Category Archives: Sustainability Education

Five Truths II: public good or private benefit

I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored my first truth (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).”  This post examines the second of “my truths.”


My Truth Two:   the public agricultural research and education (land grant) system created to serve the public good is influenced by the private agenda of multinational  corporations, large agricultural commodity groups, and disciplinary-bound science societies.

The extent of agreement with this statement among all survey participants (see the introduction blog on my truths for background on the survey) was clear, with 90% choosing strong or full agreement.  Its easy to criticize scientists whose work directly benefits corporations willing provide research dollars, yet the situation is not quite that simple.

Agricultural researchers and educators may begin their university careers full of idealism and hope that they might contribute to feeding the world’s hungry and preserving the natural environment.  Something happens along the way however to redirect their work toward more limited (and more publishable) objectives.

Nevertheless, I believe that ‘just below the surface‘ of many academics is a hopeful visionary, still dreaming of making a difference in the world. The evaluation system which requires scientists to conform to the expectations of their discipline-bound professional societies (which determine if they are able to publish their work) limit their ability to address complex real-world problems.

One of the survey participants wrote;

The social and cultural environment in graduate school and in ladder rank positions pushes people to work alone using reductionist methods which limits the ability to research real world problems that exist today”

And another participant wrote:

If researchers from different disciplines don’t figure out how to work together, we will not be able to solve the problems that confront us.”

True – but it will take more than individuals from different disciplines working together to create a more sustainable agricultural system.  As long as the goal of research is primarily the short-term economic success of those groups holding financial power (mostly multinational corporation or large agricultural commodity groups) there will be little progress on the path toward long-term sustainability.   Another participant wrote:

…dollars and cents, has become the dominant, if not the only, criteria by which we measure the value of everything — including publicly funded research and education.”

I agree that economic efficiency is one important goal for research and education, however it is insufficient alone and may actually be harmful when other goals such as environmental quality and social justice are neglected.  University presidents are fond of citing their institution as an “engine of economic growth” for the state and nation.  But this narrow representation of the public mission of the land grant university encourages much of agricultural science to be directed toward new technologies that prioritize short-term financial return – often at the expense of long-term sustainability.  One survey participant suggested an alternative role for the university;

…the US does not have a clear policy on the role of agriculture and the future of rural America.  A major failure of land grants in my opinion is their lack of leadership in helping the nation develop such goals. The only goals articulated are the next technical fix.”

Lacking a grand vision, technical solutions dominate the research of agricultural scientists.   But technical solutions to the complex problems created by industrial agriculture (such as environmental degradation and social upheaval) may do more harm than good.  While the reductionist approach may keep the discipline-bound research machinery of the university going, it does little to solve complex societal problems.

University administrators encourage scientists to address environmental and social problems but at the same time support a faculty evaluation system that rewards the acquisition of outside funding for their research.  Few sustainable agriculture organizations or public interest groups can provide significant financial support, so faculty must turn to those large agricultural commodity groups and multinational corporations that have a stake in maintaining the status quo rather than supporting a transition to a more sustainable food and farming system.  These organizations can influence the direction of public research either directly through gifts and grants (which thereby leverage public monies) or indirectly by serving as advisers on various public planning and review committees.

Corporate partnerships are sought and celebrated, thus driving the research agenda of the public university to serve the private needs of their corporate partners.  This is not the fault of individual faculty members but is part of aa larger systemic problem.

Public universities are caught in an archetypical “fixes that fail” feedback loop, in which they find their budgets being squeezed by a public that doesn’t entirely trust the university (or any large institution for that matter).  University leaders look to their friends in industry and among the big agricultural commodity groups for political and financial help – and what happens?  Public distrust is confirmed and the public budgets get squeezed even more.  University leaders then turn back to their private partners and ask for more help (and money).  It is a vicious cycle, spinning public universities in a direction away from their primary mission of serving the public good.

While it is possible for public/private partnerships to be created that serve both the public good as well as the private benefit of funders, this requires a transparent financial system, clear articulation of mission, public review of the partnership, and honest and open discussion about the purpose and limits of the partnership.  University scientists who are concerned with a public system that serves the private benefit of groups with economic and political power may feel isolated and afraid to challenge a system which celebrates such partnerships.  While we celebrate leadership in the abstract, most academics shy away from this topic.

There are few university leaders (I’ve known a few by the way) willing to encourage a public dialogue on how private funding might influence the public research agenda.  We might ask, where are the courageous voices telling the truth that we read about in novels and see in the cinema?  Where are the elders – wise with experience?  Turning again to some lines of poetry, T.S. Eliot asks;

Had they deceived us

Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,

Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?

Have our leaders “deceived themselves” and become “quiet-voiced elders” on this topic? Again, I don’t blame the individual administrators (and I’ve known some courageous ones). The larger systemic problem is that most leaders become disconnected from those they are charged to serve over time.  This is true for the U.S. Congress, multinational corporations, large commodity groups, and university leaders – in fact all leaders of all hierarchical organizations.  My next blog will examine this problem.


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Five Truths I: modern agriculture is not sustainable

In my blog, Five Truths Intro: reflections on agricultural research and education, I introduced what I intend to be a series of posts exploring some issues that have concerned me for most of my academic career.  Some years ago, I surveyed a group of university researchers and educators working in the areas of sustainable agriculture regarding their thoughts on five “truth statements”.  This blog reflects the first of “my truths’ and their response. Perhaps this is self-indulgent.  So be it.

My Truth Onethe form of agriculture currently practiced in most of the U.S. is not sustainable, as it continues to leak biological toxins and soil into the surrounding environment, use natural resources at rates greater than replacement, and put small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers off the land.

“Yes, we know all that.”

This was the most common response among survey participants.  On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating ‘don’t agree‘ and 5 signifying ‘full agreement‘, 90% choose either 4 or 5 (strong or full agreement).  One of the respondents summed it up by writing:

 “Most political organizations, institutions and commodity agricultural organizations are aware of the social/natural resource problems, however, they lack the knowledge and understanding that would enable them to take constructive steps towards sustainable systems.  Instead they are locked into old patterns and keep trying the same old things.

This is so true.  We are all locked into old patterns and keep trying the same things, or making small changes ‘around the edges’.  Indications that something is amiss in the world go unnoticed (or noticed only by a minority of activists).  Think about:

  • A ‘dead zone’ where oxygen breathers don’t survive in the Gulf of Mexico and reports from respectable sources about projected global water shortages are mostly ignored.
  • Potato production increases to satisfy our desire for French fries, while more potato farmers go out of business.
  • A billion people hungry or malnourished and another billion over-fed.
  • And yet another food recall.  Sometimes people get sick or die.

We know what is happening; yet we stay on the same path.  I’ve written dozens of blogs about the non-sustainability of modern agriculture and I have lots of followers in the social media.  We agree… and nothing changes.  Another participant wrote:

 ‘If you keep on doing what you have been doing, you will keep getting what you have been getting.  If you don’t like what you are currently getting, then you need to try something different.  The industrial model of agriculture is not sustainable.’

While there are some people who honestly support the industrial model of agriculture, many researchers and educators know something is wrong but can’t see an alternative.  Their response to this first truth is usually something like…

“yes, but aren’t we doing better?” 

And the answer is surely, yes.  Or they might say…

“so what choice do we have?  We have to feed the ever increasing human population, don’t’ we?   Only the modern industrial system can feed the world.  Right?

And of course the answer is yes … and no.  Yes, food is a human right and we have an obligation to make sure nobody is hungry.

And no…industrial farming isn’t the only way, but in the absence of a clear and proven alternative path, we fall back on that which we know best – industrial agriculture with its quick fixes and addiction to growth at all costs.  We have a vague idea there is a better way (which many of us call agroecology) but the ecological path seems treacherous, full of unknowns.  T.S. Eliot assures us this is the right path when he writes;

  …in order to arrive at what you do not know. 

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

Right, and isn’t research ‘the way of ignorance?”  When we admit what we do not know, we are then able to begin the search for a better way.  Eliot continues;

 . . . And what you do not know is the only thing you know.

Today, we must admit that we do not clearly know the path to an ecological agriculture.  Experiments in tillage practices, integrated pest management, multiple cropping, cycling of nutrients and the like surely point us in the right direction.  But when challenged by proponents of the industrial way, we must admit ignorance.  That is the beginning of the search for a better way that we intuitively know is based on principles of ecology.

And who will lead us in this path of discovery?  Surely those farmers and non-profit research and educational organizations devoted to agricultural sustainability are key.  And what of the universities?   It seems that the public university is a place where this work SHOULD be happening to a significant extent.  A survey participant wrote:

“This undertaking is beyond the resources or capability of any single institution (public or private) and therefore can only be achieved through the re-establishment of some form of commons.”

 It was both funny and sad that this survey participant didn’t recognize the publicly funded land grant university as a “commons.”   It was once upon a time.

My next “truth” blog looks at one of the underlying causes for this problem.


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 15-credit online certificate or our Bachelor of Sciences degree program.

Five Truths Intro: reflections on public agricultural research and education

If you have followed my blogs on systems thinking, you’ll know that I teach a class called Agricultural Systems Thinking, which introduces students to practical tools for trying to understand complex and often controversial problems.  This semester, some of my students have chosen to practice using systems thinking tools to explore the relationship between the public university and multinational agricultural corporations as a class project.

Student interest in this topic was triggered by a financial gift to the university to help support our new Undergraduate Agricultural Learning Center.  About half the students initially supported the gift and about half opposed. This project will help them understand this particular event within a larger context, which is one of the strengths of systems thinking.

I’ve spent some time thinking about the status of agricultural research and education in the U.S. (which has engaged me, employed me, and treated me well for over 40 years).  This blog introduces “my truths” about the system that was originally created to serve the public good and fails in so many ways.  (I invite you to share your thoughts on how your own truth might be similar or different in the comments box below).

A time for change

I address this topic at a time when my own university is working to restore the public trust and re-energize agricultural research and education – following many years of erosion due to lack of attention and active divestment by administrators.  I’ve written earlier about the “revitalization of the land grant system” at the University of Massachusetts.  As we mark the 150th anniversary of the Land Grant University System established by Abraham Lincoln, many of us will want to celebrate our illustrious past.  I applaud this recognition of the past, while at the same time hope we will examine our current vision and values as we focus on the future.

I believe this “revitalization” represents a long-overdue awakening by public agricultural universities nationwide to the failures of industrial agriculture (which has had many successes as well, of course).  This transformation began in the late 1980’s, when groups of farmers invented what they called “sustainable agriculture.”

The creation of the UMass Center for Agriculture and the recent investment in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture represent a significant commitment to agricultural research and education.  I am hopeful but realistic about our chances for real change.  Here is why…..

Lets ask some people I trust about “my truths”

A while back I sent an electronic survey to a group of colleagues who were involved in university research and education in support of long-term agricultural sustainability.  The survey tested the degree of agreement or disagreement with five “truth statements” related to the public university’s commitment to sustainable agriculture.

The response to the survey was reassuring (not only because many of the respondents agreed with “my truths”) but also because of the rapid response.  Within a few hours, I had 50 survey responses, and within a few days 73 scientists dedicated to building a research and education system that supports a more sustainable agriculture had participated in the survey.

This blog introduces the “five truths.”  Future blog posts will add further reflections on each, based partially on feedback from survey participants, partially on my own thinking and experience, and partially on lines of poetry from T.S. Eliot.  Some of my friends reminded me that these “five truths” have all been said before.  Well, maybe so.  But Eliot seems to assure me that some things are worth repeating when he writes (2);

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before.  I shall say it again.

Shall I say it again?

 Well yes… I’m saying it again!

Why bother you may ask?  Why say it again?  Why survey agricultural researchers and educators about what they think?  I mean, who really cares what the sustainable agriculture research and education university community thinks?  We all know that power resides in the hands of corporations and politicians who would largely disagree with the “five truths” anyway.  Right?   An answer comes from Donella Meadows (3), who wrote that the first step in changing deeply rooted paradigms was:

“…you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder…” 

Finding justification for my impulsive inclination to continue to speak my personal truth (louder) by “pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm,”  I decided to share these reflections with you.  I recognize this blog will aggravate some readers.  My intent is to encourage exploration and dialogue, just as my students are attempting to do in a responsible, thoughtful manner.  We’ll see if I succeed….

My Five Truths (for discussion)

Below I’ve simply listed my “five truths” in raw form, without elaboration or interpretation.  Future posts will explore each statement at a bit more depth.  So here we go…..


My Truth Onethe form of agriculture currently practiced in most of the U.S. is not sustainable, as it continues to leak biological toxins and soil into the surrounding environment, use natural resources at rates greater than replacement, and put small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers off the land.

My Truth Two the public agricultural research and education (land grant) system created to serve the public good is influenced by the private agenda of multinational  corporations, large agricultural commodity groups, and disciplinary-bound science societies.

My Truth Three: the leadership of the farming community (in the form of well-financed national commodity organizations) and multinational food corporations have too much influence over federal farm policy, often at the expense of consumers, small and mid-sized farmers, farm workers and rural communities.  

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.

My Truth Five: the quest for sustainability of the planet, including human and non-human communities, may be our best hope for public universities, the farming communities we love, and for ourselves as human beings. 


NOTE: I recognize the danger of making these bold statements without empirical evidence and ask for your patience.  Further elaboration of these statements will follow in future blogs (and are linked to the “my truth” statements above.  For now, I’d appreciate your initial reaction in the comments box below. 



I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.

(1) The origin of this blog was an essay titled ‘My Truths Today ‘ It’s Still All About Sustainability’ which was submitted (upon request) to a sustainable agriculture newsletter of a public university in the Midwestern U.S.   Upon receipt, the essay was deemed too controversial to print by the university administration.  It has not been submitted for publication elsewhere but has been shared with friends and colleagues.  The original essay has been slightly modified for this blog.

(2) Four Quartets’ were published in 1943, toward the end of Eliot’s illustrious career.

(3) This quote is from Donella Meadows, published in Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute. December 1999.  For more, see the archives at


Systems Thinking Tools: the mind map

My last blog, Learning to Think Like a Mountain, introduced “systems thinking” as a useful means of understanding why “linear thinking” is inadequate when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making and uncertainty.

This post introduces one of the simplest and most useful of all the systems thinking tools, the mind map.  There are many variations of this tool, including concept mapping and spider diagramming but they are all generally used to view multiple, complex (non-linear) relationships in a system.  One of the failures of industrial agriculture is the assumption that it functions as a machine, with inputs (seeds, sun, fertilizer) that flow into a farm and outputs (food, fiber) flowing out.

This simple, linear understanding (which Annie Leonard described so well in the popular video The Story of Stuff) is inadequate as we work toward an agroecological frame for agricultural sustainability.  The mechanistic, linear view will rarely account for questions about environmental justice, decay of soil health, offsite impacts of pesticides, or vitality of rural communities, which may be discounted as “externalities.”  These perspectives, will on the other hand, be considered using systems thinking.

The mind map is also a nice tool for telling a story, such as how a household designed on permaculture (or ecological) principles is likely to view a “cup of tea.”


To get started, you simply pick a topic and depict it either in words or a symbol in the middle of a page.  Here is a mind map of how to mind map.

Viewing the entire diagram, most people can easily get a sense of what a mind map is all about rather quickly.  Some suggestions on how to get started are:

  1. Start in the center with a description of the topic or theme
  2. Write whatever comes to mind next as a “sub-topic” and draw a connecting line, do it again, and again….
  3. Use images and symbols as much as possible
  4. Select key words and print clearly
  5. Each word/image should sit on its own line or inside its own bubble
  6. The lines should be connected, starting from the central image.  Important connections between concepts in different sub-section should be indicated
  7. Use colors to code for key ideas or sub-systems (sections of the map)
  8. Use thinker lines to indicate more important connections
  9. Put the most important ideas are near the center (its a hierarchy of ideas)
  10. Do it your own way!

Using Mind Maps in Agricultural Systems

Mind maps are useful tools for beginning to understand a complex system (like a farm).  The following is a mind map of a community farm in Waltham, MA developed by a student taking our online class, Sustainable Agriculture.   To try to understand the farm in depth, it is useful to review their web page – Waltham Fields Community Farm.  However to get a quick understanding of what the farm is all about, nothing beats a mind map.

Mind maps are particularly useful for:

  • understanding complex problems
  • taking notes
  • initial stages of designing a project
  • team collaboration
  • creative expression
  • presenting complex material in a concise format
  • team building or synergy creating activity

We often ask students to make a mind map of farms they have visited in our Sustainable Food and Farming classes at UMass.  For some examples, look at the links for individual students who took PLSOILIN 265 Sustainable Agriculture online.  I teach a course on Agricultural Systems Thinking at UMass as well.

There are lot of mind mapping software packages available, but I find the best way to learn to do this is drawing by hand.  Here is an example of a hand drawn mind map on a local project, Grow Food Northampton.

Mind maps are particularly useful for describing a farm because they are complex systems with multiple relationships managed by humans.  There is no “right or wrong” way to do this.  Whatever works is fine.

Why not give it a try?

NOTE: click on the link for more systems thinking blog posts!


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.


Learn to "think like a mountain"

Aldo Leopold’s famous suggestion that only a mountain has lived long enough to “listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” reminds us that to understand how ecosystems function, we need to “think like a mountain.”  If you’ve never heard this quote, its time to read A Sand County Almanac!  And if you are a student of agricultural ecology or a related field at the University of Massachusetts, perhaps its time to take a class in Agricultural Systems Thinking.

I’ve not offered this class for the past few years, but I’ve decided to resurrect it next fall (2012) because so many students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major at UMass seem interested in creating a way of farming consistent with ecological principles.  The dominant form of farming in developed countries, industrial agriculture, violates just about every ecological principle we know in an attempt to maximize short-term financial success.

Soil and fertilizer from farms drain down the Mississippi creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico

Leopold was hard on industrial farming in his 1949 essay in which he wrote that farmers and ranchers have “…not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”  We also have dead zones in the oceans, anti-biotic resistant bacteria developing from factory farms, nitrates in the groundwater, herbicides in the surface water, floods and drought, and on and on and on…..

The solution is a more sustainable agriculture designed in ways that are consistent with ecological principles.  It is unlikely however that we will be successful in developing such techniques until we learn to think like a mountain and come to appreciate the profound interconnectedness of the components of an ecosystem (either natural or agricultural) over both space and time.

Our educational system trains students to think in a linear, logical, analytical way at best, or simply to memorize disconnected facts at worst.  Graduates are well-prepared to take exams and write papers, but not to think creatively and systemically about climate change, war, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation etc.

These intractable problems won’t budge in response to linear thinking.  Systems thinking tools are needed to begin to understand why these systemic problems are so resistant to our efforts.  Systems thinking is a way of understanding complex real-world situations such as those often encountered in sustainable food and farming careers.

Systems tools are needed to complement more traditional scientific approaches when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making.  Agricultural Systems Thinking (STOCKSCH 379) will introduce students to systems tools for unraveling complexity and integrating their learning from previous courses and experience.

I’d appreciate your own thoughts and feedback in the comments box below.  But for now, lets just remember Leopold’s famous description of the howl of the wolf…..

“A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call.”

 And his final thought:

“In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

Systems thinking provides us with the tools to learn to…

think like a mountain.



Land Grant revitalization at UMass

On May 3, 2012, the University of Massachusetts Faculty Senate unanimously passed a motion to create a new academic unit, The Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  Faculty currently in other units in the College of Natural Sciences will move to the new School to help revitalize and refocus agricultural teaching, research and outreach programs in service to the people, businesses and communities of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

This landmark decision will merge the popular UMass Sustainable Food and Farming program, the Bachelor of Sciences degree in Turfgrass Management and Science, and the newly restructured Sustainable Horticulture fB.S. program, with the 92-year old Stockbridge School which currently offers a 2-year associates degrees in the areas of Arboriculture, Equine, Landscape Contracting, Turf, and two new programs in Sustainable Horticulture and Sustainable Food and Farming.  The “new” Stockbridge School will allow the University of Massachusetts to celebrate its roots as “Mass Aggie” and thus affirm its commitment to the land grant mission.

Few people remember that the Land Grant Act of 1862 was an act of Congress signed by Abraham Lincoln that established the world’s largest public university system.  Public universities in each state of the U.S., serve the people of the nation.  This blog looks at the evolution of the land grant university system.

Americans have long valued public education. Early settlers built schools as cornerstones of their new communities, and leading farmers of the 18th and 19th centuries were known for their interest in public speeches and pamphlets (the blogs of that era) introducing and debating new ideas. Although the value of education has been recognized since the tablet writers of Mesopotamia almost 5000 years ago, public education is truly an American ideal.

Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner, native of Templeton, Massachusetts championed the idea of a public university to serve “the working classes” in speeches and pamphlets in the 1830s.  Support for Turner’s ideas grew among farmer groups, newspaper editors, industrial societies, and state and federal legislators. Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont introduced the legislation which would provide grants of public land (land grants) to be sold to finance a university in each state to “teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.”

This legislation represented a major shift in thinking about the purpose of higher education, which previously had been available only to the wealthy classes. The second Morrill Act (1890) further broadened the availability of higher education by providing federal appropriations to support “separate but equal” colleges for African Americans living in the Southern states. In 1994, Congress gave land grant status to twenty-nine Native American tribal colleges, thus continuing the tradition of extending the land grant ideal to marginalized peoples of the nation.

Although the need for a national system of agricultural research was identified by President George Washington, it took nearly 100 years for Congress to pass legislation creating the agricultural experiment station system with the Hatch Act of 1887. This legislation represented the second evolutionary step in the growth of the land grants. It provided federal funding “to promote scientific investigations and experiments respecting the principles and applications of agricultural science.” The research function was thus added to the evolving land grant ideal.

The third stage in the evolutionary growth of the land grants was accomplished with the passage of the Smith Lever Act in 1914, establishing the national Cooperative Extension Service “to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics and to encourage the application of the same.”

President of the University of Massachusetts Kenyon L. Butterfield was an early champion of the land grant ideal. In a 1904 speech, President Butterfield made a case for the three land grant functions when he called for each college to support ” its threefold function as an organ of research, as an educator of students, and as a distributor of information to those who cannot come to the college.”

The UMass College of Natural Sciences remains committed to Butterfield’s vision of an integrated program of teaching, research and outreach.

Under the leadership of Dean Steve Goodwin, the College of Natural Sciences has created the new UMass Amherst Center for Agriculture which administers the agricultural research and extension functions of the college – and now adds the expanded Stockbridge School of Agriculture to continue its commitment to the land grant mission.

This mission is particularly relevant today as the world experiences the “perfect storm” of climate disruption, peak oil, and economic stress.  Scientists from the diverse fields of entomology, plant pathology, animal science, soil science and plant science have come together in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture to address these major global issues, which are of such importance to the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Students have recognized this as an opportunity and are gravitating to the study of sustainable farming working toward careers in local food and green businesses, urban agriculture, ecological landscape and turf care, and Permaculture.  The time is right for the re-emergence of “Mass Aggie” built upon its historical and timeless mission of research-based public service and teaching – but manifested in this cutting edge and future focused partnership between the UMass Amherst Center for Agriculture and the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  Its surely a good time to be an “Aggie.”  


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 programs 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.



UMass Permaculture invited to the White House!

The University of Massachusetts Permaculture Project was selected as one of fifteen finalists (out of 1400 entries) in the White House Campus Champions of Change Challenge.  According to President Obama, ““All across America, college and university students are helping our country out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Project leader Ryan Harb and the UMass students who created this project are honored to be among those selected for this recognition. 

An online balloting, in which UMass garnered almost 60,000 votes, identified the top five vote getters to be invited to the White House.  These campuses will also be featured by mtvU and MTV Act and be given the opportunity to host an episode of mtvU’s signature program, “The Dean’s List.”  Following a spirited and a week long balloting process, the University of Massachusetts Permaculture Project ended in first place in this national competition!   Thanks to everyone who voted for us.

According to the Campus Challenge webpage;

“the UMass Amherst Permaculture Initiative is a unique and cutting edge sustainability program that transforms grass lawns on the campus into diverse, edible, low-maintenance, and easily replicable gardens. Over the past two years students have create three community demonstration permaculture gardens that have engaged over 1000 students and more than a dozen local K-12 schools.

Permaculture is defined as, ecological design for sustainable communities that involves people working together to care for the planet.  It is considered to be the most sustainable form of gardening and farming and UMass Amherst is one of the first public universities in the country implementing new permaculture gardens directly on campus each year and using the food in the dining commons.”

This project which was initiated by students in my Sustainable Agriculture class in the fall of 2009, has transformed a lawn outside one of the UMass Dining Commons into a productive, ecologically-designed garden.  Beginning in September 2010, students helped to prepare the garden with compost, cardboard and wood chips.  Following a community-wide design workshop, planting began in spring of 2011.

Today, the original Permaculture Garden features over 1,500 fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs, flowers, and vegetables.  The students working on this project are committed to transforming more grass lawns into edible landscapes on campus each year.  They believe permaculture landscapes are suitable campus settings because:

  • They are replicable, scalable and adaptable, and can be developed on virtually any budget, in almost any climate;
  • They provide nutritious foods to the university dining commons;
  • They improve the quality of the local environment;
  • They create service-learning opportunities to students and volunteers.

This project represents a unique partnership between the academic and the auxiliary services components of the university.  The UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture offers several classes in permaculture and the Executive Director of UMass Auxiliary Enterprises, Ken Toong, invested in the project by hiring 3 full-time staff members to provide leadership.  In fact, UMass Dining has been a national leader in support of campus sustainability.

The next big project for the UMass Permaculture team will be an International Permaculture Your Campus Conference (click on the image below):

Participants will learn how to create edible, ecological gardens and landscapes as an important strategy for making campuses more sustainable. Groups and individuals will learn the benefits of permaculture gardening and landscaping in a campus setting and how to design and create a successful permaculture initiative at their own university, school, or place of business.

The University of Massachusetts (formerly “Mass Aggie”) is proud to offer outstanding undergraduate education in the field of Sustainable Food and Farming, while sponsoring a Bachelor of Sciences degree, a 15-credit Certificate Program, global outreach through on-line classes, and innovative student projects like GardenShare, the Student Farmers Market, and of course, UMass Permaculture!


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.

Ethics, self-interest & a purposeful life

It seems to me that everyone from news reporters to the Occupy Protesters are questioning whether “normal business practices” are ethical.  Good question – there have been lots of wrongdoing exposed of late – but before we simply damn the business world as unethical lets look closely the nature of ethics.

This blog proposes a means of examining business practices within a larger and more comprehensive ethical framework.

Ethics change and grow over time.  Professor Aldo Leopold called for an expansion of rights to include environmental ethics in his classic essay, The Land Ethic (published in A Sand County Almanac in 1948).  Speaking of an earlier time, he wrote 

“when god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence.”  

Now hanging slave girls would certainly not be considered ethical human behavior today (even on Wall Street), so I guess we’ve made some progress.  Homer’s Odyssey reminds us that concepts of right and wrong were not lacking in ancient Greece, but the rights of slaves had not yet been included in the ethical framework of the day. Over the past 3000 years, basic human rights have expanded from the family (Odysseus was very loyal to his family), to the immediate tribe or village, and in some places to all people of the nation.

In spite of this seeming progress, business ethics in the 21st century seem to be that “anything goes” as long as you don’t get caught breaking the law.  And then, if you have enough money or political power – even this is okay.   And of course, what seems immoral to some of us is just a standard business practice to others.  We live at a time in which extreme relativism has become a social norm. That is, what is right and wrong for you is different from what is right or wrong for me.  Taken to its logical conclusion, extreme relativism would contend that there is no evil other than that which I proclaim to be evil for myself.   In this context, as long as I am serving my self-interest I am acting ethically.

Nevertheless, many cultures across the human spectrum have shared ethical traditions.  C.S. Lewis gleaned eight principles from the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, and ancient Egyptian and Babylonian texts, that express the universal nature of what he called Natural Law.  I believe humans can (and must) agree upon an ethical framework or a perennial truth that holds true for all people.

But how can we think usefully about business ethics in a world in which self-interest dominates our sense of what is right and wrong?   Rather than damning business ethics as being inadequate, what if we looked at business ethics as part of a expanding circle of ethics founded on enlightened self-interest?   And further, what if we understood “the self” as much bigger and richer than merely the “economic self?”

The business world and quite often government officials refer to humans as “consumers” (as if buying stuff was our primary purpose in life).  We know this isn’t true, yet many of us seem willing to accept this diminished view of what it means to be human as normal.

What if we saw the “economic self” as an important and legitimate subsystem embedded within a larger system of “community self,” which itself is embedded in a still larger system of “ecological-self”? And what if the “ecological-self” was yet another subsystem embedded in a larger system that we might call the “universal-self”? Finally if we push this theme beyond the mere material, we might even see the universal-self as part of a cosmological or divine-self.  Each level of “self” is important but when we work toward enlightened self-interest in this framework, we are no longer limited to serving the economic-self alone.

By acting from our higher self (the family, community, the earth or the divine-self) we may discover of sense of meaning and purpose much richer than mere financial success (which beyond some minimum level doesn’t make us happy).  Without this broader perspective of self however, we are left to find meaning in common distractions like drugs, alcohol, recreational sex, video games, passive consumption of violent sporting events, and of course our number one distraction – recreational shopping.

I believe that many ills in society result from a diminished understanding of who we are as humans.  As long as we believe we are primarily economic beings, we will never be happy – because we can never have enough.   We we become the people of “more” – more money, more stuff, more college degrees, more shoes, more promotions at work, more gadgets, …. more.

And in this quest for more, we are hitting a “bottom” as a society that is much like the bottom of an alcoholic or drug addict, or someone who has maxed out their credit cards.  While this is a painful experience for individuals and society alike, it is in fact good news because the bottom is where recovery may begin.

I was on a panel a few years ago with Jordan Belfort, the self-proclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” who told his story of riches, extravagant lifestyle, and eventually jail.  Mr. Belfort seemed to have redemption from the disease of more and told a group of entrepreneurs at UMass that “crime doesn’t pay.”   But the story of depravity, suffering and redemption is not only the story of unethical stockbrokers. The line between good and evil passes through every human heart.  We are all capable of unethical behavior. But we all also have the opportunity to experience redemption by serving a higher sense of self, and we may begin whenever we choose.

I believe we can find our way to redemption as a society through service to community, the earth or perhaps the divine – or we can find our way to redemption through pain and humiliation (for individuals this means jail – and for a society it may mean economic collapse).  I believe we have a choice.  If I see myself as merely an economic being serving a narrow self-interest, then fear of punishment may be an effective incentive for ethical behavior. But when I see myself as an economic, communal, ecological, universal and cosmological being, the result is not only “right” behavior, but a joyful and purposeful life.


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.

A conceptual foundation for teaching "Sustainability" courses

Have you noticed the word “sustainability” showing up in the titles of many new courses at universities and colleges these days?  I surely have at the University of Massachusetts – and for the most part I think it is a good thing.  It worries me a bit however, when I hear my faculty colleagues talking about sustainability as if its little more than environmentalism.  This blog was written in preparation for a Five College Sustainability Studies Seminar.

My observations on the emergence of sustainability as an academic discipline are flavored by my own experiences in sustainable agriculture.  When this field of study appeared in early 1980’s it was largely driven by the thinking and interest of farmers.  The academy first ignored the call for more research and education on agricultural sustainability.  This was followed by ridicule, derision, and eventually acceptance (helped along by a source of federal funding).

Over the next 25 years, sustainability studies spread throughout the university and today we even have a major national association called The American Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.   Things have certainly changed!

A few faculty (perhaps who were not part of the early debates about the nature of sustainability studies) may be inclined to attach the word sustainability as an adjective in front of the title of a course they have been teaching for years.  This blog post challenges us all to develop our own intellectual foundation for teaching sustainability courses before we name them “sustainable”…… here is a brief look at mine.

triangleAlmost everyone accepts some version of the “sustainability triangle” which includes 3 “E’s”…

  1. Environment
  2. Economy
  3. Equity (as in social equity or justice)

While the words used by different communities of scholars or practitioners may differ, we often see symbolic representations of these three basic concepts associated with the word sustainability. Sometimes these three concepts are depicted as overlapping circles.


These common and generally accepted symbolic representations are useful, as they clearly require us to consider social equity or justice (often overlooked) as part of the sustainability equation.  However, they all have a common flaw…. they each assume competition among equally important perspectives.  This limited view allows us to negotiate tradeoffs between environmental quality and economic vitality, for example.

How often have we heard a business executive decry that “we just can’t afford to protect the environment today.”  Or perhaps a congressperson claim that some social justice legislation is a “job killer.”  As long as we accept these symbolic representations of sustainability, I suspect economic considerations will always win out over environmental or equity concerns.

But what if we took the same three symbolic circles and put them inside of each other, with the economy at the center? 


We might then begin to understand that we can’t sustain a healthy economy within a sick society, nor a healthy society within a sick environment.  This symbolic representation of the same three concepts shifts the relationship they have to each other.  This is the representation of the three perspectives we need for the long term, which is what sustainability is supposed to be all about!

This picture changes everything!

We can not afford to have “either/or” conversations about money and society – nor about society and the environment.  We must begin to see that the economy is thoroughly embedded in society and the environment and change the assumption that it is okay to grow an economy by exploiting people and the natural world…..  this cannot be sustained.

Does this mean that the environment is more important than the economy?  NO!  It means that they are each critical to each other but there is a “directionality” to our sense of purpose.  In the study of living systems we learn to look to the “smaller” circles for function and the larger circles for purpose.  That is, human society can look to the economy as a tool to a serve a higher purpose, such as a healthy community and livable natural world.

This only makes sense if we see human nature as an integral part of “mother nature.”  Understanding that humans are apart of (rather than a part from) nature and subject to the “laws of Mother Nature” allows us to know who we are and where we fit in the world.  It gives us a foundation upon which to explore the big questions, like “who am I” and “why am I here?”  Students and teachers studying sustainability should be challenged by these questions in ways that are engaging and purposeful.

But how do we teach our classes based on this holistic, integrated nature of sustainability?  For me, the answer is by telling stories!  In my sustainability classes, I invite academics and practitioners to share stories about their lives and work in ways that integrate our desire for financial security, community connections, and a livable natural world.

A course on sustainability cannot afford to be merely objective.  There are values and purpose embedded in the study of sustainability…. yes, even within the academy.  There are even times when I’ve engaged in discussions of  spirituality in class!  Here is why...

We might see our individual self as a part of something bigger, lets call it the “family-self”, which is part of a”community-self” etc.  Continuing our exploration of the symbolism of circles within circles, lets now ask… “whats the next realm to consider?”


For some I suspect it might be the study of the ecology.

For others, perhaps cosmology.

For me, its the divine….

Sustainability studies, for me, is an opportunity to explore our relationship with some power greater than finite ourselves.  And what could possibly be more important than that?


What is your conceptual foundation for teaching sustainability?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box below….


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment   For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.

Occupy the food system: education and policy

I received quite a bit of feedback on my last post, Local Food: Lets Get Serious Now, which calls for a personal commitment to supporting the emerging local food system.  While most readers agreed that buying local was an important means of changing the food system, a few thought my unwillingness to “sleep outside in a public park” myself demonstrated a lack of commitment to the movement.

In my post, I applauded those young people (and old) who took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations, but I really don’t think all protesters need to “march.”  Eco-philosopher and social activist Joanna Macy reminds us that there are three dimensions to significant social change (which she calls “The Great Turning”).  They are:

  1. Actions to slow the damage to Earth and prevent harm to its beings (such as lobbying and protesting, blockading and conducting vigils, whistle-blowing and documenting problems).
  2. Analysis of root causes and the creation of alternative structures (such as education, policy and new organizations and businesses).
  3. Shift in Consciousness (perhaps the most powerful – and a topic for a future blog).

The Occupy protests have largely focused on action and public awareness.  And the December 4 Farmers March in New York City for example, helped focus attention on inequities in the global food system.  Unfortunately mainstream media did little to cover the story but this video does a nice job of presenting some of the major issues.

While some of us are out marching in the street and sleeping in public spaces, others need to be working on the “creation of alternative structures” to the current food system.  Small organic farms, community supported farms, backyard and community gardens, and all of the many organizations that work to re-localize the food system are critical to the continued emergence of alternatives to the corporately-owned industrial food system.

My hope is that the Occupy Movement energizes more people “vote with their food dollar” and buy local.  And while this sort of personal commitment is necessary, it is not sufficient to create lasting change in the global food system.  We need education and policy change too.  I hope the “occupiers” will continue to bring energy to the local food movement by joining one of the education or policy organizations currently working to support a more local and sustainable food and farming system.  There are many such organizations.

At the international level, la Via Campesina, is a significant voice for peasant agriculture and family farms.  I’m particularly attracted to their claim that peasant agriculture and small family farms can feed the world while reducing carbon pollution.  The banner above was from a protest march at the Climate Conference in Durban on December 5, at which time they called for all governments to “stop industrial farming that promotes pollution and climate change through high levels of use of petroleum based chemicals and to support agro-ecology.”

At the national level in the U.S., I’m attracted to the National Farmers Union (I belong to the New England chapter, which is a member-driven organization, committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, fishermen, nurserymen and their customers through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors and civic engagement).

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is another policy group, with local and regional working groups throughout the nation.  The “SAWG’s” (regional Sustainable Agriculture Working Groups) have been particularly effective.  Many of us prefer to work close to home in local or regional groups, such as the Northeast’s Food and Farm Network which was created by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

Each of us should find an organization we can support and join.  One that I helped to found is the local organization called CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.  If you don’t have one in your area – start one!

Perhaps we can take inspiration from the Victory Garden movement or the Women’s Land Army, which grew food for people at home during World War II.  There are many groups “pitching in” at the neighborhood, community, regional, national and international levels working to transform the food system.  If the authorities continue to take down the tents and move protesters out of the public parks, rail links and ports (military power always sides with economic wealth), I hope some of the occupiers will continue the struggle by joining with the education and policy organizations that have been working on these issues for years.

There is more than one way to “occupy the food system.” 


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.