Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 007 - Building Community in Rural America featuring Spencer Wood and Kim Niewolny

Spencer Wood: I forget which secretary of Agriculture it was, but one of them said something like, "Well, what kind of agriculture do you want? You know, but you think about the values that we have. And I think that's sort of a question. Do you want to sort of agriculture wherever rural communities can thrive? Or do you want one If you have a cheap food policy? We don't have an immutable sort of God-given system of agriculture, it's one that has been a conscious decision.

Mallory Daily: Welcome to Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture, Research, and Education program. I'm your host, Mal. Each episode we present two people from the wide-world of sustainable agriculture in conversation with each other. This episode, two rural sociologists dig into why they feel passionately about building connections among farming communities. Spencer Wood, who you heard at the top of the show, teaches at Kansas State University. He’ll be speaking with Kim Niewolny, an Associate Professor of Agricultural Leadership and Community Education at Virginia Tech.

Kim Niewolny: Personally, in my own work, I just find it really challenging to kind of bifurcate or put a binary between, like, the food folks and then there's people who focus on farming. I'm like, well, they really don't exist without each other. And so I think we should, we would do better if we are able to bring different stakeholders to the table to think more imaginatively about alternatives that we could create.

Mallory Daily: Both educators were drawn to the field of rural sociology because it aims to center the experiences of people living and working in rural communities. The field itself is buzzing with collaborations and connections. You just have to find it first.

Spencer Wood: I didn't even know anything about rural sociology. I'd never heard of such a field. But in my undergraduate, one of my advisors or person I worked with, Martha Wilkerson, who was terrific, had developed this interest in rural sociology and she'd done a sabbatical over at Mizzou, University of Missouri at Columbia, in their Rural Sociology Department and came back with all this stuff and kind of inspired in me this, wow, there's this whole field that like, thinks about and addresses people that I'm kind of interested in. And so another connection is, when I got there, then I began to work with different folks who were doing different kinds of community organizing around, basically, new food politics. There was all this controversy around bovine growth hormone and what dairy producers were or were not doing regarding BGH.

Kim Niewolny: I remember that so well, yeah.

Spencer Wood: Yeah, I'm sure you do. And so one of the, this intractable kind of problem, was it Bob Goodman? I think he started labeling his cheese as BGH-free and brought in this kind of…

Kim Niewolny: They were very simple labels with this red dot. Like it's very practical, very Wisconsin-like. Like I'm just gonna tell you exactly what I mean by those.

Spencer Wood: Yeah, and then I think there was some corporate interest that said, "Well, you know, you can't, that's somehow defamatory or something. We're trying to sue these small producers." And so then maybe it was Alan Tracy, he might have been the Secretary of Agriculture for the state of Wisconsin at the time. One of the solutions was to create this think tank at the University of Wisconsin that would be a kind of a technology assessment place so that you could think, you know, and do surveys and things like that and begin to figure out what's the likely impact of this technology if it were developed, you know, given these characteristics set up in advance to begin to think about what it means to have high yield producing technology in a market that has chronic low prices and other sorts of structural factors happening. And so that was the creation of the Agricultural Technology and Family Farm Institute. And they hired somebody who was a Wisconsin Phd actually, but he would had been at Cornell and that was Fred Buttel. So he was hired to come back to Wisconsin to direct it. And then I worked for him for several years with that. So another connection with Cornell there. So between Madison and Cornell there's a direct back-and-forth.

Kim Niewolny: I'm glad you brought up one of your inspirations, you know, by way of someone who showed you the discipline. I mean for me it's sort of very similarly. I was working as a practitioner. I was farming. I was trying to figure out that next stage and I found the Alternative Farming Systems program at Cornell, which is in the Rural Sociology Department, which is now the Development Sociology Department. And that brought me to Tom Lyson, and he was just an avid supporter of just trying to help people at any stage to advocate for their interests, advocate for looking at the food system in a very different way than at the time. This was like late-1990s. He convinced me to apply to the program. So I did that and it was a very, very positive and productive decision. I actually was working in the horticulture department at Cornell at the time as a research associate.

Spencer Wood: Oh! You had your biology hat on.

Kim Niewolny: I did. I was like, "Oh, I know, I know how to do that!" So I was actually, I loved working in horticulture. But I had all these like permaculture posters in my office and all the turf grass people were like, "What is all this about?" And I was like, no, we can, we can have this conversation. I was just really inspired by--the questions that I was always trying to ask, I finally found a home where I could ask them. Questions around values, questions about, you know, the social impact on people's lives. It just took a couple of people to help kind of point me in that direction. But I still feel like my biology and ecology training has helped me be able to communicate in more of an interdisciplinary way. I have a lot of colleagues who are trained in the natural sciences and as well as engineers. I can, you know, I know how to--at least I think I do; I'll put a disclaimer--I believe there's many times when I'm in a room, like, oh, I think I understand why they say what they're saying and we have different languages right now, but I think I know your language maybe a little bit more than, you know mine at this point because they might not have that back training. For me, I value that because a lot of the work that we're trying to do, particularly in sustainable agriculture, and it's sustainable agriculture, education and research is so interdisciplinary. It has to be.

Spencer Wood: I was just going to say, isn't that one of the things you like most about involvement with SARE? Is that interdisciplinarity? I find at least in my experience, quite strong dimensions of mutual respect for different areas of expertise and conversations. And you know, people will disagree, but you know, they'll also come around as you kind of begin to have an argument or debate about something. "Oh, okay. Yeah, I get that." So it seems to me at least, especially for me in the North Central Region that has really been a strong hold of our process and just a lot of mutual respect, but also frankness.

Kim Niewolny: Oh, you have to be. I mentioned earlier in our conversation, there's the element of checking where you are in the conversation. Be more thoughtful about, yes, you have these facets of values and everyone's got an agenda. I mean, to claim you don't is, I think, a false statement. But it's how, what agenda do you really want to put forward? And to me, the agenda should be hopefully coming from an honest and genuine place where you really do want to see some impacts across the communities that you're working in. And hopefully they're at the table stating their own case and you're there to help advocate for that.

Spencer Wood: I wonder if Tom ever used this one liner? I forget which Secretary of Agriculture it was, but one of them said something like, "Well, what kind of agriculture do you want?" You know, but you think about the values that we have and I think that's sort of the question. Do you want the sort of agriculture where rural communities can thrive or do you want one where you can have a cheap food policy? And that type of thing then drives a lot of stuff. And so we don't have an immutable sort of God-given system of agriculture. It's one that's been a conscious decision. And I remember with Fred and other people that I worked with, you know, this was a kind of a regular thing. It's like, well, what kind of agricultural system do we want? And when you ask that, it really begins to unpack some stuff.

Kim Niewolny: These are not held assumptions that we should be challenging. I absolutely agree. A lot of the work I've been doing more recently is around kinda questioning what is knowable and what are the kinds of realities that we want to create. 'Cause I think there's more than one way to, more than one truth and in our communities, particularly around linking together the questions of what kind of agriculture, what kind of food system and what kind of food. I mean, I can't speak about one without the other. And I think there are some communities that may put their energy--and what I mean by communities, more academic communities who might be focusing on an area of expertise. Completely understand that. I value that too. But personally my own work, I just find it really challenging to kind of bifurcate or put a binary between like there's the food folks and then there's people who focus on farming. I'm like, well, they really don't exist without each other. And so I think we should, we would do better if we are able to bring different stakeholders to the table to think more imaginatively about alternatives that we could create. Everything from alternative economies, alternative ways to organize in our communities. We have so much disparity. Those disparities are getting worse.

Spencer Wood: I think it's interesting. For a lot of social scientists, especially as social scientists involved with this kind of--well, not just sociology, but especially a sociologist, a sociology-oriented social scientists--there's a recognition of this importance of, you know, social justice or fairness or equity in our food and agricultural system. And, you know, I think it's something that we sometimes struggled to have on the same kind of agenda as other areas of our overarching kind of sustainable agriculture research agenda. But they just keep resurfacing and they kind of mean so much. When we chatted a little bit before we found out that we both had this, you know, big kind of focus. I've done a lot of work with black farmers across the United States and underrepresented groups. What does an agricultural policy or agricultural system look like that is fair and favorable to people who have small acreages? Who are producing fresh and kind of, I guess perishable goods for very local markets? And we're seeing a lot of that coming into fruition now. And I think, you know, we're getting a much more diverse agriculture. What's your experience?

Kim Niewolny: There's just so many questions around whose experience is being valued and whose experience is being valued in a public, regulatory way. And the historical trauma, the historical violence that's been constantly either invisible to some privileged individuals and communities in our food policy communities. I just think that is something I constantly am trying to bring forward in my personal work and in my work around questions of food security, community food security. Changing the conversation and working with farmers who've experienced disability and farm workers who have been challenged with mobility restrictions given that they'd been hurt on the farm. Or how are they being cared for? Is there an element of care and dignity in their work? That's applied to both new and beginning farmers and our aging farmers and farmers who we work with, a variety of different groups who sometimes organize independently but yet in structures. So our Black Family Land Trust who does amazing work in Virginia and across the South as well as International Rescue Committee working with our refugee communities in Virginia in particular. I direct the Virginia Beginning Farmer Coalition. That's one of our goals is to do cross-sector learning and cross-sector organizing to impact the next generation of farming and farmers. And so to do that means we have to directly address whose experience is being valued. And we need to learn from those experiences. So my role is to often, not only just the programming through whole farm planning and programming, but to really develop the coalition's community and to learn from each other's experiences.

Spencer Wood: I really like that idea of learning kind of in both directions. I mean, you know, that's in a lot of ways, that's supposed to be one of the hallmarks of the whole extension and land grant system. It has these tentacles out into community and community back to research on up to policy. This feedback potential. So while in Wisconsin, the whole grazing movement kind of began to flourish a little bit. And I remember, there were a couple brothers, you may know them: Carl Pulvermacher and his brother. They were these dairy farmers from over, I think somewhere in the driftless area. And they'd never had a day off. They hadn't been to any kids' baseball games. They hadn't done anything besides work and they were losing their shirts in kind of a three crop rotation and they're like, "Oh my gosh, there's gotta be something better." And so they, you know, I don't know how many times they probably reached out to the extension service and other kind of experts and stuff for different kinds of solutions and different kinds of silage and who knows what. But eventually they self-finance this trip to New Zealand. And they went over there and they learned about rotational grazing and took a bunch of notes and stuff and came back and started doing it. And when they got back, people looked at 'em like, what in the world is that? What are all those little fences? What's the stuff in there? That looks like a lot of work. And then their yields went down, but they penciled out a lot better. The feed rations were less expensive. And this whole kind of then reset began to happen where the college was learning from these practitioners about what they were doing. And then trying to build upon that and kind of extrapolate out. And I just think this kind of process where then of valuing difference and valuing local people's experience. People are smart and they figure things out. And if you kind of observe a little bit, you know, you can learn quite a bit and that then, you know, put in motion a whole kind of industry around promoting grazing. This return to something. I mean, one way to view it, I guess, as a return to something, but another way to view it as kind of a revalidation of something that probably some people had never stopped doing.

Kim Niewolny: Well, I think both are very feasible. A lot of my work has been in the creation of coalitions or networks, both large and small. And by way of doing so is to, you know, there's questions that need to be posed like assessments. I've done community food security assessments in Southwest Virginia. And those were around, well, if we are historically underrepresented in Appalachia and politically isolated, a history of resource extraction. But there's also this discourse of interdependency and the discourse of absolute care for neighbors and working towards resiliency. So we want to make sure that when we go into these communities and work towards different goals, building relationships. As a good friend has one said and a previous student as well: if we're working to change the system that we need to work to change the conditions to change the system. To do so is the slow work. I believe that is part of what I'm trying to do in the long-term is, if we would think of a sustainable agricultural system, it's changing industry. It's changing policy. It's changing the land grants. It's changing the way in which we understand what is sustainability. Is that an alternative or is it alterity that we're questioning? Those things for me take space to bring people together to start posing questions and then you apply whatever research questions that are needed to be asked. But you've come together hopefully first because there's some genuine interest in what you want to do in your communities. So for me, if those communities are through my extension work, they're also in the classroom, students have interest that we organize together and I tie them into my storytelling work that I've been doing.

Spencer Wood: Yeah, that sounds really great. Just share a little bit about the storytelling?

Kim Niewolny: Sure. Yeah, that's been fun. That's been a very interesting path. And there's a lot of wonderful people out there in the world who've been doing narrative inquiry. So I just want to make sure that, that's theirs. I just feel like I'm just a blip on a screen and that's fine. I don't have to be any more than that. I was really inspired by our Appalachian Foodshed Project, which is a USDA AFRI project. It was a five-year project in all of West Virginia and the Appalachian regions of Virginia, North Carolina. And had multiple, multiple objectives, so I will not get into that part of the project. But one of the pieces that came up was, in our communities in Virginia, there was an interest to share story and best practices. They call them best practices. And they basically know that the geography isolates us that then therefore that isolates what we know. And if we can kind of weave our stories and weave our understandings together, we can maybe do something different. And so that was kind of the gist of it. And so we were conducting our community food security assessments, a lot of community meetings, a lot of process. I'm a process person, so put that out there. And I was asked like, "Well, do you have any strategies? How can we do that?" I'm like, well, honestly I do. I might suggest a narrative inquiry process where we can create prompts together. We can tell the stories that matter to you and we can actually create that to be shared.” And it could be shared much widely, not just in their community. And they were interested in that. So it really did start in the community. 

We worked on prompts, students were involved with helping to organize. That very first year was in 2013 and three classes later. Because I'm always tied into the classroom. I do it outside of the classroom as well, but I've always tied it to my graduate course. I put a lot of care into training around the ethic of doing this work and what it means to share a story and whose story are you telling? And you are co-creating and you have responsibility to that process. So that's a big part of the class. They're digital narratives. They're told through a set of prompts and about an hour and a half. You edit them with the storyteller and they can kind of take a form-it's not so much this linear process. It's really what moved you in the telling of the story, and what you thought you were trying to say. It's all surrounded around a practice, of an instance of your work. Kind of like what we're doing now. If I asked you: I don't want you to tell me what you do; I want you to tell me an instance of what you've done. So tell me a story about what you did on this project. And you just like let the characters take life and people then instantly see themselves in the narrative itself and it becomes the place where you connect. And we try to get that essence on, if you will, on paper and it becomes digital. And then we take those into the community and in the classroom where we read them to one another. We see what then the inquiry is like: well, so what are you experiencing? What are you learning?

Spencer Wood: And you do that with the people who gave the story?

Kim Niewolny: Yes, yes, we've done that as well as, and we've totally lately have done it more in the classroom. The students are really active in the story crafting. So I'm always mindful of like sort of what meanings are being put out there and whose intentions were there. There's a lot of communities, particular communities of color, whose stories have been stolen and so we have to always remember that those stories need to be put into context. So as long as they're given permission to be shared in a certain context, I think it has a lot of impact.

Spencer Wood: I really love the kind of co-creation of that, you know, the involvement. I think that's one of the, I think real strengths of SARE in general. There's a lot of partnering with producers and that sort of thing, in general. But I think in particular in the social sciences, it's really one of the most exciting areas where you have these co-collaborative, co-designing, co-creating between a researcher and students learning and researcher kind of doing research and teaching and a community helping structure the questions, the focus of the research, what's important to them, rather than assuming it from the outside, I did similar work in rural Mississippi. And in other places, too, actually. But I've visited a number of communities of black land owners and in one of the kind of starting points, at least in, you know, especially in Mississippi, but then later I replicated it, was to ask folks like, what kind of research or what kind of inquiry would be useful? And you know, you get some, oftentimes you get kind of a deferment, "Well, you know, whatever you want to do, it'd be great. We're happy to have somebody here." But other times I would get more specific suggestions or they would say, "Well, what do you have in mind?" And I said, "Well, you know, we could survey people or we could do a set of oral histories." And almost regularly folks prefer the oral histories portion, unless they have a particular project that they want to like survey some clients or something. 

But you know, I think that there's this real value in having stories captured and preserved and somehow or another become part of their local history. So one of the things we would do in these projects is to construct kind of a history of land ownership in the community. So tracing back the kind of, you know. One community, Mileston, Mississippi, had about 10,000 acres of black owned farmland and I sort of traced that original 10,000 and who owned it up to the present, probably quite a bit still on the better part of 6,000, 7,000 acres. But that was the starting point. And I would put that into some kind of a binder, like a map of a land tenure history, who owned what and I go to a cooperative meeting or the store or something like that and unfurl that folder and pretty soon people would just gather around and then they would want to know the story of this transaction and who had what. And I think that's kind of the definition of an agrarian community, that there's interest in this food production, there's interest in this land utilization, and you tap into those kind of shared values and then people begin to kind of envision themselves around that and think about themselves.

Kim Niewolny: And that's really, yeah, that's the core of it. So I use Rachel Slocum's work around community food work and it looks at sort of these different ways to intersect and really like intersect around nutrition education. The notion of how is food defined as nutritional? How is food defined, how is farming defined as sustainable? How is social justice actually integrated as both farm worker and farmer as well as, you know, people who actually have access to food? Then there's a notion, of course, of ecological sustainability, the ecological justice. The name of the project is Stories of Community Food Work in Appalachia. So simply put, because we really didn't want to just look at and talk to a variety of different people from those different vantage points. And it's amazing what like, oh, you do that? And then someone else was reading like we had so much more--not that I want to use that kind of cliche--we had things in common. But they realize the reality is that what they share had so much connection.

Spencer Wood: Yeah. That's the thing is the connectedness that emerges. Yeah.

Kim Niewolny: The sympathy. The empathy. The empathy that we were trying to hopefully tap into. The question, well if you want a different food system, well what will it look like? These are the things that we care about. This culture of hope and transformation really needs to come together. 'Cause I mean I would argue that our capitalist system is, is working very well cause it's doing exactly what it's supposed to do. That's supposed to exploit the labor of those who have given to the system unwillingly. And we have a very, very unequal system. It's done it very well.

Spencer Wood: But it's amazing about the resiliency of these communities to kind of persist and…

Kim Niewolny: Some are struggling. And some are absolutely. I just don't disagree. I just think that there's many who are absolutely at their ends. And it's very, very, very disheartening too, particularly now in a very, very challenging time of our history in this country where we're seeing a lot more divisiveness and struggle and when there's perhaps notions of what could happen in the region. But I feel like we have to see the realities of people on the everyday. Their lives are, they're struggling. They're really struggling. And so yet when they can see that they're struggling together and yet being resilient and being, you know, hopeful. My hope is to then question, "Well, how do we want to organize?" Like your original question, like what kind of food and farming system do we want? And you can't get there unless you make that space. It's not just a question. It's a question that comes from the heart. It comes from the head. It comes from the land. It comes from lots of places.

Spencer Wood: Yeah.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week. You were listening to Kim Niewolny in conversation with Spencer Wood. If you’d like to learn more about their projects, take a look at our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening! We'll catch you next time.