David Conner of UVM (l) with Maria & Robinson from UPRM on a visit to Vermont. (Photo courtesy David Conner)
September 27, 2019
At first glance, farming on the tropical archipelago of Puerto Rico and the small landlocked state of Vermont might not seem to have a lot in common.
But UVM Food Systems PhD student Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz knew that the small-scale agriculture that happened in both locations had similarities, that the universities that provided research and outreach to support them might be able to learn from each other, and that both are facing destabilized resilience in a changing climate.
Those thoughts led him to a conversation with Dr. David Conner of the Community Development & Applied Economics program within UVM CALS, and eventually to a grant proposal to USDA's National Institute of Food & Agriculture program (NIFA).
Building that proposal is where the Center's director and UVM Food Systems faculty member Dr. Linda Berlin got involved, because of her expertise and passion for food access and justice, and understanding how communities can work together in support of their people and families.
Dr. Berlin says, "I was excited to work on a project that allows us to think about what we know about our Vermont and UVM contexts as part of addressing food resilience here, and see how we can learn from and share with our UPRM colleagues in Puerto Rico."
She will contribute expertise about the implications at policy and household levels, as well as assisting with project evaluation.
The project (Enhancing Food Resilience as Disaster Preparedness: The Role of Anchor Institutions Partnerships) expresses a vision built through new relationships, deep community connection, and a willingness to learn.
Rodríguez-Cruz is an alumnus of the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez (UPRM), where he got to meet and work with Dr. Robinson Rodríguez-Pérez, a rural sociologist with UPRM Extension. "I worked with Robinson and got to learn about developing community-based research. And the importance of using participatory approaches to fully include community members in the work, and of how to make information available in the most accessible ways."
With that grounding, when Hurricane Maria caused such extensive damage to Puerto Rico, Rodríguez-Cruz knew he wanted to forge stronger relationships between UVM and UPRM. Following his introduction, CDAE's David Conner and Travis Reynolds traveled to PR to meet their counterparts, even before the path forward was clear.
Dr. Conner says, "We thought about what anchor institutions like the University of Vermont and the UVM Medical Center can provide in communities. Because we're anchored in place, and because we take public money we have a responsibility to serve the community -- and since we're not going anywhere we can reliably do so."
With that in mind, Dr. Conner explains the collaboration as each partner, "going to learn more and share something that we have experience with and do well. The UPRM team is going to do research and tell us how Extension can become a rapid response team when disaster strikes, and use the management skills and technical knowledge and credibility to go out into communities and do a needs assessment and get the right resources to the right places at the right time."
"In Vermont, we have good expertise in institutional foodservice supporting a more resilient local food system, so we'll do some focus groups with hospitals, universities and K-12 - with the leaders in institutional foodservice. We'd like to ask them, ‘what are the key things that you've done, and how do you sustain it, and what can others learn from you?’ And ‘what are you going to do if something happens here and we need to feed people for two or three months?’ What can we do to feed ourselves in the in-between time before we can get back to normal?"
Dr. Rodríguez -Pérez recalls that at first, he wasn't sure what it could mean for the institutions to work together. "But as soon as we sat down and started talking about problems and aspirations we realized we have many things in common. Here in Puerto Rico, like in Vermont, our agriculture is mostly small farms. One of our threats is that the costs of production for small farmers is higher than things imported from the states. How do we preserve agriculture for small producers, when there are these huge suppliers?"
"Also common among us is the impact of climate change. (On a trip to Vermont) we went to visit some of the maple farms to see how climate change is affecting production and the control of diseases, and we're going through a similar process here in Puerto Rico. Things are different, but we have so much in common about preserving agriculture and the rural way of life."
He goes on, "It's true that things in Puerto Rico are tough since the huge hurricane and the big crisis. Having UVM be a partner in these critical moments is significant. It has been really great to have this assistance in this critical moment, and looking forward to more projects in the future."
Dr. Conner agrees. "What is exciting about this work is that it is a collaboration between two fairly small land grant universities that are facing many of the same challenges. We have a lot to offer each other, and a huge opportunity to learn together."