Category Archives: Sustainability Education

Some thoughts on teaching

EinsteinquoteI believe a university education should prepare a student for both life and livelihood.  My work is to create an educational environment in which students may acquire information, knowledge and wisdom toward this end.  In addition to gaining basic subject matter knowledge, students in my courses are guided to clarify their core values, individually and collectively, and to examine their behavior in the context of these values.  In this process students are challenged to discover their place as citizens of the world, by constructing a sense of self beyond the individual-self to include the family-self, community-self, and global-self.  This approach seems to have made these courses attractive to many students who struggle to find personal meaning in their lives, their studies, and their intended careers.

I believe university education should be transformational.  That is, education should not only provide a means to a career Continue reading Some thoughts on teaching

A Declaration of Values – to guide our work as academics

Objectivity-logoHow often are those of us at the public university told that science must be “value-free”….. that is objective and impartial?  I disagree…..

Rather, I suggest that we need to clarify the values that drive our work and make them transparent to the public.  In fact, the so-called “value-free” university must be more influenced by values, public values such as; truth over objectivity, public service over selfishness, scholarship over politics, and compassion over competition. This blog presents a set of values and a belief Continue reading A Declaration of Values – to guide our work as academics

Dialogue Education has come to Academia

dialogueRe-posted from Global Learning Partners with permission of the author

Dr. Daniel S. Gerber, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, School of Public Health and Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst MA

At a recent visit to have dinner with my mentor and friend Dr. Jane Vella I said, “Dialogue Education has come to academia.” In my experience, Adult Learning Theory which includes Dialogue Education, has become the premier pedagogy in Higher Education.  I asked, “Why else would UMass, Amherst recently build a new academic teaching building at the cost of one hundred and ten million dollars with mostly team-based learning classrooms?”  These are classrooms, housed with ten to fifteen round tables and nine chairs at each table, where students work cooperatively – learning the material by problem-solving and participating in other student-centered active learning projects.  At this point Karen Ridout, who came by Jane’s house to meet me, said, “Dan, would you be willing to write a blog about this?”  I said “Sure”, thinking I have never written a blog before and I don’t have a clue as to the format.   But, I am certainly willing to put my thoughts on paper.

I think the first thing I should do is introduce myself.  I am Dr. Dan Gerber, ED.D., MPH, currently the Academic Dean in the Continue reading Dialogue Education has come to Academia

Where will the agricultural college graduates work?

One of my most popular blog pojobssts has been “Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?”  In this next essay, I share a few thoughts about the jobs situation in sustainable agriculture – based on my experience working with young women and men graduating college.  My conclusion is that well-paying, meaningful “lifetime career” jobs that offer a sense of security are hard to find right out of college.  It may be that getting hired for a lifetime job is an unrealistic expectation for recent college grads in our emerging “on-demand” economy.  But that realization might be an opportunity!

Now, might be the time for young people to pursue their vision for a more just and equitable food system, driven by passion and grounded in pragmatism.  This might be the time for more food and farming entrepreneurs to lead us to a sustainable food system.

A national news story about Sustainable Food Jobs for example, provides an outline of the many emerging opportunities in this area.  Among the areas highlighted were:

  • Local and regional farming and marketing
  • Restaurants and food services
  • Media and marketing
  • Law and public policy
  • Public health and nutrition
  • Technology and entrepreneurship
  • Advocacy and community development
  • Teaching – especially community-based education

Many of the students who have graduated from the UMass Bachelor of Sciences program in Sustainable Food and Farming and are doing well  have created their own new work, rather than “landed a job” in the traditional sense.  I encourage graduating seniors to search the job boards online, but mostly as a way of creating a vision or coming up with a new idea for a business or service that nobody has ever thought of before!  A brainstorming session in one of my classes  came up with a serious, lighthearted, earnest, and ingenious list of future jobs that included; permaculture consultants, food delivery rickshaw drivers, herbal landscapers, wood mill operators, biodiesel processors, vermiculturists (they grow worms and make compost), urban rooftop gardeners, micro-lenders, witch doctors, AAA bicycle workers, compost toilet janitors, alternate transport specialists, population controllers, seed bank managers, urban wildcrafters….and on and on.

I try to be honest with students when they first arrive at UMass to study Sustainable Continue reading Where will the agricultural college graduates work?

Pondering the future of work and the role of higher education

My spring classes have begun at the University of Massachusetts and I’ve been thinking a lot about my responsibility as an educator to help the graduating students in our program find good work.

Our Sustainable Food and Farming major in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture has grown significantly over the past 10 years (from just 5 students in 2003 to almost 100 today).  While this doesn’t make it a large program at UMass, it makes it one of the largest sustainable agriculture programs in the U.S.

This dramatic increase in interest in sustainable food and farming education is being driven by “external” forces like the a growing local food culture coupled with a depressed national economy, as well as “internal” forces like the passion and commitment young people have to find real and meaningful work.

While most of my colleagues have celebrated this rapid growth in our program, a few have raise the concern that this many students may not be able to find well-paying jobs upon graduation.  As their adviser, I take this concern seriously and try to point students  toward good opportunities in the working world.  Perhaps just as important however, I encourage them to reflect upon the difference between “finding a job” and pursing their “calling.”

Good Work

As Matthew Fox points out in his book “The Reinvention of Work“, there is a big difference between a  “job” and “good work.”  The great British economist, E.F. Schumacher (most famous for his 1973 landmark book Small is Beautiful), wrote a less-known book called Good Work about this topic. According to Schumacher, good work should...

  1.     …provide the worker with a living (food, clothing, housing)
  2.     …enable the worker to perfect their natural gifts & abilities
  3.     …allow the worker to serve and work with other people

A “job” can “provide a living (food, clothing, housing)” but good work is needed for us to be fully human.  In an interview, Matthew Fox stated “a job is something we do to get a paycheck and pay our bills. Jobs are legitimate, at times, but work is why we are here in the universe. Work is something we feel called to do, it is that which speaks to our hearts in terms of joy and commitment.

Those of us for whom our job is also our calling might celebrate Robert Frost’s words in Two Tramps in Mudtime:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.

How many us can claim that our avocation (that which we love) and our vocation (that which “pays the bills”) are truly as two eyes made one in sight?

Asking the Right Questions about Work

As important as finding a job is after college, it also seems to me that the emphasis on preparing students for a job results in an impoverished understanding of a college education.  At a recent “majors fair” I was saddened by the number of students whose first question to me was “so how much money will I make when I graduate from this major?”  Wrong question!  While a job and salary are obviously important it should not be the first question a student asks about a potential career.

Matthew Fox reminds us that everyone of us has a calling and he explores several questions that may help us discover the reason we are here on this earth at this time.  He asks us to consider these questions:

What are our talents? What is the pain in the world that speaks to us that we want to respond to? What gifts do we have, whether material goods or power to influence? What gifts do we have to make a difference? We are all living under this sword of the collapse of the ecosystem and what are we doing about it? Are we planting trees, are we working in the media to awaken consciousness, are we working to preserve the species that are disappearing or the soil or the forests? Are we cutting back on our addiction to meat, changing our eating habits, using less land, water and grain for our eating habits? Are we being responsible, and how does it come through in our work and in our job?

Of course, I can see some of my colleagues roll their eyes as they recite their job-focused mantra “yes, but it won’t matter if they can’t find a job! 

Okay, so lets think about the jobs of the future?  What will they look like?  And what can we do to help prepare students for a job?

The Future of Work

The “smart” people tell us that the world is changing fast in response to advances in technology and continuing commoditization of work, resulting in an ever growing gulf between the “haves and the have-nots.”  Futurist Ross Dawson reminds us that …unless your skills are world-class, you are a commodity.”  And the trend for the price of a commodity (including labor) is inexorably downward. Salaries of the highest wage earners continue to rise while those of the lowest continue to fall.

Among the industrial nations, the disparity between the salaries of upper management and workers is particularly onerous in the U.S.  Even a college education may not be enough to provide a graduate with financial security in a society of growing inequity.  Preparing students for an entry level job, without helping them also discover their calling and learn how to adjust and adapt to a rapidly changing world, simply prepares young people for being a commodity.  We owe it to our students to do more than prepare them for being “cogs in a corporate machine.”

As depressing as this may sound, Dawson and other futurists project even more challenging times ahead.  We need to ask ourselves, in these tenuous times how do university educators help prepare students to be successful in a new and largely unpredictable world?

A Few Suggestions

1. Well the first thing we need to do is to define success in more than financial terms.  Living simply, being useful to others, being part of a healthy family and community MUST be valued as legitimate forms of success.

2. Next, students (and others) need clarify their personal calling (the confluence of a vocation and an avocation).  If jobs are not secure, preparing for a job (even a well-paying job) that may exist today and be gone tomorrow is a bad plan.

3. Developing practical skills (like being able to fix a small engine, grow food, build a bike-carrier, graft a fruit tree, find relevant information on a smart phone or tablet, build a solar oven, or make a cup from clay), community-building skills (like knowing how to build coalitions of people who hold common values to work together), and system thinking skills (like knowing how to uncover root causes and shift the structure of complex systems), might be the most useful prerequisites for success in a rapidly changing world.

4. Finally, everyone must learn to learn how to learn so they are ready to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Too much of higher education is about remembering facts.  Students graduate college with the dual skills of knowing how to take tests and how to write term papers, skills that are valued no where outside the university.  Demonstrating they are “smart” (by getting good grades) is less important when many of the facts they have memorized for their exams are easily accessible on their smart phones. Blooms hierarchy of learning (below_ reminds us that “remembering” is the low end of learning.

Education for the future

The Sustainable Food and Farming major in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture encourages students to explore experiential learning opportunities on farms, in markets and cooperative stores, non-profit advocacy organizations, and teaching situations while in college.

In addition, there are many opportunities such as the UMass Real Food Challenge to earn college credit by working with other students to gain real-world experience while earning a Bachelor of Sciences degree in our program.

Education for the future needs to be less focused on memorizing facts and more on applying those facts to solve problems.  Information is relevant but if necessary facts can be looked up on a smart phone, it is not worthy of higher education.

Education for the future needs to be more experiential, giving students the opportunity to “create, evaluate, and analyze” in real world situations.  A university education should be a practice field where it is safe to “fail.”  Students should be put into situations where they can learn how to learn how to learn so they are ready to adapt to a rapidly world.

Anything less is a failure of imagination.

ENDNOTE:  I”m curious to learn about your own experience of higher education.  Have you had the opportunity to “practice” in a real world situation while in college?  Please share your stories in the comments box below.


See the  Sustainable Food and Farming program at the University of Massachusetts for information on our Bachelor of Sciences degree.


Do public land grant universities serve the public good?

As the University of Massachusetts celebrates its 150th year (the “sesquicentennial” –  a word I can’t pronounce) there have been speeches and events and lots of discussion about our heritage as a land grant university.  This seems to me to be “all good.”

We recently had a groundbreaking ceremony establishing a new Agricultural Learning Center for example, within walking distance of the dorms and classrooms of campus, with the intention of providing students experience growing their own food.  There are lots of changes at “Mass Aggie” of late!

Again…. all good!

And yet, I wonder how many faculty, students and administrators are truly committed (or even understand) our land grant heritage.  This post explores our heritage and the commitment of the public land grant university to serve its public mission.

First, “land grant” is not about land…..  or at least, not in the way that many people associate the words “land grant” with farming.  While it is true that most of the original land grant universities were committed to scientific education for rural America and therefore developed agricultural research and education programs, “land grant” in fact, refers to the means of funding those universities.  Grants of federal land (mostly in the western United States), were made available to each state to sell in order to establish the first public colleges, the University of Vermont, and Kansas State University (which was the first public university established under the Morrill Act of 1862), and the University of Massachusetts.

According to the UMass webpage…. “UMass Amherst was born in 1863 as a land-grant agricultural college set on 310 rural acres with four faculty members, four wooden buildings, 56 students and a curriculum combining modern farming, science, technical courses, and liberal arts.”

Agriculture was indeed important to these public universities, primarily because while the urban areas of the nation were experiencing rapid growth and the beginning of prosperity, the rural areas were being left behind.  As a service to the larger public good, universities were established to help those in most need…. who happened to live in rural America and of course earned their livelihood farming.

Today, if we celebrate our land grant heritage as a commitment to farming, we are missing a deeper understanding of the mission of the public university to serve the public good (including farming, of course).  My concern is that after all of the celebrations of our agricultural heritage are over, the general public may be left with a question – so why are we still investing in a public university if their mission is to serve such a small percentage of the population (the farming community)?

Please don’t get me wrong….. I think it is important for the university to be proud of its heritage and continue to support agricultural research and education.  But I think the rationale for this support must be deeper than nostalgia for a time gone by.

We must recommit to serving the public good and in doing so continue to grow 21st century agricultural programs focused on the three sustainability objectives of economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social equity.  It is only by clearly articulating a commitment to a more sustainable agriculture that we may continue to expect public support!

There are many forms of agriculture in the world.  The dominant form is “industrial” in the sense that it is economically efficient and highly technical, and leaks toxins from their point of application, uses natural resources such as fossil fuel and water at rates greater than replacement, puts farmers and ranchers off the land, and results in an overfed but poorly nourished citizenry.  I believe we must be clear with the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that this is NOT the sort of agriculture we support at the land grant university.

This is about the public good!

A clear understanding of how the land grant organization serves American citizens, those today and those yet to be born, is key to the future of the institution.  Most people agree that the system has an obligation to serve the public.  But we have difficulty talking about “who is the public ‑‑ and what is the public good?

Many of our research and education programs are designed not to serve “the public” but to serve particular publics, or special interest groups.  I propose that there are interests, common to all people which we might call “basic human needs” such as:

  • affordable and nutritionally adequate food;
  • adequate clothing and shelter;
  • a healthy, livable environment free of violence;
  • opportunities to provide for one’s livelihood; and
  • accessible educational opportunities.

Our teaching, research and outreach should serve these larger public goods by working with the farmers, consumers and communities dedicated to building a more local food production and distribution system.  This is truly “public work” and is consistent with a commitment to a more sustainable agriculture.

Students seem to have noticed the change at the University of Massachusetts, as the enrollment in our Sustainable Food and Farming major has grown from 5 students in 2013 to about 85 today.  Things are changing at UMass, and I’m hopeful that our commitment to our public mission will be sustained.

What do you think?  Please share your own thoughts in the comments box below.


Please share this post with friends.  For more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And also check out more posts.  You may be interested in the 2-year Associate of Sciences degrees in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture or the 4-year B.S. Sustainable Food and Farming major or other 4-year majors.  The UMass Extension program provides access to university resources to the citizens of the Commonwealth.



The Graduation Day Question

It’s that time at universities when faculty have the privilege of meeting the families of students we have known for several years.  It’s a time of celebration, transition, and that “dreaded” question from family members….. “so now that you have a college degree, what are you planning to do with it?”   The implication of course, is that the primary purpose of a college degree is for “job preparation.”

As a parent of a recent college grad, I can certainly relate to the relief (the kid finished!) and the anxiety (now what?) that parents experience.  Most of us parents with recent grads are smart enough not to ask the “now what” question on graduation day.  We know that we will have other opportunities to explore this sensitive issue, especially since most college grads end up living back home for a while.  It is often the uncles and aunts (who don’t see the grad very often) who ask the dreaded question.  This can be a moment of tension and awkwardness, since most graduates really don’t know!

The “now what” question is especially difficult for my students.  I am the faculty adviser for the Sustainable Food and Farming major at the University of Massachusetts.  My students feel called to grow food or be involved in some aspect of the local and regional food system, but often have not yet clearly identified a particular career.  Our recent graduates generally find themselves working on local farms, managing community markets, or interning with non-profit advocacy or community development organizations, while they explore opportunities in the local food system (here are a few examples).  It can be rich and rewarding work – but really difficult to explain to “Uncle Robert and Aunt Sue.”

Inevitably, when Uncle Robert learns that our student transferred from her original major of Biology or Environmental Science into Sustainable Food and Farming, he will look at the graduate with a confused look on his face, and say something like “so you want to be a farmer?”  After a short pause, he then says “Can you make any money doing that?” And finally, “isn’t farming hard work?

Of course, this uncomfortable experience is not unique to agriculture majors.  Any recent graduate who is not a business major or pre-med may be able to relate.

So you want to be an anthropologist?   ….a writer?   ….a community organizer?  ….an artist?    ….a philosopher?”“Can you make any money doing that?”  

Many people have a relatively shallow understanding of the purpose of higher education.  Certainly we should expect college to prepare students to be employable.  But we should expect much more from a college education than simply to be prepared for an entry level job in some corporation or business.  College should help prepare students for both a livelihood AND a rich and satisfying life.

The questions, “what will you do with your college degree?” and “can you make any money doing that?”  are the wrong questions to ask a recent grad.  While certainly understandable, a thoughtful uncle or aunt might consider trying to start a more meaningful conversation with a different question.  Here is the one I suggest…

“So, how do you plan to be of service to your friends, family and community or perhaps the larger world?”

Yes, I suggest Uncle Robert ask his big question not about career or money but about service.  There is plenty of sociological research, native wisdom, and just plain common sense that support the basic fact that people who live for service have more fulfilling lives than those who live their lives to accumulate consumer goods.  This is such a fundamental truth of human existence that the bible quote (Timothy 6:10) “the love of money is the root of all evil” is a cliche.  We all know this to be true, yet Uncle Robert still feels compelled to ask “any money in that field?

So I ask all the “uncles and aunts” and other family members of recent grads to please try to “raise the bar” and challenge the recent grad to be more than just a money earner.  This is your chance to join Plato and Aristotle (really) in placing the human experience within a larger context, which the ancients called The Great Chain of Being.  The chain starts with the divine (God) and progresses downward to the angels, stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, humans, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals.  Get it?   —  This 16th century picture depicts the Great Chain.

Today we understand that The Great Chain of Being as a rough approximation of a natural hierarchy (which I’ve written about here earlier).  The lesson we can take from this powerful visual metaphor that goes back over 2500 years is that all aspects of the universe are interrelated in a specific way.  The short version of the interrelationship rule is “we look up for purpose and down for function.”

That is, the “lower” levels find purpose in the “higher” levels of the hierarchy – but the “higher” levels are dependent on the “lower” levels for function.  As a human, I look for function at the “lower” levels (animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals).  AND (this is the critical lesson)….. as a human, I look for purpose and meaning in my life at levels of complexity “greater than myself.”  That might be in friendships, family, community, Mother Nature, or perhaps the divine.

This is where Uncle Robert’s big question comes in……  “So, how do you plan to be of service to your friends, family and community – or the larger world?”  This is a question rooted in a deep understanding of human experience (going back to Plato and Aristotle).  It is challenging and respectful….. and much more interesting than “any money in that field?

Why not give it a try with a recent grad?

And finally, congratulations to all of the graduates of the Sustainable Food and Farming major in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.  If you are interested in the major that prepares students for BOTH a livelihood and a rich and meaningful life, check out the Sustainable Food and Farming major a UMass.  Please note that jobs ARE important and I’ve written about finding good work here.

Five Truths V: finding wisdom in humility

I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored “My Truth One (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).”  My second truth examined the tension between public good and private benefit. The third blog in the series looked at how leadership becomes disconnected from others, and the forth looks at how “busyness” keeps us from the truth. This fifth post is my last blog post for 2012 and examines the last of the series of “my truths.”


My Truth Five:. . .  the quest for sustainability may be the best hope for public universities, the farming communities we love, and perhaps for ourselves –  but this quest must be founded upon a strong sense of humility. 

This “truth” had much support in the survey.  About 87% of the respondents choose either strong or full agreement.  Public universities badly need a bold idea to focus our energy and rebuild hope –  and thus “save ourselves from human cleverness“.

The public agricultural universities that should contribute to a more sustainable food and farming system are perceived by many to be part of the problem.  The American public has questioned the credibility of land grant universities because of the seemingly close relationship they maintain with the world of business.  The response to this criticism has been that that university research contributes to economic growth and business is the engine of growth.  And this appears to be partly true, at least in the short term.  But universities should also think beyond the short-term economic growth.  One respondent wrote:

“A country’s strength and standing in the world community should be measured by the health of its ecosystems…”

A public research university devoted to ecosystem health (rather than corporate wealth) would certainly be a shift from the situation today where universities have created special offices designed to attract corporate funding and faculty are rewarded based on how much grant money they attract. This is a far cry from the university of the people created over a century ago.  University leaders respond that they have no choice but to seek private funding, as the public commitment to higher education continues to erode.  One has to wonder however about the long-term effect of corporate partnerships have on the mission of a public university.  Students in our Agricultural Systems Thinking class investigated and presented their own thoughts on a corporate gift from the Monsanto Corporation recently.   When I first picked up the banner of sustainable agriculture in my own work, I had great hopes that the public university I worked for would make a serious institutional commitment to this great project.  The initial response among most of my colleagues was ridicule and derision.  That was over 25 years ago.  Today the university I work for (a different institution) has taken up the banner of sustainability as part of our public message.  While I applaud this message, I hope we are also ready to examine our relationship with corporate power and the influence of corporate money and rebuild the dream of a public institution that truly serves the public good.

University leaders have called for a transformation in research and education to embrace the goals of sustainability.  My hope remains that a major public university will make a serious institutional commitment to this great project.  Our agricultural programs are working toward this great change.  So far, much of the progress toward sustainability by my own university has been in the arena of cost saving changes to our energy systems and the construction of new energy efficient buildings – and this is good.  If we are going to truly transform our research and educational institution however, a fundamental shift in how we think about sustainability is needed.

A few of our leaders are indeed exploring how to think about sustainability and are trying to help faculty grapple with the fundamental change that is needed if we are to achieve this transformation.  For me, this is a transformation from the quest for knowledge to the quest for wisdom and recognizes that thought alone is not enough. This quest for wisdom, I suspect, will require a shift to a perspective founded upon a strong sense of humility.   T.S. Eliot wrote;

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Maybe Eliot meant that only the ‘wisdom of humility’ is truly sustainable (if we substitute  Eliot’s word “endless” for sustainable).  In any case, it seems a worthwhile quest.  And it sort of makes sense that the sustainable agriculture community might be a good place to begin this quest for wisdom in humility, as the Latin word “humilitas” has the same root as humus and means “to be grounded” or “from the earth.”  What do you think?


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my posts or my personal webpage or my resource page.


Five Truths IV: we are just too busy

I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored “My Truth One (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).”  My second truth examined the tension between public good and private benefit.  The third in the series looked at how leadership becomes disconnected from the rest of us. This post examines the forth of “my truths.”


My Truth Four: many of us in agriculture are running ever faster to stay even –  on a treadmill where farmers pursue technologies that don’t offer long-term solutions, researchers pursue the next grant, and teachers offer ever bigger classes.  There is nothing sustainable about the way we live, the way we work, the way we farm, or the way we relate to the earth.

Everyone seems to be running ever faster to stay even.  At least 96% of the survey respondents thought so, indicating strong or full agreement with this truth (see my introduction blog).

Farmers adopting the latest technology are particularly vulnerable.  Each new technology that enhances productivity or improves efficiency makes the technology treadmill run faster.   For those who know how to read a systems model (see this link for instructions), the diagram here presents the dilemma.

The problem is not intuitively obvious.  Most of us think increases in food production would be a good thing.  But the diagram above suggests that as Total Production increases, Commodity Supply also increases (the “s” indicates it moves in the same direction).  Therefore a technology that increases yield does little to benefit individual farmers as competitors quickly adopt the new technology and total production drives prices down.  The major beneficiary is the company that created the new technology and consumers who realize lower food prices.  In the industrial farming system the greatest return on investments in technology go not to farmers but corporations. The technology treadmill turns and if you don’t get on, you get lost.  But if you do get on, you have to run faster to stay even.  As a society, little is gained but much is lost.  Food is cheap, but there are other problems.

One survey participant wrote:

“The loss of community, the ungluing of stable human relationships, and the substitution of material things for substance have played a major role in the injustice and despair that have plagued agriculture and society and have caused untold unconscious damage to our planet and ourselves.”

This is true for both “agriculture and society” as the quote suggests.  We substitute material things for ‘substance’ and sacrifice honest relationships, personal serenity, ecological integrity, and inter-generational responsibility.  What we have gained is fast,  cheap food and very busy lives.

There is no end in sight so we run ever faster, yet it doesn’t seem possible to keep up with the accelerating speed of the treadmill.  Many of us (farmers and non-farmers alike) know we are caught in our own personal treadmills but don’t get off, thus we each contribute to making the treadmill run faster.

Stepping off before the inevitable fall is difficult, but is a necessary act of honesty and courage.  According to T.S. Eliot again, in our normal workday lives all too many of us wear…

 …strained time-ridden faces

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

We search for meaning in ‘distractions’ and amusements.  We find our days filled with emptiness, so we run faster.  Some of us deaden this feeling with addictions like yet more work, desiring something indefinable but not achievable.  And the treadmill keeps moving, turning, ever turning.  Eliot writes. . .

Desire itself is movement

Not in itself desirable;

The process of getting off the treadmill begins with telling your own truth and acting according to a clear set of personal values.  When I am clear on my personal values and my actions are consistent with those values, I know that I am not only more effective in my work but I find more joy in my life.

Many of us who came to work in agriculture because we deeply cared about people, hunger, or the environment found ourselves working for the economic self-interests of those who hold money and power.  But we can’t see the truth of what has happened as long as we are on the treadmill.

The industrial agricultural system and the public university that supports it are on an economic treadmill that won’t change unless we change individually.  We need our lives to be less busy and more full.  We must step off the treadmill before we fall off, and in doing so perhaps save ourselves and the earth.

My fifth and last truth suggests that the quest to discover wisdom in humility may be what we need to save ourselves from our own “busyness” and wake up to “the truth.”


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my posts or my personal webpage or my resource page.

Five Truths III: leaders of hierarchical organizations become disconnected

I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored “My Truth One (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).”  My second truth examined the tension between public good and private benefit. This post examines the third of “my truths.”


My Truth Three:. . . the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, often at the expense of small and mid-sized farmers, farm workers and rural communities.  

There was slightly less agreement with this statement among survey respondents (see my introduction blog for an explanation).  Only 76% indicated strong or full agreement.  One participant noted the complexity of the situation:

“I can’t lump all farm leadership into the “bad” column because I know and work with some extraordinary farm leaders who are regularly overlooked by the sustainable ag community.  For instance, Farmers Union has not veered from working on behalf of small farmers, farm workers, and outside the conventional system, but rarely gets recognition for it.”

 Another participant disagreed for a different reason.

“I don’t consider the folks in charge to be leaders of any kind of community — but that is contingent on my definitions of leadership and community. Community requires love and generosity of spirit, and these qualities are notably absent from farming policy.”

Still another sees this as part of a larger pattern.

 “…the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, but it is only fronting for the interests of powerfully concentrated private capital.”

These are strong statements and seem to carry a fair amount of anger.  If we can get past the anger, we might begin to notice how all large organizations seem to allow their leaders to become disconnected from the vast majority of their membership.

Most organizations have promotion and reward policies that support individuals who conform to the dominant paradigm.  Talented conformists are the people chosen for positions of power and higher rank.  Talented ‘trouble makers’ rarely find themselves in positions of authority, and when they do – they generally lose some of their ‘fire’ as they learn to compromise to get along.  Why is that?  What happens to people when they get into positions of power?  It seems they get disconnected from the ‘rank and file’ and more important perhaps, they seem to lose track of the mission of the organization.  Of course this is not always true.

I know many organizational leaders who have dedicated their talents and passion to serving their organization with integrity.  At the same time, I’ve seen many more begin a leadership career with strong ideals of service only to get beaten down by power and politics.  I don’t think we should blame the individuals.   In today’s typical organizational hierarchy of power-over relationships and competition for resources, many are led to sacrifice values they care for deeply, just to survive.

In a hierarchy of power, successful leaders may lose their focus on mission and values just to keep the organization afloat.  Even well-meaning sustainable agriculture organizations are susceptible to this problem.  One survey participant wrote;

“Sustainable agriculture organizations have succumbed to the same treadmill, competing for grants, members, and other resources, the goal becoming the survival of the organization rather than the vision that created the organization.”

Replacing old leadership with new voices rarely changes systems built on hierarchical power-and-control relationships.   All of our mental models of how organizations work (especially with respect to the relationship between leaders and followers) carry this fatal flaw.  Leaders and followers (members or employees) act in collusion, expecting leaders somehow to know what is wrong with complex systems and how to ‘fix it.’  This is a form of dependency that is not healthy in a living system or community.

We need to understand how organizations create an environment in which leaders and members alike have internalized power-over ways of thinking and accepted either the role of “boss” or of the “bossed.”  Power-over thinking makes domination and control normal and acceptable.

T.S. Eliot, warns us that;

We shall die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.


As long as our mental models of organizational behavior assume that leaders are to provide ‘paternal care’ the power relationship between leaders and followers will be sustained.  Even the most well meaning people and the most service-oriented organizations seem to evolve cultures of competition, disconnectedness and oppression based on power-over thinking, all seemingly for a good cause (well mostly).   But the result is always the same.

Part of the problem is the hierarchical model of organization and part of the problem is our “busyness”.  Stopping to think about the situation requires an investment in time.  But we are running so fast to sustain the status quo that we can’t even wonder if the status quo is worth preserving.  Busyness kills sustained thought and creativity.  My “forth truth” shall examine this systemic problem of organizations built on the industrial model.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my posts. And finally if you are ready to study sustainable food and farming, check out our our Bachelor of Sciences degree program.