Anders Gurda is an associate researcher in organic and sustainable cropping systems in the CALS Department of Plant Pathology, working in the laboratory of CALS/ UW–Extension professor Erin Silva. He has spent the last two years managing the lab’s field operations and recently started OGRAIN, an initiative focusing on growing, processing and marketing organic grains. Through his work, he helps ensure that knowledge gained at the university is accessible to farmers throughout the state. “The agroecology program gave me the knowledge base, the community and network, and the platform to do work that I’m grateful to do,” says Gurda. In addition to his work with the university, Gurda manages Turned Earth Media, where he produces videos and other audiovisual material focusing on sustainable agriculture.
Noelle Harden is a health and nutrition educator with the University of Minnesota Extension, where she describes her work as taking place “at the intersection of access to healthy food, local food development and social justice.” Harden works with farmers, nonprofits, government agencies, food networks and other entities around the state to improve access to local food through education, networking and advocacy. Those activities include supporting the development of food hubs, implementation of the Minnesota Food Charter, and other food system initiatives. “The agroecology program transformed how I think about agriculture and food systems, opening my eyes for the potential changes that can be brought about when diverse groups of citizens come together for creative problem solving at the community level,” says Harden.
Katelin Anderson serves as the water quality specialist and information and education coordinator for Polk County’s Land and Water Resources Department. Much of her job involves applying for and administering grants to manage Polk County’s many bodies of water. She works with individual lake groups to study and manage their lakes and coordinates a countywide aquatic invasive species program. Anderson also gives presentations and training sessions to school groups as well as lake and river organizations. “My favorite part of my job is spending time studying Polk County’s beautiful lakes and rivers and working with all the fantastic volunteers who dedicate time to manage our county’s water bodies,” she says. “I also enjoy the opportunity to partner with organizations—such as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Polk County Association of Lakes and Rivers, the St. Croix River Association and the National Park Service—to expand programming.”
As program director with the nonprofit Edible Schoolyard NYC, Andrew Barrett works to implement cooking and gardening programs in New York City elementary and middle schools. He also supervises FoodCorps New York—a food-oriented version of AmeriCorps—identifying and supporting local partners to bring FoodCorps service members into city schools and communities. “The agroecology program helped me better understand and appreciate the many contexts and challenges of our food system, providing a perspective that continues to shape my life and work,” says Barrett, who holds master’s degrees in both agroecology and horticulture from CALS.
As an administrative analyst, Courtney Glettner supports the management of natural resources for the East Bay Regional Park District in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her duties include managing databases of wildlife and vegetation records, collecting survey data on endangered species, conducting data analysis and administering environmental permits, working with biologists, ecologists and members of the public along the way. Her degree in agroecology allows her to thrive in an interdisciplinary line of work, she says, “in which complex issues involving humans and the environment do not always have one clear solution.”
Keefe Keeley is executive director of the Savanna Institute, a nonprofit based in Urbana, Illinois, that works with farmers and scientists to advance perennial agriculture through research, education and outreach. His passion for ecological agriculture has led him to work with farmers on five continents, conducting research and consulting on topics including grazing, agroforestry, wildlife, ethics and marketing. In addition to his work with the Savanna Institute, Keeley serves as board president for Community Conservation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit.
Emma Pelton is a conservation biologist for the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based nonprofit that seeks to protect wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. Much of Pelton’s work involves protecting and enhancing conditions for monarch butterflies in the western U.S., which in recent years experienced steep population declines. Her work entails making site management recommendations for monarch overwintering sites, documenting the quality of monarch breeding habitat, presenting workshops about best management practices for monarch habitat and analyzing monarch population trends. “I have always been interested in the intersection of private and public lands, working lands and conserved lands. Migratory insects like the monarch butterfly connect these landscapes and require conservation efforts that cross human boundaries,” says Pelton, who holds a master’s degree in entomology as well as in agroecology.
As a soil conservationist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Marie Raboin provides both financial and technical assistance to private landowners through the use of Farm Bill provisions. Her main focus is to provide cost share or incentives for implementing conservation practices. “The best part of my job is working alongside farmers and landowners to do the best conservation work appropriate to the personal and financial goals on their property,” says Raboin, who earned a bachelor’s degree in soil and land management at UW– Stevens Point before moving on to CALS. In her free time, Raboin and her husband have started a hard cider orchard on their farm near Barneveld, where in the near future they plan to open a cidery.
As the “Generation Organic” program coordinator at CROPP Cooperative/ Organic Valley headquarters in La Farge, Kristina Ralph works with young and beginning farmers. The Generation Organic (“Gen-O” for short) program serves as a network for young farmers to connect and share ideas and experiences. In addition, the program supports farmer members and their children by providing services in planning, education, leadership and other opportunities. Ralph’s work orchestrates the development and execution of these services while working directly with the new farmers. “My favorite part of work is connecting with farmers and developing programs that serve them,” says Ralph. “Because I work with farmers my own age, I learn a lot and can easily empathize with their struggles in the industry.”
Mark Sieffert spent nearly four years working as an alliance development specialist in the USAID Bureau for Food Security, which leads the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Sieffert concentrated on the coffee industry, working to build public–private partnerships to address threats to coffee-growing communities in Latin America and Africa. He co-led USAID’s response to a recent outbreak of coffee rust, a devastating disease of coffee plants, focusing particularly on expanding access to finance and promoting collaborative research initiatives. His other work has focused on increasing farmer productivity in East Africa and stimulating private sector investment in climate-smart agriculture. This fall Sieffert joined Winrock International, a nonprofit that conducts development work around the world, where he will manage USDA and USAID rural development grants in South Asia.
Carl Wahl’s interest in farming was sparked during a stint with the Peace Corps in Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa. His work on maternal and child health and nutrition led him into agriculture as he sought to integrate edible legumes into local farms and diets. Wahl returned to the U.S. to study agroecology at CALS and then went back to Africa, first with the Peace Corps and now with the Ireland-based charity Concern Worldwide, which he serves as the conservation agriculture coordinator in Zambia and neighboring Malawi.
• What’s your understanding of “conservation agriculture”? Conservation agriculture (or CA) is a practice to retain moisture and nutrients in the soil to boost short-term crop productivity and long-term sustainability of farmland. CA is essentially a combination of three principles: minimum tillage, retaining soil residues and crop rotation with legumes.
It is similar to what is increasingly a practice in the Midwest. However, in Zambia, Concern Worldwide is working with the poorest (i.e., resource-limited) farmers, who essentially have a hoe and possibly an axe as their entire repertoire of farming tools and farm in an incredibly less forgiving environment. Therefore we include such sustainable agriculture aspects as agroforestry, supplemental mulching and microdosing of inputs (fertilizer, manure, compost, indigenous tree leaves, wood ash, etc.) in order to better translate limited funds and labor into greater yields.
• How does conservation agriculture work in Zambia and Malawi? In either country, the word “food” means maize (corn), specifically maize meal for a dish called nshima. Both countries consider nshima a staple food to the extent that they rank in the world’s top three per capita direct consumers of maize. However, a heavy feeder like maize in an environment with limited nutrient (fertilizer) supply and undependable rainfall is an unreliable crop. In Malawi and Zambia, CA practices help mitigate much of the risk associated with growing maize. Additionally, CA’s capacity to include legume crops provides more protein to the household’s diet.
• How have you seen conservation agriculture help people? The Western Province of Zambia, where I work, is situated on a drift of eolian sand that is roughly the size of Wisconsin. In the 2012–2013 season, our cumulative rainfall was above normal; however, instead of being distributed over four to five months as usual, we received two-thirds of it over 4.5 weeks and the other third in three days. All the conventional maize failed. Though the CA farmers were also affected, nearly everyone reported that without CA, they would have had no maize whatsoever. That is a pretty powerful incentive to adopt the technology.
• What projects are you most excited about? The first is our effort to engage and develop certified seed grower groups on a larger scale to provide a variety of quality seed to farmers at lower cost. We are over 300 miles from most of the seed producers in Zambia, so bringing that resource closer can really relieve the chronic pressure of getting an adequate and high-quality seed supply.
The second is use of the burgeoning mobile phone network to send text messages that can pass on Extension messages as well as market information to farmers, enabling them to both produce more and sell more at a better price. The potential ability to transmit information quickly and cheaply could be a real game-changer in our agriculture picture in both Zambia and Malawi.
As a wicker basket containing old, faded seed packets made its way around the room, Tom Stearns asked each person to grab a packet and pour a few seeds into their hands. Some of the seeds were green and shriveled, others were tiny, shiny and black.
“Check them out,” encouraged Stearns, founder and president of Vermont-based High Mowing Organic Seeds, the only seed company in the nation to sell 100 percent organically produced seeds.
Addressing participants and speakers attending the Student Organic Seed Symposium at the Lakeview Inn in tiny Greensboro, Vermont, Stearns asked the group to consider what they could—and couldn’t—tell about the seeds just by looking at them. For many, all it took was a quick glance to know what plants they’d grow into.
But seeds hide an important part of their story beneath their coats. Just looking at a handful, it’s impossible to know who developed them and to what end. These details, however, have a lot to do with a farmer’s success.
Plant breeders have enormous influence over the varieties they develop, making key decisions about how, when and where they’ll grow best. Plants bred with high-input, conventional systems in mind (which generally employ chemical fertilizers and pesticides) tend to thrive in those systems. Likewise, those bred for organic systems tend to flourish in organic systems. Yet relatively little of this latter type of breeding work has been done over the past 50 years, mostly due to meager financial support. Today’s organic growers have difficulty finding organic-adapted seeds, and they are often forced to choose among conventional varieties.
To Stearns, this situation is ludicrous, on par with giving a beef cow to a dairy farmer. “You will get milk out of a beef cow, but not a lot—they haven’t been selected to produce milk. Beef cattle don’t have the right genetics for what dairy farmers are trying to do,” he explained to the group. “That’s what I think organic growers are dealing with. We don’t even know what we’re missing. The seeds we’re using aren’t genetically adapted to the kind of systems that we have.”
The most obvious solution is to have more plant breeders doing organic work. And, as Stearns looked around the room that day at the Lakeview Inn, he had reason to hope.
At a professional gathering about a year earlier, Stearns had met Claire Luby and Adrienne Shelton, graduate students in the Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program at CALS, along with Alex Lyon MS’08, a CALS agroecology graduate now working on a doctorate at the Nelson Institute. During a dinner reception at the 2011 meeting of the Vegetable Breeding Institute—a Cornell University-based public-private partnership that fosters interaction between vegetable breeders and seed and food companies—the trio had shared with Stearns some of their experiences doing organic-focused work. While the students were excited about the work, they also felt unsure about their career paths and somewhat isolated and discouraged. Graduate students working in organic plant breeding, like their faculty advisors, are few and far between, and they lack the support network enjoyed by their conventional-focused peers.
“There are a lot of activities and events geared toward graduate students who are going to work at the bigger plant breeding companies,” explains Shelton. “But it’s really hard to connect with other students doing organic plant breeding because the organic seed industry is so small in comparison, and there are just a few of us—at best—at each land-grant university.”
Before dinner was over, a plan had sprouted to put on a symposium, dubbed the Student Organic Seed Symposium (SOSS), to give this scattered group of students a much-needed opportunity to come together and feel like part of something bigger—part of the new and growing agricultural movement that they comprise. Luby, Lyon and Shelton would organize it, with support from their advisors. Stearns would help host it in Vermont. There would be talks by experts, farm tours and a visit to High Mowing Organic Seeds. There would also be time to just hang out and get to know each other.
“The whole idea was to try to build these connections, to create a scientific community that could support us throughout our careers,” says Shelton.
It all came together in early August 2012, with 20 graduate students cupping seeds in their hands, eager to develop new plant varieties to meet the needs of organic growers.
Humans have been breeding plants since antiquity. Simply by selecting which seeds to save and plant the following spring, people make decisions that alter the overall genetic makeup of their crops. It’s a powerful technique, known as selection, that plant breeders still use to this day.
Modern plant breeders have many more tools at their disposal and bring a scientific approach to the whole process. A significant portion of the work involves making crosses. To do so, breeders pick two varieties with desirable traits, transferring the pollen from one to the pistil of the other, purposefully mixing together the good genes of both. The new plants created this way then go through years and years of re-crossing and selection until the breeder is satisfied with the final product. Only then is it released as a new variety. It’s a time-consuming process, taking up to a decade and sometimes more.
Crossing and selecting are classical plant-breeding techniques that look pretty much the same whether they’re used to breed plants for organic or conventional systems, so context is key.
“One of the underlying paradigms of plant breeding is you should breed for the conditions under which the crops are going to be grown,” says Bill Tracy, chair of the agronomy department at CALS.
And organic farms have a special set of conditions. Without chemical options to control weeds, insects and microbial diseases, organic farmers need varieties with a unique set of traits. For instance, they need varieties that are fast-growing and preferably dense-growing to out-compete and shade out weeds. They also need varieties with natural pest and disease resistance. At the same time, these plants need to produce a large, beautiful bounty.
“But to date there’s been very little breeding for organic conditions, so there are opportunities and needs out there that aren’t being met,” says Tracy, whose breeding program encompasses both conventional and organic sweet corn.