UVM Is: Ernesto Mendez Embracing the Agroecology Movement

Agroecology is finding a mainstream audience in the world of international food and agricultural policy. For Professor Ernesto Méndez, that’s good news.

agroecology movement

Méndez, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Environmental Program and a Fellow at UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment, is launching a Certificate of Graduate Study in Agroecology this summer through the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC). The program was developed as an expansion of the 10-day International Agroecology Shortcourse, which began nearly 20 years ago, with Stephen R. Gliessman, Méndez’ agroecology mentor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The certificate program and the recent expansion of the ALC is partly a result of an increased global interest in agroecology over the last decade. Méndez defines Agroecology as an approach that integrates ecological science with other scientific disciplines (e.g. social sciences) and knowledge systems (e.g. local, indigenous) to guide research and actions toward the sustainable transformation of our current agrifood system.

A Growing Awareness of Agroecology 

Agroecology aims to both increase the ecological benefits of farming, as well as address concerns of economic viability and social justice throughout the food system.  Agroecology also seeks to bring forward farmer voices to both study and find tangible solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing our food systems.

“Agroecology doesn’t fit with industrialized agriculture very well,” Méndez says. “There has been push back from big ag and even academia on agroecology. But we are getting more support and more interest.”

The turning point for agroecology becoming more mainstream on the global stage happened between 2008 and 2011. First, agroecology was prominent in the International Assessment of Agricultural Science & Technology for Development (IAASTD), a report compared to the IPCC for climate change. Following this, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food advocated for the use of agroecology to confront global food insecurity and advance the right to food.  Now Méndez is using that increased awareness for his work with farmers in Vermont and Latin America.

A Participatory Action Research Approach

Méndez’ research approach, which prioritizes collaboration and real-world impact, is rooted in “participatory action research” (PAR).  PAR explicitly seeks out and considers perspectives of farmers and other non-academics, which helps to increase and improve the delivery of on-the-ground solutions, he says.

“Interest in PAR has really exploded because the traditional ways of top-down problem-solving are not working anymore,” he says.

Méndez has spearheaded a variety of UVM agroecology research projects, including a transdisciplinary initiative on the resilience of Vermont farmers to climate change, which explored climate change best management practices (CCBMPs) for increased on-farm adaptation.

“What stuck with me was that the farmers we talked to were very much aware that climate change is happening—I don’t think anyone was denying anything. But one of the main issues is having no bandwidth to deal with these new challenges,” he says. “The more resilient farmers are ones who somehow can organize themselves enough to look ahead.  Others are aware but not addressing climate change, and that says to me that those famers need help. The practices of cover cropping and planting hedge rows are not new, but the question is, how do we reach a lot of people with a lot of information? What is the best way to support these farmers? One of the biggest issues with farming is time.”

The PAR approach is also being applied through ongoing work that started in 2016 with Catamount Farm, the Intervale Center, New Farms for New Americans, and the Vermont Community Garden Network, to explore urban farming in Vermont. The group is also working with the Vermont Caribbean Institute, who coordinates the Cuba-US Agroecology network and is facilitating a visit to the state with a group of Cuban farmers and practitioners

“Cubans are using agroecology very successfully and we want to learn from their experience,” Méndez says. “We’ll be looking at the benefits and challenges of urban farming in Vermont. And it’s important to recognize that with Burlington’s diverse population, people grow food for different reasons. Some do it to make money while others to it to produce food for their family or to enjoy the social aspect of gardening. These are all things to consider.”

Born in El Salvador, Méndez studied in California before landing a teaching job at UVM in 2006.

Méndez credits his ALC team, which includes staff, research assistants, and students, with making his work possible. “I can’t do it on my own, and working with my team is what it takes to make this research happen,” he says.

He also draws inspiration from UVM students.

“I find that this new generation of students are a lot more aware of that food issues occurring right now,” he says. “Today’s students are more open to embracing the complexities, recognizing what the problems are, and acknowledging that the solutions might not be so simple.”

Learn about the UVM Certificate of Graduate Study in Agroecology

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How UVM is Helping Match Farmers with Landowners in New England

By Cheryl Herrick

In Vermont and across New England, prime farmland is both scarce and expensive.  Many farmers are at or approaching retirement age. Young farmers face daunting challenges as they try to establish their agricultural enterprises.

One critical, and complicated, part of these challenges is finding ways to successfully transfer farmland from those who own it to those who seek to farm on it. Ben Waterman of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture serves as Land Access Coordinator, and in that capacity, helps to support both farm-seekers and landowners in Vermont.

transfer farmland

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Fair Trade Labeling Makes its Way onto U.S. Products

By Sharon Palmer

Until recently, the Fair Trade label was only seen on products from farms outside the United States. That all changed when Wholesum Harvest, a family-owned farm located in Nogales, Arizona, was certified by Fair Trade USA.

Fair Trade certification is available for products ranging from clothing to seafood, and everything in between, according to an NPR  story, Not Just For Foreign Foods: Fair-Trade Label Comes To U.S. Farms.

fair trade labeling

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How Dirty Is Sustainable Agriculture?

By Hal Hamilton
The Sustainable Food Lab

Despite the title, this blog post is not about sex, unless we consider the teeming reproductive activity of billions of micro-organisms in every tablespoon of fertile soil.

I’m writing for those who wonder how important soil health is. Over the years, advocates for sustainable agriculture have promoted the importance of many different goals: fewer pesticides, less soil erosion, fertilizer efficiency, water stewardship, the well-being of small farmers, less food waste. And so on. We have tools with multiple indicators, but scant analysis of how goals affect one another, and hence little understanding of systemic cause and effect.

soil health

Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons

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UVM Alumna Helen Labun Looks to Shape the Future of the Vermont Fresh Network

Helen Labun, UVM G’06, is experienced in everything from managing agriculture programs to freelance food writing to running a Montpelier restaurant. Now the Newbury, Vermont, native is the new executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network, an organization that connects Vermont food producers with chefs and culinary professionals across the state to strengthen the local food economy.

vermont fresh network

Helen Labun, second from right, is the new executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network.

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