Ernesto Mendez, ALC Director, reflects on ‘Synergies between Agriculture and Environmental Studies through Agroecology’
I came to the United States when I was 18, seeking to get away from the violence of the civil war in my native El Salvador, and thanks to the economic privilege of my family. After several years of career exploration, and also deeper learning and reflection about the social and environmental realities of my country, I chose agriculture. Both my father and grandfather had farmed commercially, among other pursuits, in El Salvador, and I was always drawn to the farms. Along with this interest, I developed a concern for the multiplicity of challenges that smallholder farmers in Latin America, and around the world, face to this day. These range from social and ethnic discrimination, to lack of basic services and/or agricultural technical assistance. A career in international agricultural development, a field that focuses on working with farmers in developing countries, seemed like a great option for me.
At first, my focus was on the science of agricultural production as a means to improve the well-being of farming families. However, as I expanded my studies, I realized that production was only one part of the issue, and that strengthening the livelihoods of farming households requires a broader understanding of the social, political and environmental challenges that they face. While pursuing degrees in Crop Science and Tropical Agroforestry, I found the field of agroecology, which, at the time, was defined as the ‘application of ecological concepts and principles to sustainable agriculture’. This notion made a lot of sense to me, and as the field has evolved over the years, it has remained my passion and my inspiration. The first concrete confluence between agroecology and environmental studies came when I started a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I joined an interdisciplinary environmental studies program, with a concentration in agroecology. It was here that I first engaged with true interdisciplinary scholarship and challenged myself to deepen my learning in the social sciences. As a teaching assistant, I was working with students majoring in environmental studies with a curriculum very similar to the one we have at UVM. The position that I took at UVM in 2006, which integrated agriculture and environmental studies, was a perfect fit!
In my view, agroecology brings together the strengths of environmental studies to an agricultural context. Both fields share an emphasis on inter/transdisciplinarity, valuing and respecting the knowledge of farmers and indigenous people, and an awareness of social justice and the political economies that affect people and landscapes. In the last decade, researchers, social movements and farmers have embraced agroecology as an approach that can catalyze a transformation towards more sustainable and just food systems. Two key lessons I have learned from over 25 years working in agroecology are: 1) we need to be collaborative and 2) we need to be humble. Both of these qualities are necessary to stay open to an increasing level of complexity, and to find solutions in an inclusive way. I believe there are opportunities to better integrate the fields of agroecology and environmental studies to support the livelihoods of both farmers and eaters, while conserving the ecosystem services of agricultural landscapes.
ENVS students interested in agroecology have a variety of options to engage with it at UVM. The Plant and Soil Science Department (PSS), which I now chair, is in the process of strengthening its agroecology curriculum, reinforcing hands-on and high impact learning practices, as well as changing the major and minor names to Agroecology. We have also integrated the Farmer Training Program (FTP) into PSS, and are seeking for this initiative to have more interactions with the UVM Community. My research group, the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), carries out agroecological investigations in Vermont and Latin America, with a long trajectory of work supporting environmental conservation and farmer livelihoods in smallholder coffee cooperatives. We have recently launched a 2-semester ALC Undergraduate Research Fellows Program (see a UVM Communications story about the program here), with a focus on agroecology and Participatory Action Research (PAR). All of these are collaborative initiatives, which have brought together a diversity of faculty, staff and students from PSS, ENVS, UVM Extension and others outside of UVM.
Agroecology can help study and address a range of issues in agriculture, including ecological analysis of practices, options to improve farmer livelihoods, and how researchers and social movements can work together to advocate for better policies. As both an ENVS and PSS professor, I am really looking forward to building stronger partnerships between our growing agroecology initiatives and the Environmental Program’s students, faculty and staff.
The first cohort of ALC Undergraduate Research Fellows at a farmer partner dinner held in 2018, at Jericho Settlers Farm. From left to right Karen Nordstrom (ENVS Advisor), Nell Carpenter (ENVS ALC Fellow), Allie Pankoff (ENSC ALC Fellow), Lizzy Holiman (Food Systems & Eco-Ag ALC Fellow), Emily McCarthy (ENVS ALC Fellow), Elise Schumacher (Food systems and ALC Fellow) and Ernesto Méndez (ALC/PSS and ENVS).
Picture of a shaded coffee farm in Chiapas, Mexico, owned by a member of the CESMACH cooperative, showing a diversity of land uses and agricultural activities. The ALC has an ongoing project on diversification in Mexico and Nicaragua.