A farmer feeding a herd of cows in a barn.

Viable working landscapes, vibrant communities, and healthy ecosystems are the building blocks of sustainable food systems. But how do you measure sustainability at local and regional food systems? These white papers explore the opportunities for measuring sustainability (social, economic and environmental) in small and medium farms and food systems. Additional work is ongoing to synthesize the metrics and indicators from the white papers for a comprehensive understanding of sustainability assessment at these scales.

Data Integration and Metrics Research Grants

➤ An agroecology principles framework to assess and monitor farm and food system sustainability

 

Principal Investigator:

Martha Caswell

Abstract:

Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, describes agroecology as a “...a coherent concept for designing future farming systems...strongly rooted both in science and in practice”. As an approach that is gaining traction and credibility across the globe, agroecology is based on principles that represent multiple expressions of the three dimensions of sustainability. Recognized rural sociologist Jan Douwe van der Ploeg argues that individuals’ decisions to follow agroecological principles are “...inspired by different motives, values and discourses, just as the particular contextual settings will have their specific imprint.” Existing sustainable agriculture frameworks that offer coherent structures for identifying, measuring and tracking sustainability indicators can be compared across contexts to identify the levers for real systemic change. Assessing the multiple frameworks of agroecological principles offers an opportunity to innovate, as the principles span socio-cultural, environmental, political and economic factors. In this project, we will reduce the common divide between natural and social science; instead looking for ways to recognize their dependencies by delving into relationships between social and biophysical metrics. To further this objective, we plan to include metrics that will explore the subtle but important potential non-material benefits of farms (e.g., community-building, educational, and spiritual benefits). The end result will be the identification of ‘keystone factors’, related to agroecological principles, farmer practices and indicators, which will serve to show farmers their relative strengths and areas for potential improvement across sustainability metrics and components of the food system.

➤ Investigating the relationships of food system sustainability: Measuring and documenting health and resilience of small and medium farms in Vermont and Puerto Rico

 

Principal Investigator:

Walt Poleman

Abstract:

What bolsters the resilience of smaller farms to sustain themselves during times of economic, geo-climatic and socio-political unrest? This project aims to illuminate the elements of success and well-being by investigating the role of small and medium farms in promoting healthy social-agricultural systems. We will conduct work in the dual geographies of Vermont and Puerto Rico and examine how humans interact with each other and integrate with the non-human world in the production and distribution of food. Building on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Principles of Agroecology as organizing frameworks we have developed a five-phase work that includes: conducting background research on metrics, indicators and integration tools of agricultural sustainability, engaging growers to inquire about their daily work and interactions, conducting focus group interviews and coding responses to understand key practices involved with cultivating healthy food systems, conducting panel discussions with participants from both geographies, and integrating the findings to develop the white paper for presentation to the Food Systems Center. To accomplish this work have assembled a diverse team of researchers and practitioners from Vermont and Puerto Rico, and we will also draw on the strength of strategic partners such as the Vermont Vegetables and Berry Growers Association and the Caribbean Climate Hub. The outcomes of this work align with collaborative efforts being advanced by the Global Network of Research Centers of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development, and will improve understanding of sustainability outcomes at the intersection of human and ecological health.

➤ The farm-community nexus: Metrics for socioeconomic and ecosystems sustainability of agritourism and direct farm sales in Vermont

 

Principal Investigator:

Lisa Chase

Abstract:

Viable working landscapes, vibrant communities, and healthy ecosystems are the building blocks of sustainable food systems. Small and medium farms are connective tissue, creating a system that is greater than the sum of its parts by linking consumers to producers and promoting environmental stewardship. Our approach considers sustainability through connections between farms, their communities, and visitors within an agritourism framework, ranging from on-farm experiences to direct sales and farmer-consumer interactions at markets. The proposed white paper will contribute to the understanding, operationalization, and integration of metrics relevant to strong social foundations and just economies while preserving and promoting healthy ecosystems. Specific objectives include:

  1. Apply a sustainability framework, Doughnut Economics, to identify metrics relevant for social, economic, and environmental dimensions across farm, household, community, county, and statewide scales.
  2. Identify existing data sets and current data gaps.
  3. Identify linkages and impacts between social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability across scales and different frameworks and vet the approach with stakeholders.

By integrating frameworks to measure the range of benefits (and tradeoffs) provided by direct interactions between farmers, visitors, and consumers, we will aggregate information over time, locations, and enterprise types. Spearheaded by a team of UVM researchers, and assessed by a group of stakeholders who use metrics to guide policy decisions, this work will provide an essential foundation for future research that will place the UVM ARS Food Systems Research Unit at the forefront of this growing and critical transdisciplinary area.

➤ Developing sustainability metrics for hemp in the Vermont economy: Environment, landscape, and community development

 

Principal Investigator:

Jane Kolodinsky

Abstract:

We focus on how emerging value-added crops contribute to sustainable food systems. This project develops indicators for an important emerging crop in Vermont, hemp. Once developed, the process and measures can be used for decision making about any crop. Vermont Farm to Plate 2020 identifies hemp as one of ten important agricultural products important for Vermont’s future. We use a set of design principles to insure the applicability of developed indicators for decision making. For the purposes of this proposal, indicators are “a way to measure, indicate or point to with more or less exactness,” or “something used to show the condition of a system.” Our objectives are to:

  1. Develop a set of indicators that measure the economic, social, and environmental contribution of hemp in Vermont.
  2. Identify a set of measurement techniques and data sources that contribute to the indicators identified in objective 1.
  3. Consider the levels of measurement of data and cross-cutting aspects of indicators in order to inform the on-going discussions of data interaction and integration.

Our approach is grounded in both the FAO food systems model and in Doughnut Economics, which utilizes the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a foundation to describe “social floors” and “planetary boundaries. Our work plan involves a two-day virtual workshop with required reading prior to the event, and includes both University researchers and stakeholders representing production, industry, finance, government and NGOs. A white paper will be developed using an iterative process based on results from the virtual workshop.

➤ Farm benchmarking: Integrated research, extension and adoption

 

Principal Investigator:

Mark Canella

Abstract:

The “Farm Benchmarking: Integrated Research, Extension and Adoption” white paper will provide an indicator framework and methodology for the research and dissemination of findings leading to measurable outcomes in Vermont. This project will present a framework of on-farm metrics, methods, statistical approaches and dissemination strategies to facilitate implementation of best practices by farm owners, program leaders and policy makers. Stakeholder engagement will identify the primary metrics needed to assess farm viability, conservation outcomes, management adaptation and the community impacts of farm labor. The multi-disciplinary team will prepare sample statistical outputs and develop sample programmatic deployment matrices geared toward outreach and adoption.

➤ Resilient soils for resilient farms: Soil health for small- and medium-sized farms

 

Principal Investigator:

Deb Neher

Abstract:

Healthy soils are critical to feeding people and support broad environmental goals, including improved water quality and carbon sequestration. We assembled a multidisciplinary team of UVM tenure-track, research and extension faculty with a common interest in improving the performance of small- and medium- sized farms through monitoring soil health. Our long-term goal is to develop practical applications to enable success in the context of ongoing environmental and economic challenges and benefit the agricultural landscape. We propose an innovative research agenda that combines advancements in basic science (e.g., soil microbiome), new technologies (e.g., sensors to monitor metrics of soil health and environmental quality), devising new soil management tools, and ecological economics as a tool to quantify the value of soil health to society.

➤ Embeddedness, Regional Food Systems, and Measures of Social Sustainability

 

Principal Investigator:

Amy Trubek

Abstract:

Social relationships are crucial to the functioning of small and medium farms, and social motivations are intricately linked with economic processes, environmental stewardship, and agriculture and community resilience in regional food systems. However, because social aspects of food systems are difficult to measure, their quantification in analyses of food systems sustainability lacks robustness and nuance. For the UVM Center for Food Systems Research to be a leader in comprehensive understandings of sustainability, its future work must incorporate a range of social metrics, including community networks and norms, informal labor and economic exchanges, land stewardship and ecological management, and other motivations yet to be adequately captured by conventional metrics of economic and environmental sustainability.

We propose an extensive review of existing social science research, along with engagement with stakeholders, to better depict these aspects of food systems that have yet to be comprehensively documented. The resulting white paper will: a) provide a range of social metrics essential for understanding social sustainability, b) conceptualize how these relate to economic and environmental sustainability, c) articulate strategies for measuring social aspects of sustainability empirically, d) identify gaps in current metrics, and e) put forth frameworks to guide their integration with economic and ecological measurements. Our interdisciplinary team—comprised of food systems researchers with expertise in place-based agriculture, ecological and applied economics, working landscapes, community-based food innovations, and systems modeling—is uniquely positioned to offer insight into these aspects of sustainability that are critical to the Center’s future success.