by Linda Lonnqvist, CAN project manager, on attending her first Agroecology Shortcourse
So Much Talk About Soil
As a social scientist, at the agroecology shortcourse I felt a huge knowledge gap about plant varieties, soil chemistry, disaster resilience plans, and agroecological marketing. In Vermont, there was so much talk about soil! Between the more “scientific” ecologists, teachers and postgrad students, and the “practical” farmers we visited, it was all about sand or clay, flooding and drought, phosphorus buildup, organic matter, and cover crops. People got into deep discussions about waterlogging. Part of the last night’s entertainment was even a song about an ex-girlfriend who paid more attention to soil fauna than to the singer, entitled “Why don’t you treat me like dirt”. I was introduced to fascinating concepts like hydraulic conductivity and soil compaction, and participated in a group activity on soil compaction at Diggers’ Mirth farm. But it also seemed a bit disheartening to me. If you can barely get an agroecological food system going in Vermont with the benefit of state support, high-tech expert advice and a receptive, wealthy consumer base, what hope is there for the hillside milpa
farmers here in Southern Mexico?
Lessons from Malawi
Over the course of the program’s 10 days, I realized that while every single detail we talked about could merit a lifetime of passionate study, hopefully, you can practice agroecology without it, too. I also realized that my social sciences approach is needed as much as the natural sciences, to engage people, build networks, and share learning. The session focused on a Malawi case study, presented by Cornell University professor Rachel Bezner Kerr and Esther Lupafya and Annita Chitaya from SFHC Organization in Ekwendeni, showed how persistence, creativity, and a realistic goal can get things done.
From left: Sidney Madsen (Rachel’s student), Esther Lupafya, Rachel Bezner Kerr, and Anita Chitaya
Their ongoing initiative, “Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities,” started out as a side-effect of Rachel’s Master’s research, encouraging Malawian farmers to intercrop their corn with legumes. This “green manure” was so successful that neighboring farmers also took up the practice – a real indicator of success. With time, the team developed farmer-to-farmer research, variations in the legume mix, and added funded Participatory Action Research (PAR) projects on crop diversity, gender equality, child nutrition, and climate change resilience. I was especially impressed at how they looked beyond the model of a “grant money-funded three-year project run by foreign white people,” and built on long-term relationships and local needs. Although Rachel is the highly-educated university professor in the group, she cites her colleagues as co-authors in her papers, recognizing that a lot of the ideas and thinking have come from them. The finding that “talking about farming with your spouse makes your farming much better” amazed me – here was a definite, clear research finding that showed us a simple, cheap, and doable solution that we all can work towards.
The group work on a mini-PAR project used everybody’s strengths and taught us a good lesson on how to work in teams. Listening to the farmers, including Steve Gliessman about his vineyard, made me more conscious of their balancing acts.
The farmers are balancing the physical constraints of their land with finding a profitable crop that will grow there – that they can work without driving themselves to burnout. All the farm representatives – from Bread and Butter Farm, Diggers’ Mirth, and The Farm Between – all mentioned “low-stress” as a factor in choosing what to grow and what profit margin to aim for. I came away with a much deeper understanding about the rich worlds of agroecology, and these insights will enrich our work with southern Mexican food security- and sovereignty organizations in their support for agroecology.