What is the future of agriculture in Vermont and the northeast? With this question in mind, a group of stakeholders convened in July at the University of Vermont, for the first ever Community Agricultural and Regenerative Transitions (CART) Conference. We wanted to brainstorm what the future of agriculture and the food system might look like if we oriented it towards regeneration—ecological, social, and economic. Is there a shared long-term vision among people from different sectors and walks of life? What is the role of academia in supporting such a vision and attendant transition? Where are the under-leveraged places for making positive change? How do we begin to connect the dots between an ideal system and our current reality through a series of actionable steps?
To tackle such a conversation, we brought together a diverse group of thinkers and actors. The 31 folks* who participated included farmers, emergency food providers, community leaders, policy advocates, and professors and graduate students from a range of fields across UVM and Vermont higher education institutions.
As students interested in academic activism, we designed this meeting as a departure from the usual presentation-and-audience format. Instead, we drew on participatory methods to work together on the provocative questions above and engage in visionary brainstorming. This also had the effect of challenging the “academic-as-expert” mentality of most academic conferences. We are both in doctoral programs that emphasize transdisciplinary thinking and collaboration across knowledge frameworks, but we do not always see the same kind of holistic thinking when it comes to on-the-ground action. The conference was one way to start applying our education to real-world process.
As one participant, Racey Henderson, put it, usually people from universities are either interviewing farmers for data collection, or sharing information through Extension activities, but rarely are we all sitting in a room together and working on the same problem. After the conference, we believe more strongly than ever that the dramatic transitions required to shift our agricultural system must draw on the lived experience and embodied wisdom of practitioners, as much as academic knowledge from the academy. Together, both systems of knowing and acting are stronger.
The resulting discussions thus went beyond the normal scope of most meetings about the future of food that we have been part of, and is captured in the and led to this vision statement drawn up by a sub-group of CART participants:
The prevailing North American food systems are the result of an economic ideology that prioritizes the rights of the individual, free-market economics, colonialism, and ecological domination. In contrast, we envision a regional food system that prioritizes responsibility to communities, greater economic parity, diverse leadership, and a cooperative relationship with the environment.
To create a regenerative food system, in other words, requires a recognition of the broader powers that shape how we produce, distribute, consume, and discard of food. One of our next steps is a follow-up meeting to discuss the possibility of an agricultural transition plan for the state and region.
It is clear from our two days together that there is much more work to be done. But is also clear that there is space for deeper conversations, for wider imagination, for new visions, and for greater collaboration, especially across what sometimes seems like insurmountable divides. Realizing a more socially and ecologically just food system in Vermont will require not only a diversity of ideas, perspectives, and participants, but also the organizational capacity to work together and realize the strength in our differences.
We are excited to connect with others who believe that another way is possible and look forward to engaging more and more people in this conversation, beginning to move Vermont in a direction that recognizes both the forces that have shaped our food system thus far, and the forces that we hope will power the future.
If you’re interested, please be in touch!
(caitlin.b.morgan [at] uvm [dot] edu; catherine.horner [at] uvm [dot] edu)
*Thanks to everyone who attended the conference and made it such a generative event: Molly Anderson (Middlebury College), Philip Ackerman-Leist (Sterling College), Brandon Bless (Bread & Butter Farm), Sam Bliss (UVM Rubenstein), Matthew Burke (Gund Institute and Next Systems Project), Martha Caswell (Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative), Kurt Contanch (dairy specialist), Anh Thu Cunnion (Essex Farm), Jon Erickson (UVM Rubenstein), Kimberly Hagen (Center for Sustainable Agriculture), Racey Henderson (Essex Farm Institute and Adirondack Council), Vic Izzo (Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative), Anya Kaplan-Seem (University of Minnesota), Gil Livingston (Dairy and Water Collaborative), Ernesto Mendez (Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative), Cherie Morse (UVM Geography), Alison Nihart (UVM Extension), Katherine Oaks (Vermont Law School), Brendan O’Neill (UVM Food Systems), Andrea Solazzo (Vermont Foodbank), Graham Uangst-Rufenact (Rural Vermont), and Alissa White (UVM Plant and Soil Science).
Also to Jennifer Catalano, our facilitation consultant; the UVM graduate students who presented their must-consider ideas for regenerative agriculture, Joe Ament, Janica Anderzen, Sam Bliss, Ben Dube, and Eva Kinnebrew; our undergraduate assistants, Reem Bou-Nacklie, McKenzie Michaels, and Maeve Poleman; and to Bill McKibben for his video message of support.
And to the Food Systems Graduate Program and the Graduate College for funding this transdisciplinary collaboration!