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Published September 30, 2013, 04:26 PM

Knowledge is potential power

Graduate students specializing in Sustainable Food and Farming all seem to agree, it’s hard to choose just one area to research.

By: Sarah Dykowski, Agweek

Graduate students specializing in Sustainable Food and Farming all seem to agree, it’s hard to choose just one area to research.

“I want to learn and do so much that it’s been difficult for me to narrow down to one single topic,” says Katie Leblanc, a second-year master’s candidate specializing in Sustainable Food and Farming at the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies (ENST) department. “I’m realizing that I’m only one person and instead of being scattered all over the board, I should really focus on one place and put all of my energy into that.”

Likewise, second-year master’s candidate Stephanie Potts says, “I just want to do it all.”

And it’s no wonder, since the program is linked to a broad spectrum of organizations and activities.

One of the more prominent programs is the student farm — Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society.

Undergraduates work on the PEAS farm for class credit, but the graduate students who help lead them see more benefit.

“It’s a way to introduce labor and work and what it’s like to see the fruits of your labor,” teaching assistant Caroline Stephens says. “For some people it’s not new, they’re there to meet people and participate in the community.”

As a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm with about 50 members, PEAS allows students to engage with a wide variety of community members. But the CSA members are not the only group who benefits from PEAS.

“We donate about 6,000 pounds of onions per year to the food bank,” Stephens says.

PEAS farm caretaker and second-year master’s candidate Ellie Costello says the farm also serves Missoula residents who qualify for the Women Infants Children program, as well as a subsidized food program for senior citizens.

“I would say that the most important thing to me is that it’s staged in community and practice and real work,” Stephens says of the ENST program at UMT.

The PEAS farm, a collaborative effort between UMT and an urban-gardening organization called Garden City Harvest, is just one example of ENST linking students to the community.

Finding employment

In many classes, student projects yield results Missoula residents and business owners can use. This often leads to job opportunities for students.

Second-year master’s candidate Kimberly Gilchrist works at a local farmers cooperative.

“I got involved with them initially through a class project. The class as a whole conducted a case study of the cooperative to determine its role in the western Montana food system. I was in a group that interviewed the co-op’s customers to see how the co-op was serving them. From there, I began interning with them to develop a marketing plan, using info from the case study plus past communication and marketing experience of mine.”

This led Gilchrist to a job packing wholesale orders.

“I think the co-op model holds a lot of potential for the local food movement. While the exact task of packing orders isn’t exactly what I aspire to, it’s given me great insight into the inner-workings of the co-op. I’ve really valued my experience working with them so far,” she says.

Leblanc also found employment through university connections. She works with the farmers market in Missoula setting up and tearing down booths and assisting customers, particularly those buying through government programs such as food stamps.

“I love taking government funding and injecting it truly in a local arena. I’m 24 years old, and for the first time in my life I love my job. I love this job.”

She’s also involved in writing a grant proposal for the market.

“I’m getting so many practical skills in this program. They’re giving me all these tools and practice using them, and I can take them anywhere. That is worth every single moment of my time. I work at the farmers market, and I love it. I have all these job opportunities, and it’s all because of the professors loving where they live and the people that they work with,” she says.

Potts works for Grow Montana, a coalition that helps implement much of the research students do in the community.

“The university has served a great role in helping us figure out research and giving us students to help get projects off the ground,” she says.

One example of Grow Montana’s influence in the state is the Farm-to-College program. UMT’s food service buys foods that are locally grown, putting state funds into farmers’ hands. Likewise, the coalition changed state law that required public schools to choose the cheapest option when selecting a food supplier. It now includes a provision allowing them to choose a local supplier, even if it is more expensive.

Community activism

Students view their work with the community as imperative to success in their field.

“I think our Environmental Studies program really offers the opportunity for activism, and it’s focused on that,” Costello says. “Whether you’re doing agricultural work or environmental writing work or education or any other component, our faculty requires you to get out and actually do something, as opposed to writing solely academic papers. You’ve really got to invest yourself in different communities.”

Costello says the community is what drew her to UMT in the first place.

“I think getting to be in Missoula (is a strength of the program), a town where people are doing things,” she says. “There’s a lot of opportunity and reception of the community, to especially graduate students, but all students taking on responsibility and really giving back in the community, which is hopefully what people will take to other places and go on with this kind of work in other places, as well.”

With community involvement, the program fosters a certain level of activism, particularly surrounding the idea of sustainable farming.

The U.S. is slow to recognize the need for a sustainable food system that is “socially just and economically viable for farmers,” Leblanc says. “It’s like a three-legged stool; we have to have all of them.

The stool can’t stand by itself with just two or one. We’re in the handful that are pushing for the three-legged stool, while taking into consideration that ranchers and farmers have to feed their families. A lot of times, economics and sustainability are separated from one another, but Montana really shows they don’t have to be. It really encourages engagement.”

The idea of including farmers and ranchers in the discussion is important to students’ goals.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t being heard from who should be,” Gilchrist says. “Whenever you’re at a discussion table and you want to start on a project, the first step is to talk to your community and see what they think is best. I think the most important thing is to see, with all the environmental issues that we’re going to be tackling in the coming years, they all mean something different to different people.

Just get as many opinions from the people who are dealing with these issues like ranchers and farmers. What do they think of the issue? Montana has really helped me learn how to view a place and listen to the people.”

Future plans

Even with so many programs and activities, students are not encouraged to delay graduation unnecessarily.

“My advisors are really encouraging,” Leblanc says. “They want to get me done, so I can start being a force in the workplace. They want me to stay here and get the tools I need, but they also are realistic and know that those tools are useless unless I use them. There’s a big sign outside the Environmental Studies department that says ‘knowledge is potential power.’ And I think that’s so true of their motto in general.

You can get all the knowledge in the world, but unless you use it, it doesn’t make much sense. That’s why I came here really. That’s the motto I align myself with.”

How students apply the knowledge gained from the program after they leave the university can vary.

“I would love to be able to write about my experiences and communicate those to a wider audience,” Stephens says. “I could see myself as a communication director for some sort of environmental nonprofit that works on agriculture issues and I can see myself as a policy analyst for a similar kind of nonprofit, but really I would like to be a writer. That’s dependent on my abilities and if people like what I write.”

Ultimately, for many, it comes down to helping people sustain a livelihood based on agriculture.

“I come from a rural area and I love the aspect of rural communities and rural livelihoods,” Leblanc says. “There’s a very small percentage of people who are farmers and that number is falling. But I feel that if people want to have that as an option, they should. So what I want to do for the rest of my life is be someone that helps these people navigate doors so they can live the life they want. If that means policy change, lobbying, being an extension agent, I would love to do that.”

Feeling the squeeze

Students are confident the program will aid them in achieving their goals, despite cuts putting pressure on universities all over the nation including the ENST program.

“My only real qualm with the program is the uncertainty of funding,” first-year master’s candidate Erica Langston says. “The financial assault on much of the humanities has left funding scarce and unevenly dispersed, and while I was fortunate enough to secure a teaching assistantship this year, it almost certainly will not extend beyond the spring semester. I’ve found myself extensively distracted by researching funding sources for next year, time I know I should be spending on thesis research and writing. The faculty have assured me that multiple awards will be available to apply for, but the uncertainty of it has been taxing.”

Likewise, students perceive that their professors are stretched by lack of funds.

“I would love it if they could provide one or two more faculty members,” Costello says. “I think in the past 10 years, the department has shrunk a little bit and cut down. There’s not enough funding to really support the professors in the program, who are doing an excellent job taking a lot of time for students and putting a lot into their work. I would like to see them a little less stretched thin. I think doing that would provide more classes too and then you’d have more options.”