The Land Institute (based in Kansas) and the Savanna Institute (based in Illinois) are examples of groups doing very interesting work toward the transformation of agriculture in the Midwest (and globally) into more perennial and ecosystem-grounded systems. The ideas, methodologies, and technologies being disseminated by these institutes have impressive multiplicative impact potential toward sustainability and climate adaptation given the amount of statewide land under agricultural (or similar) stewardship. However, those institutes have limits on their capacity to outreach, network, and mentor farmers and landowners. What is the best approach to increase the numbers of Michigan farmers and landowners implementing perennial and restoration agriculture methods and systems? Should a Michigan-based network be formed to help disseminate these ideas and, most importantly, facilitate actual implementation on the ground? If so, what type of organizational structure would be most successful for this goal?
It is hypothesized that a collective impact model will be the most powerful model for organizing change in this area at different geographic scales. The Stewardship Network, founded and directed by SNRE alum Lisa Brush, is a collective impact “backbone” organization focused on land and water stewardship in the Great Lakes region. They operate with a collaborative conservation community, or “cluster” network model for connecting people interested in land and water stewardship issues. The Stewardship Network added restoration agriculture as an issue of interest in recent years, and added Mark Shepard as a board member, a renowned restoration agriculture Midwestern mentor farmer.
To answer our initial research questions it is anticipated that the following research methodologies may prove useful: a literature and case study review of collective impact organizations that have similar missions/goals; interviews with the Land Institute and Savanna Institute (and similar organizations) to find out their perspectives and suggestions on our stated goal to increase numbers of farmers/landowners taking transformative action as well as how to best partner or collaborate with said expert institutes; survey potential farmers and landowners across the region who might be interested in such a network to find out what would be most useful to get them making changes on the ground; inventory and assess existing organizations across the State of Michigan to see if any of them are already helping (even in piecemeal) toward our stated goal, or could at a minimum help connect us to farmers and landowners; inventory and assess existing ancillary organizations (financing, economic development, real estate etc.) that could be potential partner or collaborative organizations; quantify the collective impacts that would result if the statewide agricultural and fallow lands were transformed to certain scenarios of perennial restoration agriculture implementations; and, compile and report summarizations, recommendations, and best practice suggestions from all analyses done.
For more on The Stewardship Network see the website and this publication from SNRE assistant professor Paige Fischer:
2015. Fischer, A.P. A boundary spanning organization for transdisciplinary science on land stewardship: The Stewardship Network of Ann Arbor, Michigan.Ecology and Society 20(4): 38.
Conservation Ecology and/or Landscape Architecture students can identify the value of shifting from conventional agriculture practices to perennial and restoration agriculture methods and systems. What are the benefits to landowners, the community, and on a larger scale? What challenges can be anticipated? Students may outline baseline necessities (ecological knowledge and physical resources) required to adopt new practices and the best approach to making potentially large scale change. What are long term research questions or approaches that can be used to gauge success?
Environmental Informatics and/or Behavior, Education, and Communication students can describe and quantify the collective impact of transforming large amounts of conventional agricultural landscapes to perennial or ecosystem grounded agricultural practices. They may also compile qualitative data on the challenges and successful methods of completing this change, analyze that data, and figure out the best way(s) to organize and/or disseminate that analysis through technology or educational programs to others who may be interested in following suit.
Environmental Policy and Planning: Students may do analysis on the existing policies that have shaped the current system(s). What policy changes would be appropriate to encourage the shift from conventional agriculture practices to perennial and restoration agriculture methods? EPP students would be encouraged to conduct interviews with a diverse set of stakeholders and explore the best methods for collaborative planning and information sharing.
Environmental Justice students may research how shifting from conventional agriculture practices to perennial and restoration agriculture methods may positively or negatively affect underserved or vulnerable groups. Identify possible effects on environmental quality and exposure, and locate any areas of the program that may exacerbate existing problems. How should those issues be addressed? What can be done to make this program more equitable?
Sustainable Systems students may examine and analyze the viability of this program becoming a sustainable model for positive environmental changes. They may identify the economical, ecological, and social strengths and stressors of collaborative approaches to agricultural landscape change.
Students would develop a large range of skills, knowledge, and professional contacts given the nature of this complex collaborative project. Anticipated skills include but are not limited to: communication, analysis and research, Interpersonal abilities, decision making, creative problem solving, planning and prioritization. There will also be opportunities for students to utilize computer and/or public speaking skills if desired. Students will have the ability to further develop their knowledge base of collaborative methods and sustainable agriculture by working with leaders in these fields, local organizations and stakeholders, and potentially attending local, regional, and national agricultural conferences. The Stewardship Network is prepared to support students who wish to pursue professional publication of their research.
There may be the potential to seek grant funds to cover transportation and communication technology costs for interviewing and surveying the respective institutes mentioned as well farmers and organizations across the state of Michigan. Additional grant funds for compiling reports and deliverables as well as to attend Michigan conferences and meetings could also be sought.
There are a number of potential deliverables for this project depending on specific student interest (certainly an easy to take over and replicate network is part of this). The Stewardship Network will work to identify the specific deliverables with the master’s project group at the outset of the project. The Stewardship Network and other collaborative organizations have significant interest in implementing a network to increase perennial and restoration agriculture in the state of Michigan. The output of this project would be used toward that goal.