Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 008 - Quality of Life in Farming Communities featuring Beth Nelson and Doug Constance

Doug Constance: Quality of life reaches all the way from sort of individual psychological quality of life. How happy are you? How overworked are you? And quality of life includes the quality of life for the owners of the farm and the workers on the farm and the community that the farmers are a part of. See, that's where you heard me get back in. I saw the way that my grandparents treated their neighbors. I want that back. I saw it disappearing and I want it back.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. I'm your host, Mal. Today on the show, two SARE representatives discuss the program’s role in diversifying and strengthening the field of sustainable agriculture. Doug Constance is a professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He also serves on Southern SARE’s Administrative Council as a Chair and Quality of Life Rep.

Doug Constance: I was always interested in social movements and Southern SARE part of a very broad social movement to change the way that food is grown on the planet. And the NGOs have their role and we have our role and within Southern SARE we've got physical scientists and social scientists. We get all together and work together and SARE works very well.

Mallory Daily: Sustainability in agriculture isn't only about making farming economically viable and ecologically sound. It’s also about ensuring that our practices and policies enhance the quality of life for farmers and farm communities. In conversation with Doug today is Beth Nelson, Associate Professor of Biosystems Engineering at University of Minnesota and the Director of North Central SARE’s Research and Education Programs. She reminds us that providing our farmers with a decent quality of life might cost us a little more at the grocery store.

Beth Nelson: We are not paying farmers enough to grow the food, to have health insurance, to have retirement accounts, to pay workers fair wages. And so, that's an issue we are really gonna have to be looking at and probably people have all heard this statistic about how little Americans pay as a percent of their income for food compared to other areas. So that's an area that we really need to do some work on. But it's a hard sell in one way. But I think some of the education that we do at SARE is a good way to promote people thinking about the fact that this is worth paying more for.

Doug Constance: I'd like you to talk about how sort of the change in agriculture, specifically SARE, if you can, has impacted the discipline of agronomy of soil science.

Beth Nelson: Well, the people who felt that there were issues in soil health and those things have, SARE has been funding those cover crop projects and soil health, soil microbiology for years, for 30 years, which is why we have so many funded projects now. And it's been prescient, right? Because they funded that there were maybe groups on the edge that were working in that area. It wasn't being wholly embraced, maybe feeling like it wasn't quite paying for itself. So we were kind of doing some research but it wasn't mainstream, that's for sure. So when the interest has come now, lately--and I shouldn't say "lately", obviously people have been interested in this for the last decade at least. 

It's really picked up though in terms of soil health being a way to be resilient, to have that kind of ability to weather these extreme weather events. To be able to withstand that--big rains or having more moisture stored for drought and that. So I think that's been a huge way that SARE has influenced agronomy. I think we heard a little bit this morning too, in one of our talks about the fact that in the beginning, those practices were very fringe. And I think now that is being embraced more and realizing that this is a viable path, probably as much or more by the educators who are mainstream agronomists as by the farmers. I think it's had a tremendous impact that way. So I'm wondering what is the Quality of Life Rep on Southern SARE? What do you think that you've been able to accomplish? What's your proudest achievement in terms of anything I guess having to do with the governance of Southern SARE?

Doug Constance: Well, I came on. There was one before me. Southern SARE was odd. It has a Quality of Life position and it had its Agribusiness Rep position. And the Quality of Life position before me was Peggy Bartlett, an anthropologist at Emory. Cultural anthropologists and rural sociologist and cultural geographers, we all have a similar sort of issue with repopulating rural space. We would like to see community come back to rural America. And the trend, you know, for too long, sort of the scientific ethic was that agriculture wasn't much different than the industrial world. So the tendencies towards economies of scale and very large and farms going out of business was the same as the business world and we shouldn't be too concerned about it. But Paul Thompson's book and his work on agricultural ethics argues that, like Wendell Berry, that agriculture is different than everything else. And the kind of community that has created an agricultural world where if people are sick, they will help each other get crops in. 

In these communities, there is this tendency to think that we're all in this together as opposed to a more urban or industrial ethic, which is: we're in it for ourselves. And I'd seen that in my grandparents' world and I'd seen it erode. So that was part of my graduate student experience was we were seeing a systematic depopulation of rural Missouri with the farm crisis. And farmers were actually killing themselves because they thought it was their fault they were losing their farms. And really, they were taking the best advice at the time: get big or get out. But they were caught in the globalization of agriculture and the petrodollars from the OPEC countries. And we were exporting all we could and then the petrodollars dried up and The Fed changed the interest rate and all those loans came due and they couldn't pay and they couldn't pay. And so they really caught in these large global changes. And it was our job as sociologists to help them see that. And I worked with Bill and Judy Heffernan at Mizzou and they would go around and actually talk to them saying, "You're lives are caught in big changes. It's not your fault. It's not as much your fault as you think." And actually part of this helped the land grants and agriculture science start thinking about agriculture differently. It started to say, well, maybe you know, maybe the soil is just not the component parts and maybe NPK is not all we need to think about. You see, the soil is an incredibly complex biome, you know. And so my greatest contribution is to bring a systems approach to Southern SARE and try and move it away from these component research projects. I mean, a square foot of soil is more complex than science can understand, if it's a healthy square foot of soil. That's just one square foot in a certain area. So that's sort of what I'm after, you see, with the agronomists. We have to realize this. The soil is alive. We used to have a bumper sticker, don't treat the soil like dirt, right? So the soil is alive. And then the diversity of the plants and animals, flora and fauna, above the soil are a complex biome. Okay? And then that is embedded within relationships between humans. And what I bring is the relationships between humans and the systems focus that sustainable agriculture is much more about relationships between humans than treating nematodes or grafting tomatoes or doing cover crops. 

It's all of those things. But you have to have relationships between humans. So we started talking about systems and we're supposed to be a systems program and we're supposed to have the economic and the ecological and the social dimensions. But what we've overwhelmingly funded as ecological and then economic, very little social. Social is harder. People are more complicated actually to deal with and to change their minds and to get them to farm differently. And just for example, the first farmers who started farming differently--the Practical Farmers of Iowa--they would go to the cafe and they were not welcome at the cafe anymore. You see. So now we're talking about social status and things. What are you most proud about? This is more about working in your role and North Central SARE.

Beth Nelson: So I might jump back to some work I did at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, which has a very similar focus. So there I did a couple of projects. One was editing the manual on building a sustainable business, which was a business planning book for farmers and ranchers, which when they began working on it, it was supposed to be a marketing book. There was really not much written in that way. Then this process was about six years in the works and we co-published that with SARE and it has just been widely available, widely used. And we just get a lot of compliments about it. So I'm very proud of the small role I played in getting that to press. And we also did some farm to institution workshops around the state of Minnesota with Minnesota SARE when I was the State Coordinator. 

We were able to go around and bring together food service workers and farmers and talk about both how to procure local food to use in the schools and in other institutions as well and how to kind of make that work. We fitted it to the site, you know, to that area of the state. That's one thing. Sustainable Ag is also supposed to be very site-specific, right? So what works in Northwest Minnesota isn't going to work in Southeast Minnesota as well. And partly, because of those people relationships. So the doing those was just a really rewarding experience and kind of right on the heels of that project is when I came into the regional SARE office and began working. So I'm going to ask you: something that I really struggle with is how we bring diverse voices to the table? We've been working at it at SARE, we intend to do a better job. It's a slow process to make sure that we're being diverse in terms of ethnicity and working with people who haven't had great access to our grant projects before. And I'm just wondering, especially as a rural sociologist, if you have any ideas about that?

Doug Constance: Well, because we're in the South, we're structurally diverse, because we have in the south we have the duel 1890/1862 system.

Beth Nelson: And those are?

Doug Constance: In 1962, they're called the white land grants. In 1890, are the black land grants. So they were created by the Moral Act and then the Hatch Act and the Smith Lee Act created the land grant university system of research, extension and teaching. Then we have a limited resource and outreach committee NRAC and a minority limit. That structurally moves us along those lines dealing with a lot of the smaller and minority and limited-resource farmers in the South. And then of course we know part of the SARE is that there are state coordinators attached to each state. And then we have two State Coordinators, one at the 1890 and one at the 1862. So structurally, it's set up to do better. We do do better. There's still work to do, because some of the dual land grant systems in the South work very well together and some don't. I think you're seeing it too, and I'm seeing it is that we tend to be doing best on the gender issue and that more and more of the people on the AC and the grant recipients are women. We tend to be structurally in the South doing okay on sort of the black/white issue. But how well are Latins represented and how well are Asians represented? Right now, not so well. I think it;s the ways that we're going to start to move farther along with this. And SARE's been somewhat resistant, but we're moving there. As we start to acknowledge urban agriculture as a legitimate kind of agriculture, there has been some sort of conservative pushback, I think, that that's not ag. Kind of like at the beginning SARE wasn't ag.

Beth Nelson: Right.

New Speaker: And now urban ag. Those groups are much more diverse. So we will get applications from those groups. And when we get applications from those groups, after we've worked with them a few times, we will see the ones that might be good AC members and then we'll pull them into the AC. Now in the Southern SARE, something we've done that I can tell to increase the success of diverse groups is a two years ago, there were listening sessions with the NGOs and SARE. The NGOs were expressing that they were having what they perceived to be troubles accessing the SARE dollars, especially in the R&E side. And that is legitimate because the large universities, the land grants have advantage and capacity for applying for these large grants.

Beth Nelson: Right.

Speaker 3: So we decided after that in the South, we decided to split our R&E program into the standard $250K to 300K research and education grants, which are dominated by the large universities mostly, and maybe ARS and sometimes NRCS, but almost always the large universities. It's the usual suspects. And then 50K and less education grants that are strictly education. And they take the knowledge that's out there and now we're getting a much more diverse group of NGOs supplying.

Beth Nelson: Well, that's great.

Doug Constance: So now we are across, you know, different parts of the state and many more women and many more people of color and different ethnicities within the people of color. But the NGOs tend to be the leading edge of innovative ideas. They tend to be. And they tend to be the systems people or the social justice people. They are talking about: sure, organics is great, but poor people can't afford it. What are we gonna do about the old people? What are we going about the single moms with kids? What are we going to do about the folks that can't afford healthy food? How are we gonna get it to them? So these are social justice issues that I think is where SARE has actually done pretty good historically on the protection side. Most of the portfolio was there, you know. And doing better on the economic side and now the part of the social side or social justice issues. What about the workers who tend to be in a different racial or ethnic group? How are we gonna make sure that they're treated fairly and fair wages? Partly in rural sociology, so what we end up talking about is regional fair trade value chains. And if it's fair trade, you have to open the books and everybody has to see the value that they put in and the value that comes out. And it should be apportioned democratically. This is a pretty radical idea in the United States actually.

Beth Nelson: It is.

New Speaker: But that is how fair trade works. Everybody, I mean, all the labor that goes into the product creates value. So you need to open the books and see who puts in the value and whoever puts in gets an appropriate share out. And we are not very far along this yet, but I think in the next 30 years, these are the kinds of things: agriculture workers, you know, urban agriculture, the poor, the old, back to their farm-to-institution, people in hospitals deserve healthy food, people in schools. I think the farm-to-institution is ready. It's going to blow up here very quickly now. And once we can get working with the food managers better, because a lot of them like the single source, Aramark or Cisco. But I think that's one of the next thing we're going to see blow up in SARE.

Beth Nelson: So I think we don't quite have the same structure that they have in the South for dealing with the diversity issue. But I would say a common way we've been able to address it is again by opening ourselves up to the urban ag because that has been a really important way for us to hear from diverse voices. And then as you said, recruit them onto our AC. We say AC all the time. So the Administrative Council is our governing organization, so we do not run the program. We have a team of about--it varies from region to region--but our region has 18 members, about a third of them are farmers and ranchers. Then we have federal agency, state agency, researchers and extension educators. And they're the ones who review our grants. They're the ones who vote on which ones to fund. So they are our governance structure. So obviously to share power with diverse groups, we need to have them on our Administrative Council so that that's a good way for us so we can start funding projects in urban ag and then be including people who work on those projects onto our Administrative Council a little bit more too. And I guess I have found, and this was probably more true when I was the Minnesota State Coordinator, I had more time and attention to go to events in urban ag. And so I found that, you know, we think we should be able to just invite them and they show up to our events and that isn't the way it works. I think you have to go there and meet them where they are. So I have probably made the most progress in being involved in urban ag by being on some of those planning committees and in some of those group groups that were organizing to have the St. Paul Park System do a farm and those kinds of things. So that's been a way, I think, to expose me to more diverse groups and to be able to recruit from those groups and it, you know, changes your perspective as well. So it's been very valuable.

Doug Constance: SARE is a good example of sort of a paradigm shift in the way science works. We used to think that we could just do science at the university and then everybody would accept it. We just send it out there and everybody would accept it. And then that, actually, that was that sort of that top-down expert model that dominated for a very long time. And it was well intentioned but it was kind of, I'll use the word wooden-headed. And so what we've realized is that it didn't work very well. And SARE is the model that is the counter to that model. And now much of the old way of doing sciences is looking at this way of doing science. So it's different. And when you were in Minnesota, you probably had Native American groups to work with and they were your ethnically diverse group, right? You couldn't go to them and tell them how to do their world, right? That's the example.

Beth Nelson: Yeah.

Doug Constance: And we had a speaker here, we've had speakers here on the same lines, you know. In fact, we are looking at a lot of the ways indigenous peoples in a lot of the indigenous food systems were sustainable for a very long time. And we are looking now back at some of the ways they did, so we are honoring indigenous knowledge, honoring that there are a variety of kinds of knowledge and then there's not necessarily one best way to farm. And for a long time we thought we were discovering the one best way to farm all over the entire planet and now we're realizing that was not a good idea. SARE is The source of that idea, as well as a lot of our overseas work. When you started with their P-score kind of work and other ideas, we would take the American model and go overseas, gung-ho to teach them how to do it. Then we'd go there and go, "Oh, this isn't working very well here." Right?

Beth Nelson: Exactly right. And I think that that was the kind of the thread that brought me to sustainable agriculture is that. And I remember the example from one of my first anthropology classes, you know, that talked about putting in the plumbing and skipping the community well, which was the newspaper, basically, for the community. And so not taking those aspects, both not talking to the community about what their needs were, but also not recognizing the social aspects of the water.

Doug Constance: So it's what the Keurig has done the coffee pot. It's not good. We used to all meet at the coffee pot and pour out of the coffee pot and now everybody goes in by themselves and does the single-serving Keurig.

Beth Nelson: Oh, I hadn't thought of that. Yeah. Interesting.

Doug Constance: So, to that, I mean it's really important on a more macro-level that SARE is the model in agriculture that has changed the way social scientists and physical scientists think about how we should produce the food for the people on the planet. How we should produce it.

Beth Nelson: What are things that we should be doing in the next--and I have a hard time thinking about 30 years in the future. You know, I even think back 10 years ago, how things were and how much has changed since we had our 20th anniversary conference. And so it's almost hard for me to imagine, but what are the things that we should be focusing on? And I know you and I have had some conversations about social sustainability and how we measure it because that is part of--someone made the comment that what you measure is what you're going to do. So we have to have ways of measuring those social impacts of the work that we do. And, and I think rural sociologists have to be the teachers for that because agronomists are a little bit at a loss. We know we want to do it, we know something is different. We'd like to know what are the kinds of things that we can measure to know that we've had an impact on social sustainability.

Doug Constance: So back to that story: for a while I was the only Quality of Life Rep, rural sociologist on any of the four ACs. Quality of life reaches all the way from sort of individual psychological quality of life. How happy are you? How overworked are you? You know, with that. And what's your relationship? And so there's the individual, then there's the family. And then there's the extended family. Then there's the community. Then there's the broader community. Then there's the--so all of these things and quality of life includes the quality of life for the owners of the farm and the workers on the farm and the community that the farmers are a part of. So that's where you heard me get back in. I saw the way that my grandparents treated their neighbors. I want that back. I saw it disappearing and I want it back. And that's what a lot of rural sociologists want. They want rural America repopulated with modest-sized, diversified family owned operations that are in that language of Wendell Berry or Thomas Jefferson. Good, hardworking, God-fearing, good citizens that have a variety of skills and can participate in government, instead of that very large farm with hired-and-fired agriculture workers model, which is the tendency that industrial systems tend to go to. For a long time we just assumed ag was like industry and now more and more we realized that's not a good idea and that ag is special and different because it's food and everybody should have a right to good food. Right? And SARE is that voice within USDA? Now that voice has been prominent in the NGOs around the world, you know, the social movements. But SARE is that voice in USDA. And that's why we are so proud to be part of SARE and USDA 'cause we are that voice.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week's show. You were listening to Doug Constance of Sam Houston State University in conversation with Beth Nelson of University of Minnesota. 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 , that’s S-A-R-E dot org. 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 view of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening!