Action Research Books

Social Justice, Environment and Livability books from MIT Press

What I hope Agroecology in Action does: public mobilization

Posted by brbuzz on August 27, 2008

Do you ever wonder why it’s easier to propose theories about how agriculture should be sustainable, but hard to actually implement them? As started my dissertation research, I observed that many theories have evolved about sustainable agriculture, but few studies explain how people (farmers, farm advisors, scientists) had actually put these ideas into action. More than 80 definitions of sustainable agriculture could be found in scientific publications, but I found myself more interested in understanding how people translated the ideas into action.

My study, Agroecology in Action, shows that many people are assembling different configurations of social networks, based on their understanding of sustainable agriculture, and that these are having a profound effect on American farming. I wrote this book to help theoreticians and practitioners better understand that alternative agriculture requires an alternative extension process: social learning.

I love California’s environment and I love California agriculture. As I rambled around our state’s rural landscape, I discovered that many people working in agriculture do, too, while at the same time, most urban Californians are removed from farming. This prompted me to show how farming is evolving to become more environmentally conscious. I discovered that thousands of people were working to make incremental, affordable improvements in stewardship, but these were largely invisible to the public. The environmental problems of modern agriculture get newspaper headlines. I wanted my study to take on the “big picture” question of the evolution of these “thought and practice” issues, something that is not generally reported in popular media or scientific journal articles.

My first idea for a dissertation centered on agricultural policy questions, but I soon discovered that extension strategies in sustainable agriculture were more critical, and begged for social science analysis. How do growers or consultants learn what they need to know? Why have some UC Cooperative Extension advisors and commodity groups worked intensively with grower networks to foster sustainable agriculture innovation? What extension strategies have they developed? When I about the agricultural partnership model, I realized that there were many initiatives taking place in the agricultural community with many crops that represented a “quiet revolution.” I set out to document them and to look for emergent patterns that could inform further efforts.

My initial work suggested that the “partnership model” depended on grower participation and cooperative learning in networks, and these features distinguish it from “technology transfer.” The UC Biologically Integrated Farming Systems (BIFS) Workgroup was generous in funding a portion of my study specifically investigating the role of grower participation. I used a network analysis methodology because it allowed me to look at how clusters of people were coordinating their participatory learning efforts. Over a three-year period, I conducted over 150 interviews and 13 focus groups with 84 participants. I attended more than 34 field days and agricultural partnership meetings, and reviewed over 200 reports and articles.

Each chapter opens with a narrative of how farmers, consultants, extension agents, scientists, growers groups and environmental agency officials collaboratively learned about how to make ecological principles practical in farming—in other words, useful for pollution prevention and sustaining rural livelihoods. I show the critical importance of “social learning” to foster innovation. Many great ideas for preventing pollution in agriculture exist on paper. My book explains how these networks realized their potential. The balance of each chapter provides social science analysis of how these networks negotiate the challenges of putting these ideas into action.

I wrote the book so that it would appeal to multiple audiences. General readers can engage the big issues by reading the opening narratives. Anyone interested in assembling a network for environmental resource protection will benefit from a close reading of the more formal social science analysis, which constitutes the balance of each chapter. My study suggests that pollution prevention has taken place in general proportion to the resources and effort invested in the development of integrated farming systems. This begs the question: What would happen if the same research, innovation and collaborative Extension efforts were expended on all crops?

The book concludes with a call to public mobilization. The public wants more sustainable agriculture. Many producers and scientists do as well. Agricultural policymakers and research directors are the critical missing links. This book shows how agriculture could be an even better steward of the environment, with more investment in these new forms of research and innovation. I would like to thank the hundreds of people who helped me with this study, but especially the past and present staff of SAREP and the UC BIFS Workgroup. These are the people making the difference; all I did was tell their story.

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