and actions can add up to big change.

SB: So, for peasants, labor isn’t so much a cost to be minimized but a resource for sustaining livelihoods and agroecosystems. What would a food system, or an economy, look like if we all viewed labor that way?

NM: That’s right, peasants do not necessarily subscribe to the Western dualist thought that separates work from everything else we do and turns our labor into a necessary evil in our lives. It is true that work is a part of life and sometimes we have to do things that are difficult. Just hang out with a peasant for a few hours and you will be marveled by what they can do. It’s true what they say: the real genius is in the working class. In the city or the countryside.

If we conceive of our life energy as something that can contribute to building the world we want to see, and we look for people who are doing things we want to support, then work becomes demystified and we find a tremendous amount of meaning in the many difficult things we do. That goes for spending time with elders, taking care of people’s children, planting, harvesting, building, fixing, healing. We call it movement time, movement labor. Not a new concept. There have always been people who dedicate their time to make sure others have the time to contribute to the social struggle. The key is to be part of a coherent whole that corresponds and reciprocates. Hard to find. But worth the journey.

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

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

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

Put down your buzzer, this is not Jeopardy.

Put down your buzzer, this is not Jeopardy.

A blog reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic by
ALC Educational Coordinator Vic Izzo

Since the “Stay home, Stay safe” order was initiated here in
Vermont, I have had the pleasure of spending each morning (and often evening)
exploring the wonders of nature with my two year-old son. Our journeys are
often a mixed bag. Some days we head out to a lesser-known hiking trail to
learn about trees, while others days you might find us inspecting the entrances
of ant nests poking out from the cracks in our driveway. Though these nature
observations are fun and educational, my son’s most enjoyable outdoor
excursions are our visits to our local community garden plots. Now don’t be
presumptuous about my son’s predilection for gardening… While he does enjoy
helping his dad turn soil, plant seeds, and water our thirsty seedlings, the
real reason he begs for “garden time” is the resident woodchip, soil, and
gravel “mountains” that he gets to climb unsupervised. With each successful
ascent of these “mountains” he raises his arms in the air and begs for my
adoration. These literal small victories are undeniably adorable; but more
importantly, they have been a healthy reminder for me to appreciate those
things around me…to smell the woodchips. To be honest, I barely noticed the
many piles of sorted materials until my budding mountaineer scoped them out. I
knew the piles were there but I never really acknowledged them or appreciated
their significance. They are generally not on my radar and I’m not a two year

Vic Izzo’s son triumphantly atop the woodchip pile by the family’s community garden plot.

I recently had a similar revelatory experience during an
intriguing ALC workshop led by a colleague from the Rubenstein School of
Natural Resources, Dr. Matt Kolan. Matt is the director of the Leadership for
Sustainability Master’s Program (MLS) here at UVM.  His work and teaching
uniquely examines leadership and education in a holistic and expansive way.
Students in the MSLS program actively engage in discussions and projects that
explore how power and privilege shape our educational and leadership
experiences. During his lecture, Matt pointed out that the dominant model of
higher education is built upon a process that selects for rapid and confident
responders and rewards those students with positive descriptors such as “fast
learner”, “quick processor”, or “confident speaker”. These designations are, of
course, quite familiar to me as they are the backbone of many of my best
recommendation letters. Never do I find myself writing that a student is a slow
learner, moderate processor, or quiet communicator.

As I sat and listened to Matt’s reimagining of the college
classroom, I found myself reliving some of my own undergraduate classroom
experiences. Vividly I remembered how I approached each class as a contestant
on Jeopardy, eagerly looking to prove my worth. From the moment I sat down in
class, I was in a race to respond to any question or comment before my
competitors could capture the instructor’s attention. In my mind, the entire
lecture process was an opportunity to quicken my intellectual skills. Yet, as
Matt and others within the workshop unpacked the pitfalls associated with
selecting for rapid responders, I suddenly began to see a giant woodchip pile
emerge from the periphery of my perspective. Similar to my son, Matt provided
me with a new lens, or more precisely, he expanded my view of the world around
me. He didn’t reveal anything necessarily complicated or new.Quite the
contrary, he simply pointed out a rather intuitive concept: reactionary
behavior is not always a beneficial trait. 

Much the same way that our educational systems select for
rapid responding students, our businesses, organizations and governmental
agencies tend to seek out leaders that exhibit those same fast thinking and
quick responding traits. Never has this tendency or bias been more evident than
in the current COVID-19 reality. As the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold of
our social, political and economic consciousness, so has the thirst for quick
responses and reactionary policies. Daily news headlines and articles are chock
full of economic timelines, infection rates, and critical examinations of
decision making speed. From an academic perspective, I’ve seen no less than
three recent grant requests-for-proposals (RFPs) with the word “rapid” in the
title and an appropriately paired “rapid” submission deadline. Now, I
acknowledge that crises, especially those of this magnitude, often necessitate
quick decisions to avert catastrophe. However, it is important to acknowledge
that the speed of a decision is rarely directly correlated with a successful
outcome. As many of my fellow educators can attest, the rapid move to online
instruction in response to the coronavirus outbreak, though (likely) necessary,
may not have achieved the outcomes our organizations expected. Our communities
are asking, begging leaders in every facet of society to make decisions, give
us answers…now. And yet, when those quick decisions, predictions, and/or
responses fail, we become angry, disappointed and (ironically) are often left
at the trailhead of a longer road to resolution. 

Witnessing and experiencing the pervasive pressure to make
quick decisive decisions in my home and work life has left me depressed,
frustrated, and introspective. It has also led me to more deeply consider the
revelations brought to light by both my son and colleague:

Perhaps it is time to pause.

Perhaps it is time to slow down some of our decision-making

Perhaps we need to call upon those “slow thinkers” to help

Perhaps there is a woodchip pile that we are not seeing that
can provide us with a better vantage point.  

Perhaps we should all take some time to think a little more
like a two-year old.

Read Matt Kolan and Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees paper on the intersections of sustainability, diversity, privilege and power here.

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

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

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

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

ALC members attend 1st USFSA Political Education Course

ALC members attend 1st USFSA Political Education Course

By Martha Caswell, in collaboration with Nils McCune, Megan Browning, and Efren Lopez

In the days right before we were asked us to stay home, the US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) held their first national political educational course in Apopka, Florida. We were hosted by the Farmworker Association of Florida and the course was designed following  a methodology of political formation developed in Latin America through the efforts of La Via Campesina (LVC) member organizations including the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), Organización Boricuá of Puerto Rico and the Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo (ATC) of Nicaragua, and others, which calls for an education of the mind, body and spirit. Participants came from the US, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada. Each drawn by the possibility of what we could create and learn by spending a week together focused on the history and future of food sovereignty in the US, and wanting to build a common political analysis of the food system that would lead us forward.

According to a 2018 publication from the European Coordination of La Via Campesina, food sovereignty is a ‘concept in action’ that  “…offers itself as a process of building social movements and empowering peoples to organise their societies in ways that transcend the neoliberal vision of a world of commodities, markets and selfish economic actors. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the myriad of complex problems we face in today’s world. Instead, Food Sovereignty is a process that adapts to the people and places where it is put in practice. Food Sovereignty means solidarity, not competition, and building a fairer world from the bottom up.” 

So, there we were, nearly 40 of us – gathered in the cabins and grounds of a summer camp, to listen, learn, unlearn, and strategize. We came as farmers, activists, members of coalitions, and representatives of front-line organizations, each trusting that this was a critical step in our movement forward. Though neither of us was officially there representing the ALC, both Nils and I were there – Nils as a delegate of LVC and I on behalf of the Agroecology Research Action Collective. The ambitious agenda of the week left less time for individual connections than everyone hoped, but we covered a lot of ground, and uncovered/rediscovered a lot of truths. Our food system is broken. It has been built on a base of exploitation of land and peoples, and yet that narrative has been carefully and intentionally covered up. Our work is to interrogate both our past and present, to recognize where we are complicit and bravely face the discomfort of seeing ourselves in what is wrong. Only then, and through building solidarity with others, will we be able to achieve the transformation we seek. This blog from Agrarian Trust’s Megan Browning catches the essence of the week,

One of the closing observations of the event was that to make this transformation we will need revolutionary discipline and revolutionary healing. So, surround yourselves with good revolutionary people (even if only virtually), and follow Adrienne Marie Brown’s advice that joy is a form of resistance. Megan ends her post with a poem written by Efren Lopez, one of the incredible youth participants representing the Community Agroecology Network . I’ll do the same – it deserves more than one reading.

the tools that those frogs spoke about by the fire ~efren lopez

cool pools form on victory
missing the wet steps i took
from my casita to the library
it’s a foggy feeling, but
the warmth from the pier by the pond
it was part of the healing

the snap back raised my head
chin up! this fight isn’t a bed
back and calm and partially better
only then did i realize the weather

one huge storm!
from street to street
from coast to coast
from sea to sea
from pole to pole
one huge storm!

while our methods to bare
might reappear invisibly
i recall that other feeling
that hasn’t fleeted
explaining why we made the effort
to come together in the first place


it really takes a heart for the land
to understand
that the resistance to the forces
before us
the ones who hate our guts
calls us ruts
deprives our dignity
lack of pity

have no chance
when the seeds we sow
food we cultivate
has our hands not pointed
but loosely gripped
to the tools that we made
for each other
passing them to one another

circling our
collective battles
we sit
their resiliency
our resistance
in joy!
in joy!!
in joy!!!