Agroecology Extension (AX) Summer Research Fellowship

Exploring Sustainable Agriculture: The AX Summer Research Fellowship at UVM

Are you passionate about sustainable agriculture and eager to dive into hands-on research? Look no further than the Agroecology Extension (AX) Summer Research Fellowship at the University of Vermont. This fully-paid, 10-week fellowship offers undergraduates from across the United States the opportunity to immerse themselves in the vibrant world of agroecology in the heart of Vermont.

Program Overview

The AX Fellowship is a collaborative initiative between UVM Extension and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, spearheaded by the Institute for Agroecology situated on UVM’s main campus in Burlington, VT. The fellowship pairs students with mentors involved in diverse applied research and outreach projects, ranging from pest management to ecological landscape design. With UVM providing the projects, mentorship, and research sites, participants bring their enthusiasm and willingness to engage under the warm Vermont summer sun.

Program Goals

The AX Summer Research Fellowship is designed to achieve several key objectives:

Transdisciplinary Learning

Participants gain hands-on experience and develop adaptable research, leadership, and outreach skills by engaging with real-world agricultural challenges.

Career Preparation

The fellowship prepares students for careers and further education in agroecology and extension, equipping them with the tools and knowledge needed to thrive in these fields.

Faculty Collaboration

Fellows are matched with UVM faculty and staff, offering them the opportunity to work within Vermont’s multifaceted agricultural landscape and contribute to new and ongoing Extension outreach projects.

Community Engagement

The program is committed to addressing issues of power and privilege in agroecology and extension. Through collaboration with a diverse network of stakeholders, including researchers, farmers, and organizational leaders, participants explore complex contemporary issues through the lens of agroecology.


While we are a largely white-led program in a predominantly white state, we work diligently to address topics of power and privilege in agroecology and extension. To do this, we collaborate with a broad and diverse network of researchers, farmers, organizational leaders, and academics. We invite them into the program to address complex contemporary issues through the lens of agroecology. In partnering with UVM Center for Cultural Pluralism, UVM Identity Centers and the Living Well Program, we further facilitate students’ connections with campus resources focused on wellbeing and belonging.

Join Us!

The AX Summer Research Fellowship offers a unique opportunity for students to deepen their understanding of sustainable agricultural practices, develop valuable skills, and engage with extension work in Vermont. Whether you’re interested in environmental science, sustainable cropping systems, or ecological landscape design, there’s something for everyone in this dynamic program.

Ready to take the next step in your academic and professional journey? Apply now and be part of a transformative summer experience with the AX Fellowship at UVM.

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Written by Reid Parsons.

Final Call for Proposals: Institute for Agroecology Small Grants

Final Call for Proposals -
Institute for Agroecology Small Grants (2024)

The UVM Institute for Agroecology is now accepting grant applications for the 2024 calendar year. Five grants, ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, will be awarded to community-engaged research projects led by UVM faculty. Projects must be related to agroecology and sustainable food systems, and funds must be used before December 31, 2024. Full information here

Deadline Extension

New Deadline: We have extended the application deadline to 11:59pm Tuesday March 5th 2024, providing applicants with additional time to refine their proposals and ensure their alignment with the program’s objectives.

New Option for Application

Community Partner Option: Recognizing the invaluable role of community partnerships in advancing agroecological research, we’re introducing a new option for signaling community support. As part of your application, you will now have the choice to include either a community partner letter of support, or a list with the name(s) and contact information for your community partner(s). If you opt for the second option and are a finalist, we will contact your partner(s) for a brief conversation.

Grant Details

Grant Objective: Community-Engaged Research in Agroecology and Food Systems, a small grants program, will support a cohort of UVM faculty undertaking community-engaged research projects related to agroecology and sustainable food systems.

Financial Details: Five grants, ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, will be awarded to projects demonstrating strong collaboration with community partners and a commitment to addressing systemic inequities in food production and distribution. Funds are made available from the UVM Office of the Vice President for Research.

Timeline: The deadline for application is March 15, 2024. Recipients will be notified of awards by March 30, 2024. The timeline to spend grant funds is calendar year 2024 (by December 31, 2024).

Eligibility: The principal investigator (PI) must be a UVM faculty member. Co-principal investigators and collaborators can include other faculty, staff and graduate students. An individual can only serve as PI for one active small grant award.

Further Information and Application

For complete grant details and application, please visit this site or click the button below.


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Written by Reid Parsons.

Update from the Field: Soil analysis in the coffee plots

Update from the field: Soil analysis in the coffee plots

Between March and June this year, as part of our soil health project in smallholder coffee plots in Guatemala and Mexico, our team returned to the farms to collect soil samples and some additional data. As in the first visits, we focused on the same two sites within each plot: those that farmer-participants considered most fertile and least fertile. In total, we visited 60 plots in Mexico and Guatemala, collecting 120 soil samples in total. From there, we’ve moved on to analysis, including several analytical methods that we’ve conducted within the cooperative offices. A new post in the blog we’ve created to follow this process details what we’ve been up to over the last few months and a bit more on why we’re doing it. 

Read on newest entry to learn more.

Agroecological education in the Andes: Strategies for community-centered co-learning 

Agroecological education in the Andes

Strategies for community-centered co-learning

Transitions toward just and sustainable food systems are complex processes involving evolving relationships between communities of plants, animals, fungi and bacteria, as well as conscious action by growing numbers of people with shared values. At the Institute for Agroecology (IFA), we focus on transformative learning as the fundamental component of building movements and co-creating understandings that can lead to positive change in agroecosystems, communities, territories and institutions.

Over the past two months the Institute’s Agroecology Support Team facilitated an online International Course on Agroecological Transitions with the participation of adult professional students from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

The six-week course, entitled Agroecology for Life: Problem-solving in Transition Processes, was designed as a primer in Participatory Action Research for researchers, professionals and members of social organizations that accompany communities in processes of transformation using agroecological principles.

Taking full advantage of the tools of digital online education, the course combined lively synchronous discussion sessions with guest speakers, asynchronous forums, videos, readings from popular press and academic sources, songs and Andean prayers asking permission of Mother Earth.

Screenshot of participants engaging in online workshop
Screenshot of one of the many dialogues among participants throughout the course

As a formation (i.e. learning) process created to support the Andes Community of Practice of the Global Collaboration for Resilient Food Systems (CRFS), “the bedrock of this educational effort is the deep context of Andean agriculture, its peasant knowledge systems and indigenous cosmovisions,” according to course co-facilitator and IFA Research Associate Nils McCune.

This context includes the language and culture of Quechua and Aymara peasant farmers in the Andean region of tropical mountains and vertical archipelagos reaching from the Pacific Ocean to the Altiplano desert at elevations above 13,000 feet above sea level, as well as recent sociopolitical change emerging from new constitutions in 2008 and 2009 that recognized the “plurinational” character of Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively. In addition to the colonial language, Spanish, indigenous languages Kishwa and Shuar were recognized as official languages by Ecuador’s Constitution of 2008, while Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution recognized 37 official languages.

Visitors admire a corn and bean plot in Bolivian Andes
An agrobiodiverse plot in Bolivia

Indeed, the institutional context for agroecological transitions is unique in the Andes. Ecuador was the first country in the world to incorporate the Rights of Nature into its Constitution, and Bolivia followed suit in 2010 with the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, which grants all nature equal rights to humans. Both countries have constitutions that recognize the state’s responsibility to guarantee food sovereignty, the right of peoples to build, control and defend their own food systems according to their knowledge and culture.

This context shows the need for “a more horizontal, humble approach that sees the relativity of academic knowledge and NGO practice, one that recognizes rural communities and food producers as the fundamental pillar of agroecology,” according to Freddy Congo, an Ecuadorean popular educator with the Union of the Peoples of Moreles (UPM) in Mexico, winner of the Rural Vermont’s Agroecology, Education & Organizing Fellowship Award, and participant in the course.

A small group having a discussion seated on the lawn
A meeting of the Andes Community of Practice in 2022 in Puembo, Ecuador

In all three countries, the Agroecology Support Team works directly with universities, research centers and local NGOs carrying out community- and territory-level processes of agricultural research using methods like farmer research networksagroecology peasant schools, as well as seed-saving and agrobiodiversity research.

Knowledge co-creation, mobilization, and exchange among these projects is one of the goals of our work, so a central theme of the course in on fostering participatory methodologies.

quotation mark

We need spaces that connect us in a broad and diverse fabric, in order to recognize the diverse ways of perceiving agroecologies on the road to food sovereignty, the emancipation of our peoples, social justice and the good life. The course Agroecology for Life is one of those spaces, where a variety of ways of thinking, feeling and being people are shared in cooperation, co-construction and co-learning.

Tabaré Tonalli Aquimín Duché García

Postdoc at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Mexico and course participant


Georgina Catacora Vargas, the Bolivian agroecologist, president of the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA) and guest lecturer in the course, argues that “our methodologies are the lenses with which we characterize and reflect on reality, as well as the reflection of our epistemological position, the way in which we (co-)create knowledge.” Her guest appearance in the course was a highlight mentioned by many participants in course evaluations.

Beyond the conceptual and methodological aspects of the Agroecology for Life course, an emerging property of the effort is the idea of building and consolidating a learning community: a space for mutual respect, cross-pollination, and exchange. As Renato Pardo, a course participant and program officer at PROSUCO in Bolivia, put it, the strength of the course is in the “possibility of sharing experiences with other institutions and other professionals working on similar themes.”

We’ve been so pleased with how the course has turned out, and have experienced and observed so much growth and integration as a result. We’ve also received positive feedback from our partners. In a recent communication, Claire Nicklin, Andes CoP Regional Representative for CRFS, noted “the IFA team did a fantastic job of facilitating a warm and collaborative space for practitioners to meet and discuss agroecological transitions.”

The course was co-facilitated by Gabriela Bucini, Nils McCune and Ernesto Méndez.

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

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
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.

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,

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!!!

Member interview: ALC researcher publishes paper on Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ participation in conservation programs

Member interview: ALC researcher publishes paper on Puerto Rican coffee farmers’ participation in conservation programs

ALC graduate student Tatiana Gladkikh is the lead author of a paper that was published in January in the journal Conservation Science and Practice. In it, she and colleagues present results from a survey of Puerto Rican coffee farmers about their experience with, and willingness to take part in, conservation programs. Fellow ALC graduate student Sam Bliss interviews her here about that research and the article that’s come from it.

Sam Bliss: Your article is titled “Factors that influence participation of Puerto Rican coffee farmers in conservation programs.” Briefly, what are those factors? 

Tatiana Gladkikh: One of the main factors, unsurprisingly, was financial considerations. Conventional sun farming is associated with higher yields in the first farming years, so a transition to shade farming would need to be accompanied by a compensation for reduced yields. Interestingly, economic incentives were only the third most frequently mentioned factor. The most commonly mentioned theme was the need for increased outreach from government agencies, followed by demonstrated commitment from the government. Another factor was land use flexibility, meaning conservation programs that balance agricultural and conservation objectives. Respondents also mentioned that cooperation among farmers was important. These factors came up after we qualitatively analyzed farmers’ responses. 

SB: It seems like coffee growers want government money to be able to adopt sustainable practices, but that they’re afraid that the government will have too much control over their farming. Is that right? 

TG: Yes and no, as the importance of financial incentives is independent of land use flexibility. Some farmers in our study were concerned with land use flexibility surrounding the local Model Forest policy. Participation in this policy is voluntary yet many farmers did not perceive it as such, partially because the policy was poorly communicated to stakeholders. Some respondents perceived it as an imposition on their land management authority and they questioned the need for conserving on active farms when they saw many abandoned farms in the region.

SB: What can governments do to support farmers in making ecological choices without taking away their autonomy over decision making and land management? 

TG: I think a lot of it is outreach and effective communication strategies. For example, a lot of federal conservation programs promote their programs online and in English, yet many farmers live in remote areas with limited access to the internet, and some of them don’t speak English fluently. Another effective strategy could be model farmers; many farmers learn about existing incentives and farming practices from their peers. Some conventional farmers never practiced shade farming before and are skeptical of its profitability. Perhaps, if they could visit a shade farm of a fellow farmer they know and trust, they could directly experience this farming practice and be more open to a transition. Agencies should also include farmers in the design of conservation programs and consider farmers’ needs. In our study, some respondents noted that some shade trees species provided by the agencies created more hassle for the farmer than benefits. So some ended up replacing those shade trees with other trees that met their needs. There should be more dialogue between farmers and agencies, more conversations about what works, what is needed. This study is one example of these attempts; local environmental agencies wanted to know how they could make existing conservation programs more appealing.

SB: Do you think that making these changes to existing programs can make a big difference for the environment or for farmers? Or would it be preferable, if possible, to start over with redesigned policy?

TG: There have already been too many “start overs” in Puerto Rico with every new administration, which in turn undermines trust in the government’s stability and commitment. So I think making changes to existing programs would be more efficient. I am not sure about the impact that these changes can bring. I am not being pessimistic, I just want to acknowledge the complexity of the issue. By and large, coffee farming in Puerto Rico is not very profitable and it is very laborious. Changes to conservation programs alone are not enough to revive the local coffee farming industry. Sure, some might say that abandonment of coffee farming is beneficial to conservation objectives — in a few years, abandoned coffee farms turn into flourishing forests. In the tropics, everything grows so much faster! But economically, and culturally, coffee is very important to that region of the island. Changes to existing programs, thus, should address improvements of both environmental and economic outcomes. My suggestion would be to create some kind of certification or specialty coffee program. A few years ago, there was an attempt to create a local certification, something similar to the frog and the Rainforest Alliance. But it did not go anywhere, I am not sure why, probably lack of funding. 

SB: What does this research contribute to agroecology as a movement? 

TG: Our study reiterated the importance of local research, livelihoods, and consideration of power relationships that shape land management. In Puerto Rico, state agricultural incentives favor conventional sun farming, while conservation incentives target a transition to shade farming. So farmers are placed in a position of having to choose between these two incentives programs; some practiced sun farming just to be eligible for state incentives. Profits from small-scale coffee farming are very low, unless you have access to speciality coffee markets or income diversification strategies (such as through agrotourism and other crops). It is unreasonable to expect farmers to transition to shade-grown coffee without addressing the issue of financial insecurity. 

SB: Did you carry out any of the interviews? If so, what did you learn from talking to these coffee farmers that didn’t make it into the article?

TG: Yes, I carried out almost half of the 89 interviews we completed. We did not really touch on the issue of the coffee market in this article, but we did talk a lot about it. I learned so much about the coffee-making process and the amount of time, labor, and money involved in producing a cup of good quality coffee. We discussed competition with large-scale commercial producers and hurdles associated with the ability to access the gourmet coffee market that has higher profits.  Farmers took a lot of pride in growing local coffee but they lamented that most of the commercial coffee sold in Puerto Rico was mixed with imported coffee. This definitely changed the kind of coffee I buy: I mainly buy Puerto Rican coffee, and I always make sure that it is 100% grown and produced in Puerto Rico, rather than a commercial mix of local and imported coffee.

SB: What did the farmers think of this research project?

TG: They really enjoyed talking to us! Many treated us to a cup of coffee or fresh produce from their farms. Certainly, there was a level of skepticism about the ability of our study to make any difference, which is something I am sure many researchers have encountered. But I think participants appreciated having their stories heard.

Exploring agroecology at the Intervale from a bird’s-eye view

Exploring agroecology at the Intervale from a bird’s-eye view

María A. Juncos-Gautier
ALC Research Associate
Doctoral Candidate, York University, Toronto, CA

Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Prize winner, once explained: “In a bird’s eye view you tend to survey everything and decide on a particular point, then you swoop down and pick it up. In a worm’s eye view, you don’t have that advantage of looking at everything.” This was my experience last summer and fall when I had the privilege of facilitating a comprehensive evaluation of the principles of agroecology at the Intervale Center (IC) as part of my doctoral fieldwork. I used multiple surveying methods and followed ALC’s signature Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach to explore with the IC community the presence and implementation of agroecological principles in their daily practices. I was able to attest how a self-evaluation process using PAR and multiple methods encouraged the stakeholders to have a holistic awareness of their organization for positive, targeted actions. As one of the IC team members told me: “It kept me tuned into noticing things in a different way. It was nice to have a reminder of what’s the bigger impact of the things we are doing here, and how can I tie it into the principles.” This was music to my ears. I was helping others see the Intervale in a new light to advance understanding and action toward agroecology.

Engaging in research-reflection-action at the Intervale

The IC is a non-profit in Burlington, Vermont, with the mission of strengthening community food systems. Its 340-acre property along the Winooski River floodplain, about a mile from downtown Burlington, also houses and supports exemplary cases of organic urban/peri-urban agriculture and a food hub for local fresh produce. As Participatory Action Research (PAR) partners, the two main research questions the IC and I want to answer are:

  • Is the Intervale an agroecological organization and/or landscape?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities for being recognized as such in Burlington and elsewhere?

To answer these questions, the IC agreed to become a case study for a principles-focused evaluation[1] of agroecology. A principle is a “fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”[2] As an environmental professional I have always enjoyed working with principles because they facilitate an all-encompassing perspective of a situation. Working with principles means working with major leverage points. Any changes in the principles of a system -no matter whether organizational, political, or cultural, for example – could lead to significant shifts in the whole system.[3]

My fieldwork, in a nutshell, consisted of two lines of investigation, one practical and the other theoretical. The practical line was with a sample of thirty stakeholders for one round of interviews, and a subsample of fifteen key players for a second round. Aligning with the IC’s tagline farms, land, and people, the subsample includes farmers, land stewards, and other wonderful people who work at the IC’s multifunctional property in food distribution, gleaning, native flora conservation, reforestation, trails and landscape maintenance, community gardening, administration, business planning, and community-building, among other activities. All the interviews were semi-structured and involved using different surveying methods with visual tools to facilitate insight and discussion (see below): an infographic by CIDSE illustrating a set of fifteen principles of agroecology, maps of the property, and pictures from a photovoice exercise assigned to the subsample for the second round of interviews. The theoretical line of investigation I conducted on my own, as the researcher photo-documenting and taking field notes while engaging in both non-participant and participant (i.e., volunteer work) observation. I wanted to triangulate the practical and the theoretical perspectives and the different surveying methods.

On January 14, I wrapped up my fieldwork with a productive reflection meeting in the IC’s hayloft with the subsample of key actors and the support of the ALC’s leadership team. It was a stimulating experience to see the ALC and IC teams actively engaged in this collective deliberation process. We started with fifteen minutes allocated to browsing through a small exhibit with examples of the visual tools the actors used and marked with their input during the interviews.

The group then divided into smaller discussion groups to reflect on their experience as active participants in the process. They also appraised for the last time the strength of the presence and implementation of each principle at the Intervale on a poster illustrating CIDSE’s principles, and they saw the outcome using a bird’s eye view of the Intervale.

I then presented preliminary quantitative results of my fieldwork, to compare with their results. With minor but important differences to take into consideration, the overall trends in the preliminary results prevailed in the final group appraisal. It was rewarding and reassuring for the group to discover that the different surveying methods and perspectives provided similar results for the principles.

“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what they care about.”  Margaret Wheatley

Before the reflection encounter adjourned, the IC team members each swooped down from the bird’s eye view and picked up three principles they care about and identify as areas of opportunities, and presented recommendations for next action steps at the Intervale.It was a great way to wrap-up and move forward.

Next I will finish the in-depth qualitative analysis of all the interviews before I share any definitive answers to the research questions, as new, compelling information could modify the preliminary results.

After seven months of fieldwork, I can affirm that all fifteen principles of agroecology, as proposed by CIDSE, can be evidenced, in one way or another, at the Intervale. Certainly, some of the principles are as yet areas of opportunity for an outright agroecological transformation.[4]

I want to express my gratitude to the magnificent people who work in unison at the Intervale. I would have never been able to finish my fieldwork without their warmth and support. I anticipate that their interest in and enthusiasm for my work will be rewarded with valuable information they can use to advance their mission, vision, and goals for Burlington and beyond.

[1] Based on Patton (2018). Principles-focus Evaluation: The Guide. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

[2] Patton, 2018, p. 171.

[3]Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Premier. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing

[4] Colin, R. A.; Bruil, J.; Chappell, M.J.; Kiss, C.; Pimbert, M.P. (2019). From transition to domains of transformations: getting to sustainable and food justice systems through agroecology. Sustainability, 11 (5272).

VEPART Publishes new research brief

VEPART Publishes new research brief

Our colleagues Vic Izzo and Scott Lewins of the Vermont Entomology and Participatory Action Research Team (VEPART) have just published an update on their innovative research on leek moth and the pests relationship with allium crops. The brief outlines the most recent updates of the work VEPART has been conducting over the past 5 seasons on several farms in Vermont. Learn more here!

Engaging in New Partnerships for Agroecological Transformation

Engaging in New Partnerships for Agroecological Transformation

By Ava Murphey, ALC Program Coordinator

8 January 2020

Earlier this year, the University of Vermont’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with four pertinent organizations that promote agroecological and development work in various sectors. These links were fused in an effort to formalize the co-creation of knowledge via innovative partnerships, outlining the intention for collaborative movement building. The goal of such an agreement is for all parties to engage in the synergistic sharing and receiving of knowledge and ideas in order to stimulate, cultivate, and propagate purposeful transformative projects.

In maintaining partnerships that span across different sectors, spheres of influence, and geographic regions the potential for amplified impact and transformation is high. The organizations with which the ALC has recently signed an MOU are Groundswell International, EcoSur, Statistics for Sustainable Development (Stats4SD), and the Centre for Agroecology, Water, and Resilience (CAWR). To name a few, these associations represent ties between academia, public research and development projects, grassroots organizing, and effective statistical analysis. This cooperative approach to co-creation and horizontal knowledge sharing is a direct manifestation of one of agroecology’s foundational principles: transdisciplinarity. The relationship between these groups and disciplines holds the immense capacity for transformative systems change, something which profoundly aligns with and enhances the mission of the ALC and their professional partners.

Collaboration in action

One partnership worth highlighting is that with Groundswell International. In October of 2018, Groundswell contracted the ALC to support participatory monitoring and evaluation on a project focused on strengthening farmer seed systems with eight organizations in southern Mexico.  A year later, on October 18th, 2019 the two organizations celebrated the result of abundant planning and coordinating in their first ever official collaborative occasion, a one-day participatory event that took place at the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Alumni House. The event, titled “Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology,” was an engaging and inspiring day that left participants feeling poised to build bridges and tackle the issues they face in their various professional sectors.

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

To give some context to the conversation, it is important to highlight the essence of the association between Groundswell International and the ALC. Of critical relevance in the linkage between these two groups is the study and practice of agroecology. In its simplest form, agroecology provides the lens with which to observe ecological processes and their applications to agricultural production systems1. However, agroecology encompasses much more than scientific observation; it is a transdisciplinary approach (merging ecological science with social science, local and indigenous knowledge systems, etc.) that guides research and action towards the sustainable transformation of our food system2.

Groundswell International is a non-profit organization that strengthens communities and farmers’ organizations to deepen and scale agroecological approaches with the aim of improving lives in 10 different countries around the world. Groundswell’s aim is to strengthen farmer-led innovation, and promote exponential farmer-to-farmer learning to generate widespread social and ecological change, strengthen local food systems, inform policy, and shift investment and development strategies. The work of Groundswell and its partners is inherently community-led, participatory and transdisciplinary in nature. It is within these frameworks that the most salient connection emerges with their UVM partners, the ALC.

While Groundswell International exercises its prowess in the non-profit sector, the ALC promotes complementary goals while operating within an academic setting, utilizing the principles of agroecology and Participatory Action Research (PAR) in the field with projects in New England and around the globe. The ALC is a community of practice that includes faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and a host of local and global collaborators. The mission of the ALC is to “co-create evidence and knowledge, with farmers and other actors, to cultivate socially just and ecologically sound food systems3.” Students and faculty alike conduct research and collaborate on projects that integrate academic disciplines, amplify the voices of non-research actors, and seek real world solutions to global food system challenges.

All of this came into play in October’s workshop. While the Groundswell International team met on UVM’s campus with leaders of partner organizations from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Mexico, and Nepal for their biannual global conference, the ALC team was hard at work preparing for the public event at the end of the week, “Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology.” The ALC’s practice of PAR informed the structure of the day. Instead of creating an environment in which participants received a deluge of information from various speakers, the idea was to engage participants in strongly facilitated discussions and activities in which all attendees were heard and valued as critical contributors to the conversation. Through a combination of individual and group work, participants were encouraged not only to share their experiences with a larger audience, but also to take a critical look at themselves and their specific roles within this movement. Strengthening this internal understanding, along with a healthy dose of external inspiration, can be a powerful way to deepen collective learning and augment meaningful change.

The 80 attendees ranged in their backgrounds from academics, philanthropists, allies, activists, students, farmers, and beyond. In the morning, break out groups  heard from three Groundswell representatives from different countries about their strategies to tackle key challenges in promoting agroecology: farmer-to-farmer innovation; women’s empowerment; nutrition-linkages; local markets; and climate resilience.  Then, key lessons were shared with the full audience through a dynamic poster fair where participants got to rotate and learn about each theme from grassroots practitioners. ALC facilitators and Groundswell staff and partners collaborated to ensure lively dialogue and learning.

The event featured speakers from all over the world who provided insight into their agroecological projects that centered on themes of climate change resilience, local markets, nutrition, women’s empowerment, and farmer-to-farmer innovation. Pictured on the right is Tsuamba Bourgou, Groundswell Regional Coordinator for West Africa 

(Photos: Sara Klimek, UVM Junior Environmental Studies)

The afternoon was dedicated to a round-table workshop that centered on the metaphor of a puzzle. New groups were formed and each group came up with their response to the theme of the day: “how do we build collaboration to amplify agroecology?” They represented the answer to this question on a large puzzle piece. In closing, each group presented their piece, as the collaborative puzzle was assembled on the wall, bit by bit. One puzzle piece boasted an elaborate drawing of a cart pulled by a campesino with a rising sun that represented ancestral knowledge and wisdom; another displayed a colorful tree of traced hands that spoke to the interconnectedness and solidarity found in agroecological resilience; and yet another highlighted the importance of acknowledging power and privilege as we enter into dialogues about inciting change. The final product was beautiful- a vibrantly decorated and rustically assembled puzzle on the wall of the conference room that everyone in the room had contributed to.  Yet this puzzle was just a visual expression of multiple connections and opportunities for collaboration identified by participants. 

The UVM Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative facilitation team organized various individual and group work sessions reflecting on agroecology in action and as a social movement.

Moving forward

If we zoom out to the larger picture again for a moment, the collaborative event between the ALC and Groundswell International provides an excellent example of exactly what it proposed to have participants engage in:  “building collaboration to amplify agroecology.” Groundswell International and ALC are building off of this experience to deepen collaboration, and through its MOU with various organizations, the ALC aims to expand and strengthen networks and interdependence with the ultimate goal of transformative agroecology. 

Returning to the puzzle that was assembled at the end of that October day, some pieces remained blank- a representation of those that we need to work harder to include at the table, of those voices that are underrepresented, and work yet to be done.  The empty spaces are also a promise. A promise to the future and all that it holds; the spark of inspiration for collaboration that has been cultivated throughout this partnership and the hope that our future embodies the potential for systematic global transformation. 

Works Cited

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