Benjamin Bishop is a graduate research assistant at the University of Missouri studying agroforestry systems and tree crops. He has had a lifelong fascination with fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds and is currently working with black walnut (Juglans nigra) at the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin Missouri. Through his research, he hopes to expand the utilization of trees and woody shrubs as both profitable crops and as a strategy to off-set greenhouse gas emissions.
The Solution That Grows on Trees
This year has brought with it unexpected events that have challenged us and highlighted deeply-rooted issues facing almost every facet of society. Between record-breaking temperatures, massive protests and a pandemic, Americans are learning that life may not return to business as usual. As an eternal optimist, I can’t help but believe that we will use this unique inflection point in human history to enact change long overdue. Thanks to the constant digital connectedness enjoyed today, we can share ideas and make informed decisions faster than ever. So, while the task at hand can seem insurmountable at times, I am constantly inspired by the people innovating solutions that are having real impact.
Several years ago I became interested in pursuing research. Seeing that agriculture is foundational to economic, social and environmental issues, it seemed like an appropriate area to channel my deep interest in food plants and regenerative design. At this point, I had experience with agriculture on an urban and community scale. However, I wanted to learn how commercial agricultural operations could be improved to be less harmful to the environment, and possibly even beneficial. As I travelled to study farms that were actually building soil, improving biodiversity and feeding their communities while making a profit, I began to realize that the idea wasn’t just a 1960’s pipedream. This could actually scale. Soon after, I began to see the connection between regenerative agricultural practices and climate change mitigation through the process of carbon sequestration. A particularly grim IPCC climate report was the spark that I needed to dedicate my life to the implementation of solutions that address concerns of conventional agriculture.
Agroforestry, the integration of trees on cropland or with livestock, is a set of practices that has tremendous potential as one of these solutions. My current research at the University of Missouri involves the genetic improvement of tree crops such as black walnut so that they may be more widely planted across the midwestern United States as a profitable crop for farmers. If implemented properly, agroforestry can make land more productive than if it were planted to monocrop or livestock alone. Moreover, this shift will be beneficial for farmers by diversifying their income streams with the addition of tree crops and timber sales once the trees reach maturity. By perennializing the agricultural landscape with tree crops, perennial vegetables/fruits and even perennial grains that are currently under development, I hope to see a more resilient and regenerative way of farming in my lifetime.
Regenerative methods of farming, however, will not be adopted readily without a cultural shift in the way farms are managed and a resurgence of young people from all backgrounds wanting to begin careers as farmers. Since agroforestry operations tend to have different business models than conventional farms, they are less likely to compete directly, allowing new entrants into the industry that would otherwise be barred. I think this is a crucial point that will create more equitable access to land and spur local economies throughout the region. In these beginning stages, I hope there will be more Extension support and monetary incentivization of regenerative farming practices until communities begin to establish and become self-sufficient. Demonstration farms and public outreach may also improve awareness and acceptance.
We are living in unprecedented times and I would assert that there has never been a more uncertain future. I hope we can use this rare opportunity to shape the future to a more just and resilient one through the decisions made in the present. By focusing on agriculture, we can address economic, social and environmental issues in tandem while continuing to provide for a nation in need now more than ever.
Daniel Hayden (Comanche, Pawnee, Muscogee Creek) is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Plant Pathology in the Silva/Lankau Lab. His research project is working with Indigenous corn growers in Wisconsin utilizing no-till planting and interseeding both perennial and annual cover crops with their heirloom/landrace corn to understand the role of soil microbes in these highly diverse cropping systems. Daniel is driven by his own background as an Indigenous scientist toward ensuring that the perspectives and knowledge of Indigenous peoples are recognized, respected and elevated. He is committed to sharing his experiences in these Indigenous food sovereignty movements and illuminating how food is inseparable from culture and health, both ours and our environments’.
As part of my doctoral research in the plant pathology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I am involved with Indigenous growers in Wisconsin integrating no till or intercropping systems with culturally significant corn. More specifically, I am interested in how soil microbes respond to these highly diverse plant systems while tracking soil health factors. I actively seek to use the knowledge of Indigenous growers to answer agronomic (no-till and intercropping) and ecological (plant and microbial diversity) questions. As a Native researcher myself, an enrolled citizen of the Comanche Nation, I seek to bring Indigenous perspectives and ideas to the forefront of agricultural research. My primary obligations always lie with my own tribal communities and the Indigenous growers with whom I partner for my research. Everything I do and learn, I use for the betterment of my own community, which is the catalyst for why many Indigenous peoples enter higher education.
However, there is a great irony in my work in seeking to scientifically validate the agricultural practices of Indigenous peoples to non-Indigenous growers who produce on the very lands taken from the Indigenous peoples. Our current conventional cropping systems, relying on high fertilizer input, monocultures, and tillage, are maintained out of a goal for an optimization of yield. This is a short-term view that doesn’t account for the long-term sustainability of the system as a whole. What I find particularly interesting is the increased support for transitioning to more sustainable and organic agriculture practices. The irony of this transition is that these practices were already in place in some form by the Indigenous peoples of these agriculture heavy states for thousands upon thousands of years. What needs to occur is a combination of both traditional knowledge from Indigenous peoples combined with mechanistic science to form a more wholistic and respectful view of land and sustainable agriculture. This collaboration of perspectives will only be successful if we acknowledge how we are here to do this research.
I would like to see a broader understanding and recognition that our agricultural research is not possible without the stealing and active dominion over land from Indigenous peoples. This theft was entirely systematic in the formation of highly respected land grant universities through the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act, which allowed states to sell stolen land to fund their higher education institutions. In her book, “The White Possessive,” Aboriginal author Aileen Moreton-Robinson describes how difficult it is to truly distance ourselves from this history of Indigenous dispossession and genocide when we benefit every day from it. As scientists at a land grant university, we as a whole benefit from this dispossession and genocide meant to uphold white supremacy, and we must come to terms with that fact.
To reconcile and move forward, I believe we must elevate and fully recognize the plethora of Indigenous knowledge regarding agriculture and land management. This is not an easy task, as there is already a tenuous relationship between researchers and Indigenous communities. Science is a form of colonialism with a long history of extraction. Indigenous peoples are forced to protect their agrobiodiversity from researchers and biotechnology companies, who have taken advantage of the unique biodiversity held by Indigenous peoples with no reciprocation for hundreds of years. The action of scientific data collection provides an easy cover for piracy of culturally significant plants. Fortunately, we are in the midst of Indigenous food sovereignty movements that are reclaiming traditional practices and foods. We must move past the narrative of science being the ultimate force for truth and good for humankind. If we seek to truly heal the land through scientific advancements, we must include the original stewards of that land. We have been left out of the conversation for too long.
Britt is a Ph.D. candidate at Iowa State University where he specializes in soil physics and sustainable agriculture. Britt also works to promote community gardens and STEM education in communities of color.
Green Lands, Blue Waters, and the Color of Change
This year, with all of its tribulations, has forced our society to look into the mirror and to see ourselves as we are; the good, the bad, the ugly. Discourses on race and the enduring legacy of racism, long topics of discomfort in many professional circles, are beginning to take hold across our nation. As our society begins to more thoughtfully reckon with racial injustices writ large, our profession can, in word and deed, model the moral courage to not only actively support equity and inclusion, but to also reject passive acquiescence to an inequitable norm.
My belief in the inalienable human right of unencumbered access to wholesome food and clean water has defined my journey as a scientist. As a Black man raised in the city, my experiences have indelibly shaped my identity as an agronomist. I know first-hand the disproportionately long shadow that an inequitable food system casts on communities of color. I have also witnessed first-hand the dearth of opportunities for young people of color to engage in the agricultural sciences; an opportunity gap that shamefully persists in most places. Examining our collective role in preserving an inequitable norm must include a critical examination of racial homogeneity in the agricultural sciences. A substantive transition towards inclusion must include thoughtful engagement with communities that have too long been overlooked. A society where People of Color are full and equal partners in the food system, from farm to fork, is a goal that our profession should aspire to.
As an agronomist, I have the responsibility to conduct scientific research that advances a more sustainable and equitable food system. My other, perhaps more important responsibility is to serve as an educator, mentor, and role model to People of Color. As scientists and citizens, we have a moral responsibility to not only speak out against inequity, but to also actively dismantle the structures that foster de facto segregation at the institutions that we serve. Words of solidarity and pledges of financial support are not in themselves sufficient to achieve this aim. Of course words and finances matter; however, words without deeds are hollow, and money alone cannot substitute for investments of our time, expertise, and commitment to equity.
There are of course notable efforts devoted towards recruitment of People of Color into the university; however, these efforts alone are inadequate to foster racial equity in our profession. Tertiary education is far too late to begin the process of meaningful engagement with communities of color. Investments in recruitment, training, and retention of People of Color in the agricultural sciences can start as early as elementary school. These investments could include, for example, using our expertise to teach botany and gardening at summer camps, or hosting farm and laboratory field trips at our academic institutions. Transitioning towards greater inclusion is possible; however, we must possess the willingness and creativity to actualize this change. Structural change cannot happen in the absence of direct, thoughtful engagement to address the needs and concerns of marginalized communities. As scientists and citizens, we can make meaningful and lasting efforts to dismantle the racial inequities that manifest in our profession. Our efforts must go beyond niceties, platitudes, and one-time cash donations; if we truly want to serve as instruments of change then we must begin investing in marginalized communities of color: we must invest our time, our expertise, and our steadfast commitment to equity and opportunity for all.
Fahd studies the economics of natural resources and the environment with a focus on agriculture, biofuels, ecosystem services, and risk. He is part of research team at the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI) and has previously worked at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
The ongoing pandemic has, in the past few months, brought into question everything from the value of the most basic and taken-for-granted human interaction to the resilience of highly optimized and complex global supply chains including those connected to the agricultural sector. These events have introduced new problems and put a spotlight on some of the existing problems that plague our society such as climate change and racism. Policymakers will need to address these issues cost-effectively at a time when resources are already running thin. Our collective work as civic scientists needs a critical examination of our roles in agriculture and conservation to ensure that we are addressing issues pertaining to racism, climate change, and fragility of the value chains we work with.
On a personal level, this period has forced a moment of introspection about my values, principles, and goals, in terms of the direction of my career and has prompted a re-evaluation of the importance of the work that I do. I study the economics of natural resources and the environment with a focus on bioenergy crops, renewable energy, and risk. Specifically, I am working on designing payments to farmers to harness the substantial Greenhouse Gas (GHG) saving potential through gasoline displacement as well as soil carbon sequestration for various cellulosic biofuel feedstocks. This work is now doubly important as the effects of climate change become more prominent day by day and it becomes clearer that we as a society need to find ways to incentivize GHG reduction across every sector, including agriculture.
As an ethnic minority myself I am very aware of the racial biases entrenched within our society. For countless years, we have unconsciously and consciously oppressed minorities, sidelined women as well as differently-abled individuals, and written off LGBTQ community members. Many of these biases have historical roots in the agricultural system. With the onset of the pandemic, it has also become clear that agriculture value chains will be affected significantly, and that a disproportionate number of those affected will be those belonging to these underserved groups. It is, therefore, our duty as agricultural economists and civic scientists to actively work to right that wrong, as well as question if this is the legacy we want to leave behind.
After we graduate, some of us will go on to pursue a career in teaching, some of us will opt to focus solely on research, and some will work on policy issues. In all cases, the crux of our job will be to influence the thoughts and ideas of minds by posing insightful questions, presenting hypotheses, and proposing results. In any case, we hope that our work impacts people in a way that helps them question, ponder over, and develop ideas. One can only do justice to this by actively striving to remove all traces of bias in our work, keeping an open mind, remaining compassionate and empathetic, recognizing that sometimes we are unable to see our own biases, and by having the courage to call out injustice when we see it.
Gina Nichols is a doctoral student in the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University where she researches the benefits of diversified cropping systems. Much of her recent work has looked at the effects of cover crops on weeds. Gina enjoys data science, winter biking, and eggplants.
I slug through the day. Screen to screen. A sea of eyebrows, another screen. On a bathroom break, a rare venture into the eerie common space, I look out the window. I see a praying mantis, bigger than my hand. Upside down, calmly peering in from outdoors. I wiggle with excitement, and I search for some eyebrows. I see some sandwiched by headphones, walking towards me. ‘There’s a praying mantis on the window!’ The eyebrows don’t move, but the eyes look at me. I point and step back, creating a six foot invitation to look. The eyebrows turn around and walk the opposite way.
I slug back to the office, pack up a screen to take home. I pass by the praying mantis again. I think it’s dead.
At home I talk to a screen, make lunch, then sit down to listen to a screen talk to me. It’s the first installment of the Department of Agronomy’s seminar series. That morning, when I read the email invitation, I could smell the cheap cookies and coffee. No cheap cookies this year. The speaker is a farmer. A graduate of the department. Younger than me. I’m slouched in my chair, my hands full of green beans and hummus as he starts.
He is very articulate. He reads his farm’s mission statement, and it’s beautiful. What farm has a mission statement? I sit up straighter. He says something I want to write down. I get up to find a pen and rush back. I write it on my arm. He says another thing I want to write down and I write it on my leg. I realize this isn’t sustainable, so I trot to get a notebook. When I come back into the room he is listing things he wants.
…to be able to swim in the local lake.
I want to have time to swim in the local lake.
I want my farm to have diversity, and connections.
I want my farm not to lose soil when it rains.
I want to raise 300 bushel corn.
I want a crop to replace corn.
I want my cows to eat thistle.
I want my cover crops to feed my cows.
I want labor to replace my 60-something dad.
I’m still standing, notebook in hand, and I yell and make a touchdown sign.
I want those things for you too!
I pace around for the last bit of his talk. He thanks everyone for listening, invites us to his farm, and I end it. I close my screen, and I am grinning. I stack four books on my dresser by the window, and set the screen on top. I open it, and work the rest of the day standing up, looking at all the life outside my window.
Hannah is a PhD Student at the University of Minnesota studying Plant Breeding and Molecular Genetics. Her PhD project focuses on quantifying the breeding progress of Intermediate Wheatgrass, Kernza™, a new perennial grain crop. While she is passionate about feeding our world using sustainable agricultural practices and advanced breeding technologies, she considers communicating science to learners of all backgrounds and educating future scientists as her true calling.
Diversifying the Agricultural Playing Field
Diversity. It is a word that comes up in our vocabulary nearly every day. In agriculture, we use it to describe rotational cropping systems, the microbiome of the soil, and the importance of genetic diversity for plant improvement, among other phenomena. Outside of agriculture, diversity most often refers to people of different ethnicity, gender identity, religion, socio-economic status, or race coexisting peacefully. Diversity in the latter sense is critically lacking in agriculture. In the United States agriculture industry, minorities are still severely underrepresented in land ownership, industry management positions, and in the academic leadership realm. We cannot claim diversity is the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture without first addressing this disparity.
Major systemic issues require major systemic solutions. While I am only one person, I strive to be a part of changing agriculture for the better as a scientist and educator. I was drawn to the Kernza® (intermediate wheatgrass) breeding program at the University of Minnesota for my PhD because I wanted to learn about the agronomics, breeding, and genetics of a perennial, sustainable cropping system. While there are ample unknowns about this new perennial crop, there are several knowns that make it a promising crop for both profitability and sustainability. I am energized by the positive systemic impacts of Kernza® for producers, the environment and society. While sustainable agriculture research motivates me, teaching and mentoring students fills my soul. Students are our future, and I feel my true calling is to educate and learn from the next generation of agriculture students.
As an agricultural educator committed to promoting diversity in my classroom, I see my responsibilities as two-fold: (1) broaden the pipeline of students recruited into agricultural sciences and (2) use inclusive teaching techniques to support students of all backgrounds and encourage civil discourse. First, we need to change the pipeline of students being recruited to agricultural sciences. When recruiting members for a team or an academic major, we consistently choose students from a “proven successful” source. In agricultural sciences, colleges often recruit from the same high schools with agriculture programs. However, this tactic fails to consider students with greater talent or new, alternative ideas from unconventional backgrounds that ultimately could be better selections for the team. We will not achieve diversity in agriculture by continuing to recruit from the same schools and areas of the country. Extending the recruitment pipeline would highlight new voices and lead to more diversified leadership in the agriculture industry. Moreover, achieving and maintaining diversity is impossible without a learning environment that gives fair, accommodating opportunities to all students. In order to diversify the network of leaders in agriculture, all students must be equipped with the tools needed to thrive in agriculture classrooms. Classrooms need to be inclusive and equitable for students. For my classroom, this means using teaching techniques that complement various learning styles and abilities, listening to and learning from students of color and those from non-traditional backgrounds, and teaching in a collaborative, active learning atmosphere to encourage meaningful discussion and identify learning needs. A thriving, diverse student body opens the floor to world-changing discussions. My hope for these students is that they will move on to be an innovative cohort of agriculture professionals, leading to actual systemic change in agriculture. If we all make better efforts to listen and learn from one another, I take heart in the future of agriculture as a more equitable environment for people of color and individuals from all backgrounds to thrive.
Our generation is faced with a grand challenge: How will we feed nearly 10 billion people in 2050? Without fresh perspectives and significant agricultural innovation, we will not meet these demands. We need people who understand the food supply problems in urban areas. We need people who have experience farming small scale or large scale. We need people who have no experience in agriculture but understand the ecological impacts on our environment. We need economists and developers who can establish markets for new sustainable crops. We need diversity in this industry. I am optimistic that we will meet the 2050 demands if we all commit to listening, learning, and devoting ourselves to promote change. I look forward to forging a path as a scientist and teacher to play my part in the systemic diversification of agriculture.
Heidi Reitmeier is a master’s student in the Land and Atmospheric Science Program through the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities). While finishing her master’s program, she is also a soils researcher at the Northwest Research and Outreach Center in Crookston, MN, with Dr. Lindsay Pease. Reitmeier does research in soil and water quality as well as in agricultural nutrient management. This research links with her master’s project, which involves collecting farm management data for testing and updating the current MN Phosphorus Index model. In addition to Reitmeier’s academic and professional life, she has an undergraduate background in horticultural and environmental sciences from the University of Minnesota (Crookston).
Green Lands, Blue Waters – Graduate Reflections on Agricultural Diversity
My vision towards agricultural resiliency and sustainability. I am a white, rural Midwesterner working in science. In the big picture of our world, where we are constantly striving toward scientific improvements for agricultural challenges, I understand that many in, for example, the Midwestern United States, have significant agricultural resources to meet the world’s demands against the pressures of a changing climate. Other areas of the world are not as resource-rich as my corner of the world. My vision entails the inclusion of any and every culture to have an active, empowered role in addressing the grand agricultural and environmental challenges that may face us all over the future decades. We cannot solve Earth’s complex problems in small-minded ways; the world needs to address systemic issues in order to enact real change.
My grappling to find wholeness in agriculture and conservation. The grappling, or struggling, I have with our current conservation attempts in agriculture is that I sense that these attempts are made from a narrow-minded perspective based in historically European roots. This perspective appears to dominate and permeate the mainstream scientific community. We can extend beyond our Euro-centric limitations that are and have been self-imposed for such a long time. There is a bias within science that is skewed by “whiteness.” There is not wholeness yet in our fields of study. The grappling to find justice must press forward toward eliminating such bias. Also, as climate changes across the globe, across innumerable borders, we must work together across differences for countries to solve these international problems. The world’s climate response through agriculture must, therefore, know no borders.
The inextricable link between land and human ethics. An incredibly strong force connects lands and humans. When one suffers, the other can suffer also. One of my courses, Lands and Humans in World Cultures, highly impressed upon me this important understanding. I recall from this course, as my comprehension culminated toward the end of the semester, that the marginalization of people tends to occur toward marginalized lands. When the quality of agricultural land is poor, it no doubt creates poor quality of life for those people living on that land and farming it. After learning to visualize this link, I can see, now more than ever, that lands and humans both deserve respect and dignity. Agricultural systems across the world ought to incorporate this critical focus into every application possible. My hope begins with myself and with anyone else I see also taking each step forward in this direction toward equity in agriculture.
My scientific career’s responsibility to contribute to global justice. As agricultural and environmental issues spread in complexity across borders, racial and other tensions will need to be actively addressed, and new ways of authentically collaborating across differences will need to be learned. I work as a soil scientist supporting the agricultural community, and I also want to work with consideration of the diversity of people around me. Maximizing agricultural output, minimizing the impact on the planet’s resources, and minimizing human suffering in the process are all values I have. I believe that many others share these values. So, please take a stand with me! Acknowledging the historical damage and promoting justice in our agricultural advances can and should be core to our collective vision moving forward.
Huong Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University with Dr. Matt Liebman. Her doctoral research uses empirical experiments and periodic matrix models to study plant population dynamics for integrated weed management. She is also concerned about accelerating the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices via social and natural sciences integration. Outside of schoolwork and on-campus extra-curriculum activities, Nguyen is a volunteer integrated pest management specialist for a Red Dao community in Ta Phin, Lao Cai, Vietnam.
I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, originally from Vietnam. My research topic is integrated weed management. In Vietnam, weeds (or wild plants) are widely used as additional animal feedstock, homeopathic remedies for common illnesses, and in traditional beauty products. Seeing how weeds are conventionally managed in the United States was shocking when I first came to graduate school. My research focuses on the effects of cropping system diversification on common waterhemp control in an integrated pest management context. Common waterhemp is a noxious weed species found throughout Midwestern croplands that thrives, competes with crops, produces many seeds, and maintains a persistent soil seedbank that insures recurring infestations. My primary goal is to identify sustainable sets of practices to deplete waterhemp’s soil seedbank while not compromising crop yields and environment quality. One cropping system in our experiment is a four-year rotation that is in the following sequence: corn-soybean-oat interseeded with alfalfa – alfalfa. The alfalfa that is interseeded with oat in the third year is maintained over winter to the fourth year of the rotation. The weed management and cropping system diversification strategies are ecologically driven, considering natural resource availability and potential markets for the added crops. Oat and alfalfa exude allelopathic chemicals against weed seedlings. Interseeding alfalfa with oat in the third year of the rotation reduces the soil disturbance frequency, and the alfalfa hosts beneficial insects over winter. My preliminary model suggested that the waterhemp seedbank density is declining the fastest in one of the diversified cropping systems while using 60% less herbicide than in the conventional system. Crop yields in the more diverse rotations were higher than those in the baseline system. The 4-year system’s sustainability is improved as the total amount of herbicide’s active ingredient is reduced by 96%, significantly reducing freshwater toxicity load and greenhouse gas emissions. Higher weed seedbank diversity and richness in the 4-year rotation are coincident with improved cropping system sustainability.
In my relevant experience, COVID-19 has shown the importance of locally available resources, and how logistically challenging, and sometimes hazardous, transportation can be. My research has, fortunately, been almost unaffected thanks to the support system that I have. Our research group decided to have one person in a room or a car at a time, and we are continually watching out for each other. At this writing, I am in home quarantine after exposure to someone that has tested positive, and I thank my coworkers who are lending a hand to continue my field data collection. My personal life has been inconvenienced with less freedom as to where and how to unwind. I now appreciate the carefree time we had when normal activities were not prone to contagion. This time has been challenging, but it gives me hope as I see more home gardens started and how much close-knitted groups can do for one another and society. I think local food production will improve local food subsistence and build a stronger community as the relationship between eaters and growers in food systems is increasingly encouraged. I would expect to see more understanding of the challenges that food production systems face and how rewarding it can be once eaters and growers are compassionate toward each other.
As a young scientist, my role is to develop solutions from locally available resources using system-thinking frameworks to lessen the current pressure on the local food production systems. I would like to integrate social science into my trained discipline of integrated weed management to thoroughly understand and stimulate the factors that drive the adoption of sustainable farming practices. In my dream world, I would like to see more diversity and perenniality across all landscapes, such as prairies replacing lawns for ecological services, more fruit and nut trees along the streets to offer supplementary foods to anyone in need, and more home and community gardens for personalized diet preference accommodation and community building.
Katie is a master’s student in the Applied Plant Sciences Program at the University of Minnesota. She is co-advised by Drs. Gregg Johnson and Scotty Wells. Her thesis explores how to expand cover crop adoption in Minnesota’s corn-soybean agroecosystems. When not working, you can find her in a kitchen trying out a new recipe or in nature exploring with some loved ones.
When I began my first season of graduate school, my research changed almost immediately due to my cover crops dying. For the rest of the year, I thought that although things had gotten off on a bad foot, research could only get easier. Enter my second spring season of graduate school, which coincided with a global pandemic. I told myself summer would be better, because I could at least do my research outside and socially distanced. June, which brought a busy field season, also brought the largest civil rights protests in my lifetime. I’ve since stopped trying to predict what this fall and winter will hold.
Ironically, graduate school is all about imagining what the future holds. The research project that sponsors my graduate education relies on self-driving robotics technology, and exists because a team imagined what farming of the future would look like. I entered the field of sustainable agriculture because I, like many other young people, have imagined that we can work together to rethink and transform our food systems.
Community members took to the streets in a pandemic to demand a reimagining of our public safety.
While I have focused a lot on reimagining the physical environment of agriculture, I have done less work on reimagining the social environment of agriculture. This season has revealed how I have neglected the work of making our food systems racially just. Like others, I have spent the past weeks learning about how I contribute to systemic racism. One of the most shocking things to me was learning about how Black Americans were excluded from the Homestead Acts, which is how many farmers today have accumulated their land. My own family received their land in Karlsruhe, ND, through this act. It is a source of generational wealth and provides my family privileges others have not received.
I’m proud of my family’s farming history, but it’s my duty to look forward and figure out how we can change the injustices created by people of the past, and those injustices that are perpetuated by people today. Agricultural scientists as a whole have been too quiet about how we can contribute to creating more just communities. In moving forward, I consider one of my responsibilities as a scientist to speak up about the intersection between race and agricultural opportunity. It is also my responsibility to actively create an environment that welcomes and supports farmers and scientists of color.
I have started asking myself how I can apply a racial justice lens to the projects I work on. Is this project advancing racial equity? Is it creating opportunity in an equitable way? Who is it solving problems for, and who do these problems affect? It is imperative that we in the food and agriculture community ask these questions in order to imagine and act on a racially just future.
I encourage everyone interested in transforming our food systems and communities to take a look at what Black farmers and activists around the country are doing. They have been providing me sparks of hope when I question the efficacy of my work as a grad student. The Land Loss Prevention Project, Soil Generation, Soul Fire Farm, and Urban Roots MN are just a few of the organizations growing new generations of BIPOC farmers. Learn from them and support them financially if you can. These activists are showing scientists like me the way forward. Their leadership makes me excited to imagine a future where all people, plants, and animals have the ability to prosper.
Kyle is a first-year graduate student in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate at The University of Minnesota. Kyle grew up in Beaver, Pennsylvania and graduated from Penn State with a degree in geobiology. He served as a health outreach coordinator in Juneau, Alaska for one year as an AmeriCorps member. In his free time, Kyle enjoys hiking, travelling, and photography.
My current Master’s degree research project investigates quantifying soil carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in newly drained fields in Minnesota by examining a selection of samples including greenhouse gases, soil cores, surface water and tile water. As subsurface drainage expands in Northwest Minnesota, this work will help growers better understand this practice. Drainage ensures soils are properly aerated and reduces nutrient and soil loss from runoff. With reduced nutrient loss, growers could decrease the amount of fertilizer needed while maintaining or increasing their yield. The goal of this project is to provide growers, the backbone of our food and agriculture systems, with research-based recommendations regarding fertilizer practices and long-term soil health management for sustainable agroecosystems. Sustainable agroecosystems are vital for meeting communities’ demands while natural resources are uninhibited for future generations. Agriculture is linked to climate change, water scarcity, land degradation, but developing sustainable systems can enhance environmental quality, minimize land degradation, and maximize nonrenewable sources while meeting the food need. As researchers and growers continue to examine these systems, not only should they consider biological and environmental facets, but economic and social as well.
As a young scientist, humble leader, and gay man, I know it is my responsibility to do my part in creating a more diverse workforce and inclusive world; the type of world I want to leave behind. For the first time in my career, solving problems is more than just applying knowledge to find a solution, but understanding the implications different results may have. With this work, it is critical to understand the risks and benefits. Growers are relying on me for clarity and transparency.
Right now, our society is facing a global pandemic and racial reckoning; it’s a heavy time. What brings me hope is knowing that change happens one person at a time. I have experienced what it’s like to be the odd person out and feel like I do not belong. Too often people have tried to tear me down instead of helping me rise-up to the occasion. I have been told to get into a different field simply because of where I came from or how I looked. I owe it to those who paved the way for me to be where I am today and those who will follow in my footsteps. I hope to be a positive influence while collaborating with those around me. To this point in my master’s program, I have only performed field work, but I know that I have the ability to get the most out of this program over the next two years at The University of Minnesota. As I begin my graduate school career, I have so much hope and optimism that I can be a voice of reason and influence of change.
Maria Hetman has a deep interest in sustainable agriculture, especially regenerative agroforestry, agroecology, and food sovereignty, and is currently investigating these issues at the master’s level at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Hohenheim in Germany. She has built practical experience as a researcher and by working on farms in various countries. Previously, Maria had an international career with organizations focused on independent media and social justice, where she held leadership roles. She also holds a MA in Sociology and Social Anthropology. Maria was born and raised in Chicago and has lived in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, and Germany.
Regenerative ambitions of agroforestry must intersect with anti-racist work
As an agroforestry student, I investigate the integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits. I flew into the arms of agroforestry from the nearly uninterrupted flatlands of soy and corn monocultures encircling the City of Chicago where I grew up, searching for answers to how we could regenerate devastated land and communities in the Midwest and elsewhere. In recent months, as social justice movements have become increasingly visible in the US, I have been reflecting on my intentions in the space where I chose to land and identifying neglected parts in my thinking about regeneration – particularly when it comes to the intersection of agroforestry and anti-racism.
When one examines history honestly, it is difficult to disentangle the history of agroforestry from racism. For example, though the term “agroforestry” is relatively new, the intentional integration of woody perennials into agricultural systems was practiced by Native Americans and other Indigenous people around the world for thousands of years, well before white researchers gave it a name. Native Americans in the Midwest and elsewhere were active land stewards, regeneratively managing and transforming forest ecosystems for food, fiber, and fuel while supporting an abundance of biodiversity. The vast prairies and grasslands of the Midwest – once considered to be natural occurrences – are now thought to be the result of strategic interference in forested lands, as Native Americans created space for forage to flourish, thus sustaining the large game animals that were an important part of their diet. Native Americans also consciously managed crops, including selecting and cultivating preferred trees for mast and fruit for their own gastronomic needs. This led to the predominance of certain tree species in the North American forest ecosystems we know today.
With colonization, Native American communities and the complex perennial land use systems they expertly managed and called home were destroyed. It was a genocide perpetuated by white Europeans, who used stolen lands to enrich themselves, exploiting them unsustainably. The intricate agricultural, ecological, cultural, and other knowledge the Native Americans had cultivated over countless generations was also violently eradicated to a large extent, in part through forced “reeducation” programs in white supremacist-run boarding schools.
It was only after white scientists coined the term “agroforestry’’ in the 1970s that the earth-based concepts and practices Native Americans had once been vilified for and forced to abandon became legitimized by powerful, agenda-setting institutions. While agroforestry science, broadly speaking, does make attempts to value the knowledge and practice that Indigenous people cultivated and still do cultivate in many areas of the world, it is often still approached as a side note in many contexts, and falls egregiously short of justice.
I once observed the marginalization of this history and this knowledge in agroforestry circles with sorrowful resignation, believing there wasn’t much I could do in my position about Indigenous/Native American issues. But as I reflect more wholeheartedly on my self-proclaimed commitments to social and ecological renewal, it is clear that this mindset is an abdication of the very sense of responsibility and transformational hopes that brought me to this field in the first place.
Violence against Native Americans is not just ancient history, and the current violence they are subjected to is not limited to the sphere of knowledge. Native Americans – pushed to the sidelines of US society – are still fighting today for recognition, protection of sacred places, for visibility, and for reparations. They are also fighting for access to clean water, quality land, and healthcare, among other fundamental rights. Data from a 2017 study showed that Native Americans were killed in police encounters at a higher population-adjusted rate than any other racial or ethnic group between 1995 and 2015 – a topic which has been nearly absent from the mainstream media. As for agroforestry, their voices and their demands for justice are only marginally heard in the largely white academic space, even if the woody perennial crops and land ethics they cultivated are sometimes referenced nostalgically, and while Native-Americans are simultaneously carving out their own spaces for cultivating and studying perennial agriculture. Field trials and farming continue on unceded land, but there is usually merely an apology or a symbolic acknowledgement of this at best.
While this painful history must never be forgotten, there are also powerful growing movements of Native Americans pushing back against these injustices, which include reclaiming rights to self-determination when it comes to land, food, community, health, knowledge, etc. Going forward, I will be paying closer attention to Native American movements as I grapple with how I can actively work for racial justice in the sphere of agroforestry, which includes doing my part to end the replication of white supremacist domination in education and land use. This grappling extends beyond Native Americans to other communities of color in the US and globally – including Black people – who are also victims of related systemic racist violence and whose contributions to agroforestry over millennia have also often been ignored or depreciated in white dominated spaces. If I came to agroforestry, as I believe many of my colleagues did, because I was motivated to do work that could help heal land and communities, then paying closer attention and acting as an ally is not optional for me. Nor is it optional for any of us who have benefitted from white privilege in science and practice, and who, through negligence and silence, may continue to perpetuate the ongoing cycle of violence ignited by colonization. At the bare minimum, this works starts with naming injustice when we see it, using our influence where we have it to elevate the knowledge, voices, and activity of Indigenous and other POC that have always been there, and recognizing and amending our own behaviors that may reinforce systemic oppression.
Graduating from Iowa State University with an Agronomy B.S., Korede is focusing his graduate work on the perennial dual-use crop Intermediate wheatgrass. His research focuses on finding the optimal planting date of Intermediate wheatgrass intercropped with Red clover in Wisconsin. He is passionate about issues in the food system, adventure books, Arsenal FC, ice skating, and assisting the next generation.
In the five years I have been in the Midwest studying, I can count on my fingers alone the number of Black plant scientists that I have had the privilege of meeting. When I started at first I did not give it that much thought and believed representation was just low at those specific times, but as time passed and things stayed the same it became evidently clear. Due to the systems that have been in place for years in our field, few Black people have been given opportunities and the result of that is as clear as looking at a tilled field versus a perennial field.
A good number of graduate students I have talked to at some point question themselves as to why they are studying whatever it is they are studying or whether they want to or can even continue on in their field. Personally, I have asked myself those questions numerous times, maybe even a bit more than average. Since there are practically no other scientists in my vicinity who look like me that are at the same stage as I am or further along in their career, my mind at times goes to the extreme and I think that it is just not possible for someone like me to accomplish anything in this field. But I know that is ludicrous. There are other people like me but just spread out in different regions who are going through the same thing. Reminding myself of that gives me that bit of extra fortitude and helps me push forward. I enjoy the work that I do, and although it may be laborious at times it is one of the things I still see myself doing in the future and would even relish it more when all the self-doubt is gone.
Thinking about the responsibilities I have as a scientist, the things that come to mind are making breakthroughs in continuous living cover (CLC) research, advancing the knowledge we currently have, setting an example for the next generation and supporting the other scientists who need it. There is a limit to what I can do as a person. I am just a kid from Nigeria who likes plants. Ultimately, I just want to be the best scientist that I can be and hope that it will inspire younger people in the minorities who want to pursue a career in the plant science field and maybe even a career in CLC research. What I continue to hope for is that as I carry on with my career that I would be able to meet more people with similar experiences and that our field would have a plethora of diversity not just in ideas and research but also in backgrounds, gender, and race.
Difficult as it may be, the work that needs to be done to increase diversity is necessary. It will not only benefit those of us currently in the system but also the people that will be coming after us. The next generation of scientists should not go through the same problems we are currently experiencing. The bulk of effort we put in to make our cropping systems sustainable… we should also use that much to make our communities sustainable.
Long fascinated by the nitrogen cycle, Sienna Nesser followed that interest by studying sustainable agriculture while at the University of Minnesota, Morris (B.A. Environmental Studies and Studio Arts). It was there that her advisor, Dr. Sheri Breen, introduced her to The Land Institute and their work on perennial grains. After working on several different farms throughout the state and country, Sienna moved back to Minnesota and began her Master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Through her thesis work she is studying Silflower, a native wildflower, with the hope that it will someday be a perennial oil seed crop.
The effects of a global pandemic and racial uprising on one white, cis-gendered, perennial grains woman researcher with mediocre mental health
I was raised to be a radical, but not in the field of agriculture. That came later. As a suburban high schooler, I was fascinated by nitrogen fertilizers. The idea of perennial grains captivated me when I was in college. After a few years of working on farms, I’ve found myself studying a perennial oilseed, radical research in the field of agriculture.
In March, I got used to staying at home all day. Virtual everything, except for grocery shopping, which inspired significant anxiety. As I sat through classes and meetings, I was grateful not to have to worry about field work right away. I let the snow melt, and after the silflower emerged from the ground, resumed my field work.
Then May 25th came. The Twin Cities erupted with anger, fear, flames, protests, and shock after George Floyd was murdered by police. I started using twitter to follow the news, see which buildings were burning and what all the noise was – fireworks or rubber bullets? I listened to a constant hum of helicopters as I tried to analyze last year’s results. I didn’t go to the protests; I didn’t help clean up in the mornings. I was afraid of teargas and covid-19. I was afraid of seeing all of that destruction with my own eyes.
I have long been aware of my privilege as a white woman and long wanted a more equitable world. As I read about white supremacy culture and police abolition, there were a few things that shifted my mind. I previously thought I didn’t have the knowledge, lived experience, or skills to fight racism in a meaningful way. I realized I was wrong.
The second shift came after I heard that there are 35 Black farmers in Minnesota. In some ways, the number was not surprising, but it shocked me. In looking at the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture data, I see that Black farmers own 2,474 acres of land in Minnesota. White farmers own 13,559,543. Equity is going to be a long fight.
On the Friday after George Floyd’s murder, I had field work to do, so I met a fellow researcher in the field to cut down plants so that we could observe how they regrow. As we worked, we talked about the uprising, the riots, whether we could hear it from our respective homes. How it felt to see so many pictures of burned buildings, then the number of people cleaning up in the mornings. We wished each other a safe weekend.
Scientific research requires a conclusion, but there are none right now. Everything is uncertain. Inconclusive results. The university makes protocols, initiatives, task forces and plans, but the only thing we can plan on doing is changing. When will be the next time that we can meet safely in person? Who will be the next person killed by unceasing police brutality?
I have understood the past six months, in some ways the past 400 years in this way: The world was cracked. We all lived year after year, stepping over or avoiding many deep fissures, sometimes building bridges over them, or walls and fences to avoid them. A global pandemic deepened those cracks, and the murder of George Floyd was what finally broke our world apart. Some people are trying to tape the world back together, but I don’t think that will be enough. I think we need to build something new, and that it will take enormous community effort and a long time. I hope you’re with me.
Zenith Tandukar is a PhD student and MnDRIVE fellow at the University of Minnesota working on the domestication and breeding of a new oilseed crop called pennycress with Dr. Jim Anderson. He is passionate about sustainable agriculture, food systems, and renewable energy. He is a strong advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and believes everybody should play their part in dismantling racism and other systems of oppression in our society.
A call to diversify our fields
I would like to thank Green Land Blue Waters (GLBW) for the opportunity to submit this perspective piece. As a graduate student and a person of color at the University of Minnesota, I am proud to be working against two distinct, yet major deficiencies in the agriculture sector in the US concerning the lack of diversity. Modern agriculture has resulted in greatly reduced biological diversity in the US agricultural landscape, contributed to mainly by the monotony of the two-crop system of corn and soybeans. Modern agriculture is also notorious for being one of the least diverse fields regarding study and research, land ownership, and concentration of wealth and power. It is important to recognize that both of these systemic flaws are prevalent in our society. Therefore, a deliberate effort to improve on these shortcomings is the crux of this call to diversify our fields.
The development of winter annual and perennial crops is an important initiative to complement the aforementioned two-crop system, while reestablishing the lost diversity back to the US landscape. The ecosystem services offered by these new crops are an important piece of the sustainable agricultural intensification puzzle, where the goal is to maximize productivity while minimizing agriculture’s adverse effects on the environment. As a graduate student, I am fortunate to be working towards this goal with the domestication and breeding of pennycress – a new oilseed crop species. Pennycress is being directly domesticated from a weedy species to a sustainable source of oil for biodiesel and aviation fuels. It is one of many winter annual and perennial crop species actively being developed at the University of Minnesota to help restore lost biodiversity back on the agricultural landscape. However, for this piece, I would like to focus on a different diversity issue altogether.
A recent study by Horst and Marion (Horst & Marion, 2019) reported that “from 2012 to 2014, white people generated 98 percent of all farm-related income from land ownership and 97 percent of the income that comes from operating farms. On the other hand, farmers of color (Black, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, and those reporting more than one race) comprised less than 3 percent of non-farming landowners and less than 4 percent of owner-operators.” This shows clear disparities between white farmers and minority farmers. The abysmal lack of diversity and representation in US agriculture is not an accident. This inequity is deeply rooted in structural and systemic racism against people of color. Federal Homestead acts mainly helped white settlers and corporations gain access to massively subsidized land while driving out Native American and excluding minority landowners. These problems were further exacerbated with discriminatory laws preventing people of color from owning land in the early 1900s. The aftereffects of these century old laws are still felt today. A telling instance is the massive decline of Black or African American farm owner-operators from 14% in 1910 to only 1.5% in 2012. The US system is not broken; it was built as a tool to oppress people of color, and in that regard, it is functioning extremely well. It is our collective moral duty to depose of this unjust system and challenge existing social inequities in our food system and the larger community.
As a young scientist in Agriculture today, I am encouraged by the increased public dialogue regarding racial justice and the active work being done to address issues brought forth by the lack of diversity in both our crop systems as well as the farmers/ landowner demography. Ultimately, I am hopeful that we can realize the virtues of diversity in our fields and establish a more equitable US food system.
Horst, M., & Marion, A. (2019). Racial, ethnic and gender inequities in farmland ownership and farming in the U.S. Agriculture and Human Values, 36(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-018-9883-3
Hannah Francis, Dana Johnson, Margaux Crider and Kase Wheatley are a collective of graduate students in agroecology and associated disciplines at UW Madison. In addition to the particularities of their individual research pursuits (ranging in discipline from soil science to community and environmental sociology), they are all grappling with “conventional” and “traditional” assumptions underlying food systems in the United States. With a shared vision of a world in which food sovereignty is the system, rather than a deviation from the system, they chose to write this piece collaboratively.
“You can’t say you’re sovereign if you can’t feed yourself.”
In this statement, Winona LaDuke, an internationally renowned Ojibwe activist, makes clear the relationship between “sovereignty” and the need for community justice in stewardship of the land.
We are a collective of graduate students, some in soil science and some in agroecology, grappling with “conventional” and “traditional” assumptions underlying food systems in the United States. We envision a world in which food sovereignty is the system, rather than a deviation from the system. This world view calls for a radical shift from the extractive, input-intensive systems that dominate midwestern farmlands to cropping systems that work with the land and rely on collaborative relationships between people and the land they farm. We believe that engaging conscious global citizens with agroecology as a science, movement, and practice can bring this vision to fruition.
Our work in Agroecology is to further embed collective resilience and justice within agriculture and the food system. In addition to our country’s racial injustices, rural communities face unique, often invisible, challenges: rural flight, unemployment, food insecurity, farmer suicide, and the widespread opioid crisis. If we are to truly work toward racial and social justice, we must weave strong social threads into the ecological fabric to ensure agroecosystems work for the communities which they purport to serve. In other words, agroecology is also about what happens off the farm; it pushes us to think holistically and critically about what makes for a healthy and just ecosystem: access to affordable healthcare, affordable education, clean drinking water, addressing wealth inequality/redistribution of wealth and property, and reparations for those historically disenfranchised by our food systems. A healthy and just ecosystem means a healthy and just community through self-sufficiency and sovereignty.
Food sovereignty is inextricable from the fight for racial justice. From whom was this land taken? Who currently has access to land? Who benefits directly from the research of continuously living cover (CLC) crops and cropping systems? Who doesn’t? The answer is that our current food system does not work to benefit Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in the United States. Instead, our food systems research often looks for a band-aid solution rather than a radical ecological and social reimagining of current cropping systems. For example, our graduate work includes investigations as to how cover crops (red clover) with continuous corn, or with corn-soybean-wheat cropping systems, can reduce the amount of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer we might apply to those systems. Many in our fields deem this technique as “sustainable intensification”; but frankly, there’s nothing sustain-able about it. Ecological and social resilience are intertwined; neither can succeed without the other. If our “systems analysis” of agriculture doesn’t include the people working in those systems (often immigrant and/or Black and Brown peoples), we are perpetuating racial hierarchies and the general inequality between owners and workers.
As young scientists, it is our duty to engage with multiple ways of knowing to actively expand our framework beyond western, colonial scientific thought. Though traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is not part of a standard agronomy education, we urge our educators to recognize the importance and relevance of this diverse body of knowledge. To learn TEK, we must be in conversation with the land and the people who hold this knowledge, including the farmers working the land. For some of us, this conversation involves the land where we conduct our graduate work. In Wisconsin, we know that much of land was stolen from the Ho-Chunk not so many generations ago. We need to listen to the communities we work with and engage with participatory research in disciplines that rely entirely on the western scientific method. As academics and engaged scientists. We are responsible for using our privileged position to center the voices of and give power to people who are, and have been for generations, marginalized and oppressed by our current systems. We want to live in a world where we expect to build, not degrade, our soil, and where the rhetoric coming from our administration is not “go big or get out.” As we engage with agroecology as North Americans, we need to hold our field to its original founding doctrine that social justice is inextricable from the land.
Also inextricable are the consequences of climate change for agriculture and social justice. It is no coincidence that vulnerable and impoverished populations disproportionately feel the effects of climate change. In Wisconsin, we expect to see higher degrees of uncertainty in weather patterns and more frequent extreme precipitation and extreme drought events in the coming decades due to climate change. Our current “conventional” system of agriculture is wholly inadequate to face this reality.
In response to this omission and environmental incoherence, our work within agroecology focuses on developing farming systems shown to sequester carbon and enrich soils to mitigate climate change while still prioritizing food sovereignty and security. Food systems should foster nutritionally and culturally appropriate diets. A system like this engages with diverse systems of agriculture from conventional row crop farming to indigenous practices such as agroforestry, polycultural rotational systems, and crop and livestock integration. These key practices can capture carbon and regenerate the soil, unlike the chemically-intensive, extractive agricultural practices that dominate the landscape.
It’s time to embrace regenerative agriculture to reimagine and enable a system that centers food sovereignty. Donna Haraway says in “Staying with the Trouble” that we are all just varying stages of compost. Our compost piles in the backyard give us hope– the hope that we can simultaneously rebuild depleted soils and depleted communities. We must deconstruct and unlearn much of our present understanding of the land. Watch as these kitchen scraps of the past crumble. Watch as we grow a future more nutritionally accessible, regenerative, and powerful.