The overarching focus of my work in public engagement has been the strengthening of ties between the university community and our region’s agricultural communities. My engagement has not been confined to a particular area such as research or teaching, or to a specific program. Rather, over the past decade I have compiled a body of work that reflects, through scholarship, teaching and service my interest in helping to support sustainable agriculture and create a culture of local food production and consumption in our region. As such, I have not collaborated with an individual or organization, but with numerous farmers and food providers.
My research aims to provide fundamental ecological information and practical tools that farmers can use to improve their operations. My scholarly work seeks to increase contact between the general public and farmers. Some examples are listed below:
• My wife and I own a farm which figures significantly into my research. The farm has been a research site for undergraduate, MS and PhD students.
• My students and I conducted research for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (2008-2011) on the use of livestock for vegetation management on state lands. From that work came the NY State Conservation Grazing (NYSCoG) Program through which beginning farmers can use state land without charge for their grazing operations. Beta testing of the NYSCoG Program is underway.
• We are studying and developing sustainable farming practices that can be used to produce large quantities of high quality food while enhancing environmental quality and biodiversity. Our findings, communicated in the technical literature, are also presented at farmer and rancher conferences.
• My book, The Emergent Agriculture, was published in 2014. Written in an informal style and aimed at a non-technical audience, I make the case for consumer support of local farms and food. The intent is to create greater public appreciation of farms and sustainably produced food.
• I am co-PI on a proposal ($1.8M/4 institutions) to NSF dealing with the coupling of the geochemical and social attributes of urban farming and community gardening. That project, focused in Brooklyn, NY and Tacoma, WA, will have large citizen science and public engagement components.
• I am co-PI on a proposal to NSF (to be submitted 3/22; ~$2M) to develop a model-based decision tool that can be used to identify sustainable farming practices.
I use education as a tool to create and improve farm-to-university connections. In 2009, I held a “Teach-In on Local Food for UAlbany” for my Introductory Biology class. Some 600 students attended. At the end of my lecture, my graduate students had collected 500 signatures on a petition requesting that the university increase its procurement of locally sourced food. That contributed to UAlbany’s subsequent rise to national leadership in local food procurement and consequently the contribution of millions of dollars to the state’s economy.
I am the faculty co-advisor (with Dr. Mary Ellen Mallia) of the Living-Learning Center (L-LC) in Environmental Sustainability. The L-LC program provides opportunities for freshmen with similar interests to live and take courses together. The faculty advisor leads a weekly seminar and discussion section during the students’ first semester. The seminar that I lead (Focus on the Foodshed) examines sustainability through the lens of food production. Among our recent projects and events are:
• Documenting in pictures, the stories of farmers who grow food for the university, to be displayed in the dining halls, so that all students can see the faces and read the stories of people who produce their food.
• Taking students and their families to an apple orchard that produces fruit for the university on Parents’ Weekend 2015. We later returned to my farm for a tour, followed by lunch, and a movie about the importance of soil. Several parents commented that the experience helped them to appreciate the importance of supporting agriculture in their communities.
I teach two upper level courses that promote engagement with the agricultural community (Bio 311 World Food Crisis; Bio 427/527 Grazing in Terrestrial Ecosystems). In Bio 311, students conduct group projects that impact local farmers. In Bio 427/527 students learn about the ecology of agricultural systems and the importance of sustaining them.
As one of the state’s economic engines agriculture offers numerous opportunities to college graduates. I am working to increase the access that UAlbany students have to information about careers in agriculture by helping them to attend conferences on farming and by creating opportunities for them to meet farmers their age. I sponsored Young Farmers Forums in 2011, 2013 and 2015. The most recent forum (11/30/15) was standing room only.
My wife and I use our farm to teach non-farmers about the importance of sustainable food production. In 2015, we had more than 200 visits to the farm by UAlbany students and we have hosted more than 60 visits by the public, including a visit (Aug 2015) by Russian academics seeking to foster agricultural education in their country.
In 2006, I became chair of the Green Commerce Committee of the Environmental Sustainability Taskforce. The committee was charged with improving the university’s sustainable and local procurement practices. At the time, UAlbany purchased 5% of its food locally. Today, at 30%, we are institutional leaders in local food procurement. Our goal of 50% sets a high bar.
I participate frequently in conferences that promote local food procurement. Recent events include the 2014 Farm-to-College Summit at SUNY New Paltz and the 2015 Farm-to-Institution Summit at UMass, Amherst. In 2014, I worked with SUNY Central and the Research Foundation on a project to support local food procurement within SUNY.
Strengthening the connections between UAlbany and the regional agricultural community has not always been easy. But progress has been steady. I list some of my activities below.
• I helped create the first campus-wide farmers market in 2007. The event was successful, and has continued (now supported by UAS and Sodexo) nearly every year since.
• Working with Chartwells and the Northeast Livestock Processing Service Company, I helped to develop a framework for the first local grassfed beef purchase at UAlbany in 2008. Today we also purchase pork locally, and soon we will be sourcing local chicken and seafood.
• In 2009, I convened a conference on local sourcing attended by food service personnel from several of the region’s colleges. I suggested that we set a goal of 50% local food procurement (which the food service, Chartwells, did not support, but which Sodexo, does).
• I am a member of US Senator Gillibrand’s Agricultural Working Group, which assists in identifying issues germane to New York State’s agricultural economy. When Congress proposed cutting the budget for food stamps, I suggested subsidizing the development of community gardens in the nation’s poor communities.
• I regularly speak at public events about the importance of agriculture to the region’s economy and on the use of sustainable techniques to improve production while reducing our footprint on the land.
The relationships that my colleagues and I have helped to foster between UAlbany and the region’s farmers are growing stronger and are recognizably profitable for both parties. Ultimately, the bridges that we are building will enhance food security for all New Yorkers.