UVM Researcher Looks to Tackle Food System Challenges

Finding solutions to strengthen the food system is what drives Serge Wiltshire. Serge, who is pursuing a PhD at UVM, completed UVM’s Breakthrough Leaders for Sustainable Food Systems in 2014 and earned a master of science in Food Systems at UVM the following year.

We talked to Serge, a graduate researcher and teaching assistant, about the viability of pasture-based dairy production in Vermont, grass-based alternatives, and bringing about positive change in the food system.

food-system-research

Some of your graduate research has focused on Vermont’s dairy industry and the need for alternative systems, specifically using grass-based methods. What are some of the issues facing traditional dairy farming practices in Vermont?

Vermont’s dairy industry, which represents the large bulk of our state’s agricultural output, is currently in a state of crisis. Analysts and policymakers who have thought about this issue have increasingly begun to concede that the traditional production system used by the majority of Vermont’s dairy farms is largely unsustainable.

Two major factors are at play here: First, regarding farm viability, the industry has experienced extreme attrition in the last half-century, with more and more farmers exiting every year as they are unable to compete with large Midwestern and Western farms on scale. Second, there is also the ongoing water quality issue in Lake Champlain, a large part of which stems from agricultural runoff.

In your master’s thesis, you point out that while only 11.5 percent of Vermont’s dairy farms use rotational grazing as a primary feed source, continuous pasturing is common on Vermont’s traditional dairies, with more than 47 percent of farmers employing grazing to some extent, often for dry cows, heifers, and feeder calves. Why is a grass-based method important for sustainable agriculture?

My master’s thesis examined the possibility for alternative dairy production systems, specifically grass-based methods, to tackle these challenges. While it may not work for all farmers, many small- to mid-scale dairy producers in the state are currently finding success with grass-based methods due to decreased production costs and less reliance on purchased inputs, as well as the potential to sell their products at premium prices.

In addition, cultivating permanent pastures rather than annual feed crops is correlated with a reduction in water-polluting runoff, as well as promoting atmospheric carbon sequestration. One of the most interesting findings from my study had to do with the factors that may spur Vermont farmers to set up grass-based production systems instead of traditional confinement systems. In many cases, having family, friends, or neighbors who were already successfully using grass-based methods seemed to provide important role models, decreasing uncertainty about taking up an unfamiliar production system.

What do you think is the greatest challenge our food system faces?

Looking 50 years down the road, many researchers now believe that our current food systems structures will experience serious stresses as a result of demand-side factors, such as increasing global population and the shift toward more animal-intensive diets, as well as supply-side factors such as soil and water degradation and the impact of climate change. I believe that a concerted effort will be required on the part of both researchers and practitioners to solve the complex puzzle of global food security going forward.

What inspires you most about the food system?

Looking back at the history of agriculture, it is inspirational to see how farmers have continually adapted to respond to the challenges and opportunities of their times. In Vermont, for example, the industry has undergone several major changes, yet it has still remained a vibrant part of our heritage and economy. While serious food systems challenges lie ahead, the ability of innovative individuals in the farming and food systems community will, I believe, be the key to tackling them.

You graduated from McGill with a degree in cognitive science and philosophy in 2008. What drew you to food systems research?

The Cognitive Science program at McGill is actually a degree in both arts and sciences, a transdisciplinary approach that encourages thinking across traditional disciplinary boundaries. After working on a number of farms throughout the years between finishing my undergraduate degree and enrolling at UVM, I began to recognize the critical importance of strengthening food system resiliency in the years to come.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

After graduation, I hope to have the opportunity to continue to do my small part to solve the big food systems problems our society faces. My expertise lies in the area of computer modeling of complex agricultural systems, and I would love to have the opportunity to apply the knowledge I’ve gained to make a difference on the ground. This nexus between theory and application is very important to me.

What advice would you give to someone looking to work in food systems?

First of all, I would say that it’s important to try to let go of preconceptions and think critically toward solutions. Too often people get bogged down in their own ways of thinking, and being open to other points of view is the only way to get around this. On a more tangible note, I would simply say, do it! Food systems solutions and opportunities are going to have to come from many different angles. Whether it’s working on a farm, studying at school, interning for a policymaker, or any number of other endeavors, there are many leverage points to effect positive change.

Learn about UVM’s Breakthrough Leaders for Sustainable Food Systems program

Learn about UVM’s Food Systems graduate program.

 

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