Fair Trade and Organic Coffee in Colombia

Delegation participants
Publication date: 
October 28, 2017

The Fondo Páez grower cooperative produces some of the highest quality coffees in the world, winning international cupping awards and claiming coffee fans that pre-order the single-origin batches from roaster Kickapoo Coffee and their umbrella organization, Cooperative Coffees, months in advance. Many ‘Fair Trade’ labels you see in the co-ops and Whole Foods are based on relationships with large estate-ish farms. The wonderful thing is that Fondo Páez growers are humble, poor, indigenous Nasa peoples, producing on tiny parcels of land on steep hill slopes here in Colombia. The difference between other fair trade labels and Cooperative Coffees is that the later only purchases directly small vulnerable farmers throughout the world.

Dry fermented material for making 'efficient microorganisms'

Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days with Cooperative Coffee roasters including long-time friend TJ Semanchin of Kickapoo Coffee (Viroqua, WI), Michael King of Bean North (in the Yukon!), Mark Glenn formerly of Conscious Coffee (Boulder, CO) and other staff, visiting the Fondo Paez farmer coopertive located outside of Santander de Quilichao, Colombia. The trip emphasized learning from these farmers how they use innovative soil fertility practices so that we can document exactly how they improve their soils through organic production. Fondo Paez has about 500 farmers that form part of their cooperative. Recently they have been learning some novel organic fertilization approaches from farmer groups in Honduras, including application of 'Efficient Microorganisms' (ME's). These ME's are produced using fermented solids of corn cobs, a sugar cane by-product, and forest soils. The solids are then steeped in water for 30 days, and the liquid applied to coffee in a foliar spray, or added to compost that is later used to amend soils. My soil science colleagues in Colombia and I have many questions about the efficacy of the ME's. Although farmers claim they are for 'fertility', we wonder if the sprays might be functioning as a preventative against coffee pathogens and disease. Many farmers also have compost piles to which they add the coffee pulp after processing, kitchen scraps and corn residues.

Fondo Paez coffee bag

I last worked with coffee farmers involved with the organic and fair trade movements back in the late 90's and early 2000's. In this era, Fair Trade certification assured a consumer that a heafty base price of the coffee they were buying went directly to the farmer. Purchasing coffee from cooperatives of roasters, such as those members of Cooperative Coffees ensures that the money goes to the farmers and not to intermediaries.These farmers were the smallest and often the poorest, farming on steep hillslopes and small land areas. In recent years this has changed. With a shift in Fair Trade purchasing regulations in the United States, 'fair trade' can now mean direct purchase from large estates in addition to the small farmers that were historically served by the certification. Such estates still may be family owned, and may employ poor farm workers, but are not owned by the workers themselves. This has caused a bit of controversy in the coffee world, as consumers are not able to discern between the scale of farmers served at the point of purchase - such as a co-op.  This is an important detail, as many of us use certifications such as fair trade or organic to help us make purchasing decisions. Doing your homework can mean a meaningful improvement in quality of life for small scale coffee growers here in Colombia, and around the world.


Agroecología in Latin America

Publication date: 
September 19, 2017

Author: Julie Grossman


I spent this past week in Brasilia, Brasil at the Latin American Agroecology Conference (SOCLA), held jointly with the Brazilian Society for Agroecology (ABA), with a delegation of 12 faculty and students from the National University of Colombia in Palmira, one of my two Fulbright hosts.  My first two days were spent at the VI Agroecology Short Course. Held at EMRAPA in Brasilia, the Brazilian equivalent to the USDA’s research arm (ARS), the course consisted of a series of 40 minute presentations, and a few breaks of pao de queso (the famous Brazilian cheese bread) and coffee.  The two days were long, but talks diverse and thoughtful.  Speakers included widely-recognized names of Latin American Agroecology, such as Miguel Altieri (Berkeley), Ernesto Mendez (UVM),  Jan dowe Van der Ploeg (Wageningen), Peter Rosset (ECOSUR), and Eric Holt Gimenez (Food First).

 Rosset, from ECOSUR in Chiapas – where I carried out my PhD research almost 20 years ago – gave a memorable talk on the campesino to campesino (CaC) movement and what makes it tick so successfully in Cuba and elsewhere.  The campesino a campesino movement is based on farmer exchanges, where promotores share their experiences with agricultural technologies among peer farmers.  A promotor is a farmer trainer who has had success addressing a particular problem and who is willing to share their experience.  In Cuba, the system is more systematized, where a coordinator or facilitator is hired to match farmers who have successfully innovated solutions to challenges or problems to those who face that challenge, and to design and then carry out trainings among farmers. Peter emphasized the importance of promoters not being paid, as then they cease to be farmers, abandon farms and begin to rely on the salary to provide technical assistance to other farmers.  

comparison chart

The concept of ‘masaficacion’ of agroecology (In which Peter, being from Mexico, humorously highlighted the ‘Masa’ part of the word – where masa is the corn-derived dough used for tortillas) was front and center at the short course and much of the conference itself. Masaficacion, or the scaling up and out of agroecology, is based on principles including the use of the social organization of a community to disseminate knowledge, sharing of knowledge and of traditional farming practices, and the critical importance of women’s and youth voices. His presentation resonated with me and encouraged thinking about how we might better use the campesino a campesino success stories to guide our work in our lab. How can we improve the degree to which we encourage sharing of ideas from successful farmers to other farmers? To me, venues such as MOSES or farmer field days are a good start. Perhaps our role as a research lab is then to serve as a liaison between farmers that have had success with a particular strategy in other parts of the country or in other research labs, and then trial these successes in a low-risk environment in Minnesota? Often ideas for our projects are indeed simulated by me hearing or reading about farmer innovation and wondering if the same could work for us here, or the biological mechanism behind why something is successful (or not). On the second day of the course I was thrilled to bump into an old friend from Cornell, Hannah Wittman, who conducts a portion of her research in Brazil with the Landless Workers Movement (MST) as a faculty member at University of British Colombia (along with great work on their student organic farm!). The course culminated with a small evening gathering to celebrate Miguel Altieri’s retirement, filled with long toasts, stories, and endless salsa dancing. 

ariel view of Brasilia from the radio tower; it has not rained in Brasilia for 100 days.

The 4d conferenceitself included 5000 participants and was held in the conference center adjacent to the hotel district in Brasilia. Brasilia is known for the burst of city planning that created it in the mid-century. Sensing that the former capital, Rio, was concentrating resources from the rest of the country in the south, it was decided that a new capital, Brasilia, would be situated in Brazil’s geographic center, in the tropical savanna cerrado. Brasilia was thus designed and the capital moved in the 1960’s to Brasilia. The city has the shape of an airplane. The wings consist of residential superblocks punctuated by commercial centers, and the fuselage of the official city buildings, many of which were designed by architect Oscar Neimeyer and that are the hallmark of Brasilia in photos and tee shirts. The hotel district literally contains most of the hotels in the city, but is oddly separated from the restaurants. This made it difficult to 1) eat and partake in the delights of Brazilian cuisine (the closest restaurant was a shopping mall food court), and 2) see how those who live in Brasilia actually live. On my final day in Brasilia I was treated to a tour of the city with local resident and cerrado-expert Lourdes, and was able to see the commercial centers and residential superblocks firsthand, as well as tour the mid-century cathedral and famous radio tower.

art from session

After attending my first few sessions and being treated largely to Portuguese rather than Spanish, I quickly realized that those from SOCLA were greatly outnumbered, with only 300 of us from other Latin American countries outside of Brazil in in attendance. The ABA group was a force! Some sessions were in Spanish, and others (but not all) had simultaneous translation to Spanish; the rest I sat through as a test for my very rusty Portuguese skills that remained from my post-doc days in Brazil.  I was impressed by the conference overall. It was akin to the enormous Midwest organic farming conference, MOSES, in the United States with its vendor fair selling obscure flours, grains, honey, nuts, fruits and crafts from around Brazil; the interesting participant mix including activists, researchers, students and farmers; amazing meals of indigenous and often rare produce, fruits and nuts; and social spaces. Some innovative differences included the gorgeous documentation of many of the sessions by artists, which were they put on display in the final day of the event, and the ‘mistica’ that began the conference. A mistica is a ceremonial event held in Brazil before important gatherings or events that often includes singing, art, dancing or poetry. It is used often by the MST. The SOCLA-ABA mistica included snips from MST documentaries on the large screens in the auditorium, testimonials (all recited concurrently via yelling to the audience members within earshot) of MST members, and ending with a procession of social movements from the audience to the big stage, pictured below. The critical importance of feminism was a central theme of the conference, with the phrase ‘Sem femanismo no ha agroecologia’ (without feminism there is no agroecology) cited again and again throughout the conference, and pictured on tee shirts (yes, I bought one).

National Colombian University Agroecolgia group

While the conference sessions were enlightening in many ways, a highlight of the event for me was social. I was able to get to know my colleagues from the Programa de Agroecologia at the Universidad Nacional, in more informal spaces, and learn about their work and interests. I was also able to meet agroecologists from around Latin America with shared research interests in nitrogen fixation, legume cover crops (‘abonos verdes’) and rhizobia. Encouraged to attend by a long-time friend from Chiapas, Helda Morales, another highlight including the AMA-AWA meeting, a networking group for women academic agroecologists. Helda always has great ideas, and I knew I wouldn’t’ be steered wrong!

Another of my goals was to learn the current debates and challenges facing agroecology in Latin America and beyond. I was impressed at the strong presence of women’s voices and youth in the sessions, and continue to be fearful of the degree to which agribusiness has its hold on countries such as Brazil. Entire sessions focused on programs and ways to keep youth in the countryside and preserve farming knowledge and practice. There were heated debates about the risk of cooptation and the ‘right’ way to move forward without becoming part of the problem. The presence of 5000 at the event was an amazing display of the movement’s strength and provided evidence of growth and continued work toward positive change – no matter how incremental. 

Alex in Colombia

Publication date: 
November 20, 2016

Author: Alex Liebman

CowsThe past few days I have had the opportunity to spend time with a group of small farmers and agroecology researchers from Universidad de la Amazonia in the agricultural area near Florencia, Caquetá. Caquetá is one of the agricultural frontier regions of Colombia - the Andes descend into vast plains full of cattle, barbed wire, men with lightweight ponchos, cowboy hats, and rubber boots. Remnant patches of dense Amazonian forest remain along rivers, around houses. Secondary stands emerge where the land, after decades of extensive grazing upon acidic, weather soils can no longer support production. Yet - the region is dominated by grass - monoculture stands of Brachiaria hybrids, fields displaying red gulleys of ancient soils, cows wandering in between shady patches. Dusty towns, swelter in mid-day heat, signs on small tiendas advertise cold beer and upcoming cockfights.

Amidst these expansive grazing lands are small farmers who fundamentally challenge hacienda-style production through a mix of home gardens (yucca, cacao, sugar cane, bananas) and small dairy operations. The farmers I was lucky to meet had fascinating, tragic, and quite complex stories of colonization, territorial dispossession, recolonization, and bio-physical and socio-political production pressures. Many had been small-scale coca farmers and were re-located from the southern Colombia province of Putamayo as an attempt by the government to simultaneously reduce domestic production of cocaine and establish indigenous resguardos. Yet, for many of the farmers, their arrival in the region coincided with U.S.- backed Plan Colombia, a period of intense militarization focused on eradicating the FARC. Ironically, many of the farmers stayed on their farms throughout helicopter raids and ground patrols, yet were forced to flee their farms as paramilitaries descended into the region in 2003 *AFTER* the official period of Plan Colombia. Hundreds of paramilitary forces occupied farms and small hamlets, in this time, small farmers, town officials, teachers, any folks with "Communist" ties could be tortured, killed, or expelled. Thus, recently, since ~ 2012, many of the small farmers have now re-colonized their farms, re-building a mixture of dual-purpose cattle production and subsistence farming after living in nearby cities. They are challenged, among other things, by little state support, distance from markets, and quite degraded soils (low PH, little available P, high Al toxicity).

Amidst the histories of violence and dispossession, howeverm I think there is a quite hopeful possibility that these small farmers can fundamentally challenge the logic of extensive cattle grazing and its associated ecological havoc and dispossession. Folks at UNIAMAZONAS are working with groups of small farmers on reforestation, agroecological production, and strengthening producer organizations. Of course, this is balanced by the forces of rampant land speculation and rising land values driving by narco-trafficking money laundering (these absentee "farmers" of course, having little interest in the forest dynamics, soils, local communities. Many farmers spoke of the isolation the face amidst ever-expanding haciendas and of the temptation to sell their land. However, on other farms, teenagers spoke eagerly of silvopasture plans and the technicalities of implementation with the group of university students.

I think there are a slew of interesting questions such as: 
In a post-conflict Colombia what role can small farmer organizations play in fundamentally contesting "the restructuring of agriculture that follows the current processes of globalization and liberalization" and the Colombian, domestic processes of rural violence, dispossession, and land degradation.

Can small farmers play a dynamic, active role in reforestation of the Colombian Amazonian-agriculture frontier?

As I try to understand the dynamic of colonization/recolonization, forest transition, and the gradients across subsistence, entrepreneurial, and large-scale agri-business (and their interactions with the broader political-economic transitions that have taken place), have been finding van der Ploeg's work very helpful (e.g. http://www.jandouwevanderploeg.com/EN/the-new-peasantries/): "There are undoubtedly empirical correlations between size and scale of farming and the different modes of farming. The point is, though, that the essence of the difference resides somewhere else (i.e. in the different ways in which the social and the material are patterned). Peasants, for instance, create fields and breeds of cows that differ from those created by entrepreneurs and corporate farmers."

Alex with farmerAs my first phase of research in Colombia begins to wind down, I am excited for the possibilities of combining bio-physical plant soil studies with small farmer movements taking place throughout Colombia (and around the globe) tying political empowerment, sovereignty, and ecological food production.

Until next time,


Soil health and nutrient management training for immigrant and minority farming communities workshop

Publication date: 
September 21, 2016

Author: Anne Pfeiffer

2016 SARE PDP workshopIn September 2016, about 20 farmers, educators, and researchers gathered at the Good Acre to spend 2 days learning about soil health and cover crops. The workshop was the first event to be held as part of a SARE Professional Development Program grant titled “Soil health and nutrient management training for immigrant and minority farming communities.” The workshop was designed for immigrant farmer leaders wishing to learn more about using cover crops for fertility and soil health, as well as other educators working with immigrant and minority growers. The hands-on training aimed to give immigrant farm leaders ideas and tools to share knowledge with other growers in their communities, as well as enable Ag educators to more effectively work with immigrant growers on cover crop and soil health topics. Topics included using cover crops to increase farm productivity and profitability, reduce fertilizer costs, and improve plant and soil health and addressed choosing the right cover crop for your farm goals and available equipment. A follow-up field day in March will demonstrate techniques that allow growers to build soil fertility by planting winter cover crops in high tunnels.

Field trip @ Batalden's farm

Publication date: 
April 27, 2016

Author: Alex Liebman

I am writing this over a cup of coffee, having a slow morning waking up as I got back late last night after a legume cover cropping field day at Phil Batalden's farm 6 miles south of Lamberton, MN.  Amidst wind turbines and endless fields of prime agricultural land, the few paved roads are often full of tractor-trailers hauling corn for ethanol production, soybean for feed, or miscellaneous materials.  The sky is endless in all directions; weather fronts and cloud formations birth, grow, and mature in a single spectacle.

Batalden's farm field day

The day was rainy, windy, and about 35 degrees F, yet the field day was a success.  More than 25 people came, huddled inside canvas jackets or rain coats, many replete with a seed company logo.  As people poured out of Buick Park Avenues and Ford F-350 trucks, sloshing through the drainage ditch to see the cover crop demonstration, Phil explained cover crop choices, the previous crop, and his plans for the following year.  Phil and his son Ryan transitioned their conventional corn-soy farm to an organic grain and cover crop seed production farm about 15 years ago.  This was, according to Phil, a calculated decision - he didn't think that he could mechanize rapidly enough to maintain pace with the evolving machinery and management trajectories in conventional farming.  By converting to organic, he could maintain his farm size and current machinery while also improving the soil on his land.  Now, Phil and Ryan farm a combined 750 acres, far less than the average farm size in southwest Minnesota.  Various side projects and businesses have sprung from this transition - for example, Phil's daughter spent several years making camelina oil from farm-produced crops and marketing the oil to Twin Cities retailers.  While Phil is much too humble to boast, as he describes the long-term demographic outmigration in southwest Minnesota, it is clear he sees his farm's diversification as a small step towards more a more vibrant rural landscape.  Ryan, his son, is more explicit - as an active member of the Land Stewardship Project, he has traveled to the U.S. Capitol to demand changes to federal crop insurance and direct payments plans that lock-in highly capitalized corn-soy production, limiting the ability of new farmers to acquire sufficient land to begin farm operations.

Vetch nodulesThe cover crops we planted in the fall were doing well, albeit a bit battered by the cold rain.  As we dug into the muddy ground, we found roots covered by nodules.  Cutting them open, they were bright red, a sign that leghemoglobin was binding oxygen, keeping it from the nitrogenase enzyme, allowing the rhizobia bacteria in the nodule to respire - in short - signs of active biological nitrogen fixation! Many of the questions the farmers asked stretched the limits of knowledge of Julie, Sharon, and I - what will control vetch better – 2,4-D or glyphosate?  If most of the plant material has the nitrogen I want in my soil, how do no-till or burn-down practices affect the nitrogen credit?

Our lab largely focuses on the biological and biogeochemical aspects of carbon and nitrogen cycling in agroecosystems, with comparatively less knowledge regarding the technicalities of agronomic production.  This allows us to ask questions regarding decomposition, how various types of management impact nitrogen availability, or the potential for different cover cropping treatments to contribute to soil organic matter pools. However, we don't necessarily know the mode-of-action of various herbicides, the exact days to maturity of corn varieties, or how cover cropping will impact crop insurance payments.  

My own opinion is that agronomy desperately needs to incorporate ecological perspectives into research, outreach, and practice.  The perspectives that agroecology bring to bear on historically narrow agronomic research foci based on increased crop productivity are increasingly necessary in a world facing climate, economic, and political crises of global proportions.  Yet, especially after the field day, I am struck by the need for our lab to improve our agricultural production knowledge in speaking with farmers about these systems.  How can we expect and promote adoption of cover cropping without intimate knowledge of farmer production pressures, struggles, perception of risk, and the surrounding political economy? Broadly, I think there is a need to more explicitly define and interpret the agroecosystem at hand – re-shifting the object of analysis from, say "plant-soil agroecology" to include land-use ecologies, landscape ecologies, and farmer ecologies in our work.  In these contexts, then, cropping rotations, cover crop termination techniques, spatial distributions of plant-soil processes, and farmers' experiences would inform the research process and systems development alongside analyses of soil health and nitrogen cycling.  

Batalden's farm field day

A shorter way of saying this might be:  As a graduate student focused on coursework, my own myopic PhD research proposal, the urban bike ride to school, and intellectual debates within the fields of ecology and agronomy, it is exciting, inspiring, and humbling to collaborate with Phil and other farmers to better understand cover cropping systems, both in their biological idiosyncrasies and their manifestation on the landscape.

After a long bout in the rain, we headed to Phil's barn to eat cookies, drink coffee, and discuss cover cropping experiences and ideas.  An NRCS agent spoke about "flying-on" cover crops (helicopter use results in poor establishment, planes work better) and people spoke about how they were incorporating (or wanted to incorporate) cover crops into their crop rotations.  After almost two hours of discussion (and a maple syrup prize giveaway from Phil's trees), we hopped in the truck, now caked in dirt, to head back to the Cities. I am looking forward to more field days in the future, to keep learning from people like Phil and Ryan, to continue to complicate reductionist or myopic research interests, and to keep working towards becoming a more thoughtful, engaged scientist.

The Grossman Lab Advocates for Agricultural Research on Capitol Hill: Lobbying Demystified

Publication date: 
March 31, 2016

Author: Sharon Perrone

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to ask Congress for $700 million—and say it with a straight face?

Over my spring break, I traveled to Washington, D.C. and did just that.  Thanks to the Agronomy, Crop, and Soil Science Societies of America (the Tri-Societies), I was awarded the opportunity to participate in a workshop on Congressional advocacy followed by a full day of lobbying, an event called “Congressional Visits Day,” or CVD.  In the nation’s balmy capital, I joined about two dozen students and 40 ag professionals, including academics, organizational leaders, industry representatives, and certified crop advisors to learn how to advocate for our research.

Congressional Visits DayPhoto from: https://twitter.com/SSSA_soils

Amidst the brightly budding cherry blossoms, we spent the first day learning about the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, or AFRI, for which we’d be asking for Federal support.  Established by the 2008 Farm Bill, AFRI is the nation’s peer-reviewed competitive grants program for agricultural science (the ag equivalent of an NIH grant).  While last year’s budget was a “meager” $350 million, the President requested $700 million in funding, the fully authorized amount by Congress in 2008, for the 2017 fiscal year.  After the President makes his request, every U.S. Senator and Representative must send a budget request letter to the Appropriations Committee.  After about 6 months of deliberation, the Committee will submit their budget for a vote to fund the next year of government in September.  Our goal was to make sure AFRI was included in those request letters at the fully authorized amount.

The following day, the Tri-Societies sent 17 teams to Capitol Hill to bring our request to 121 Congressional offices (i.e., Senators and Representatives).  My team handled six offices representing South Dakota and Minnesota.  I was accompanied by Paul Fixen, current president of ASA; Thom Weir, Vice Chair of the International Certified Crop Advisor program; and David Clay, soil science professor at South Dakota State University.  Appropriations letters were due that very week, and the Hill was full of folks from every interest and discipline requesting last-minute Appropriations support, like ourselves.  The energy was palpable!

Although I knew what to expect (I’d participated in a few of these types of meetings at my previous job in D.C.), I was nervous!  As the only Minnesota constituent, I was tasked to lead the four Minnesota meetings that we attended.  But our tactical team played our hand well, and I was accompanied by experts: I spoke about the broad overall importance and implications of agricultural research, and the direct impact AFRI has at the U of M, which receives AFRI grant money; David spoke more specifically of the types of problems that AFRI is helping solve; Thom translated the research to boots-on-the-ground outreach; and Paul spoke about missed opportunities for innovation and global impacts.

Congressional Visits Day

From left to right: Rebekah Solem of Rep. Collin Peterson’s office, Sharon Perrone, Thom Weir, and Paul Fixen.

Our team was lucky to visit states where agricultural is a critical industry, so our Senators and Representatives were very supportive.  One office had already submitted their request in our favor!  Overall, the whole democratic process was demystified.  While I thought the issues important to me might be brushed aside, I learned that my legislators were very interested to hear from me and asked me detailed questions about my concerns and thoughts for solutions.  I was asked if I might be a resource for future questions on agricultural issues.  I have gained confidence in my ability to communicate the critical need for my work, and I won’t be nervous to do it again in the future.

The main takeaway from my experience is this: Congress wants to hear from YOU, the constituent.  It is their job to represent you.  If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C. (or even your state legislature!), you can easily send an email or pick up the phone to voice the issues that are important to you.  Remember, you are your own best advocate.  No one can speak to your issues and expertise the way you can.  Too often we assume that someone else is already speaking on our behalf.  What better way to know your voice is being heard than to speak?

How to deal with surplus inspiration: Soil Organic Matter Brunch **nerd alert**

Publication date: 
January 22, 2016

Tri-societies conference

Author: Daniel Raskin

For three days back in November, members of the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA), Agronomy Society of America (ASA) and the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) descended upon Minneapolis for their annual tri-society conference. Outside, it was a rainy, inclement three days; but inside the Minneapolis Convention Center--which was maintained at a constant, comfortable 68 degrees supplemented with a soul-killing florescent-light-style corporate neutrality—we were all super-jazzed: Even though the coffee wasn’t free, none of us had to travel further than 5 miles to attend three days of seminars and presentations on the most recent developments in soil science and agroecology. It was a pretty sweet deal. 

We saw talks about plant uptake of dissolved organic nitrogen, novel methods of measuring rhizosphere microbial community composition in situ, spectral imaging of soil organic matter particles, and the challenges of weed management in organic no-till.

As graduate students, it can seem like our learning and reading habits can move out-of-step with our research practice. Exposure to new research and theories excite and challenge us, while our projects still need completing. We decided to harness our collective, post-conference excitement to bring our research and our theories closer together. At least, this is what we told ourselves; mostly, we just wanted to talk about what we had learned!

SOM model

The best science is illegible: The "microbial efficiency--matrix stabilization framework", a plant-microbe N competition model, and other sketches.

So, one Friday this January, before the start of the spring 2016 semester, we settled down at Peyton’s house with bagels, coffee, scrap paper and markers. We set out to create a rough model of carbon and nitrogen cycling—focusing especially on the ever-elusive labile organic matter pools—that is specific to the agroecosystems that the Grossman lab studies. The idea was to pool our data, ideas and experience to create an empirically valid framework that could help us develop future hypotheses. We wanted to this model to reflect our ever-developing conceptions of key soil processes. This gave us an opportunity to process what we learned at the conference.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t complete a working model of C:N cycling in organic agricultural soils in the upper Midwest. But we did share cool new theories with each other, riff on residue decomposition, and ask lots and lots of questions. Consensus was reached about one thing: we wanted to continue this process of collaborative, exploratory thinking. It helped us clarify our understandings of important processes, identify important unknowns, and confirm what excites us about our field.

We'll be sure to give you an update when we complete our sure-to-be groundbreaking model... keep tabs on our work!"

The Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge Competition

Publication date: 
December 16, 2015

Author: Elayna Shapiro

This September I had the opportunity to apply for the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge Competition. The competition was open to all sophomores at varying colleges. The challenge was to propose a solution to a global food problem by creating a 1 minute video and writing an essay. Out of all the applicants, 10 are chosen to participate in a year long program, including travel experience and a summer internship at Land O’Lakes.

For my proposal, I created a video proposing the potential of legumes to improve soil fertility and provide economic benefits by decreasing a farmer’s dependency on conventional fertilizer. I put together a video highlighting my experience studying legumes as cover crops. I included pictures of my research and my work in community gardens.

Even though I was not chosen to participate in the internship program, applying for this position provided me with experience in using my research to tell a story. When friends or relatives inquire about my research, I am able to provide a general explanation of my research as well as the interest and purpose in studying agroecology. Applying my research to global problems helped me better articulate the purpose of my research to others.

Funding for FEASt: New interdisciplinary graduate group

Publication date: 
June 3, 2015

Author: Daniel Raskin

FEAStWhile I can’t speak for *everybody*, I’ve noticed that many students studying agroecology at the University of Minnesota are drawn to the field out of a sense that food and agriculture matter in our lives and society. A lot of us wonder about the effects our research has on the policies that influence agriculture. Does our work shape agricultural policy? Does policy contribute to healthier ecosystems, better food, better society? If not, what needs to change?

To explore some of our broader questions about agriculture and society, a group of graduate students in the Applied Plant Sciences program (with heavy representation from the Grossman lab) got together. We developed a proposal for an interdisciplinary graduate group that examines the intersection of scientific research and food and agricultural policy.

The good news: we got funding! The Food, Environmental and Agricultural Studies (FEASt) group will meet throughout the year starting later this summer. It is open to anybody in a natural science discipline with a curiosity about how scientific research is used in agricultural policy, and how policy affects agriculture and food production. We’ve received widespread interest from students and faculty all across the University, and can’t wait to get started. The bad news? Well, we can start with climate change…

Hopefully, this sort of interdisciplinary collaboration can equip us to better address these “grand challenges” as researchers and citizens.

Happy 1st Anniversary to US!!!

Publication date: 
June 2, 2015

Author: JiJY - Thanwalee Sooksa-nguan

Grossman Lab @UMN 1st anniversary

In mid-May 2014, Julie had moved from Soil Science Department, NCSU to Horticulture Department at University of Minnesota. Peyton and I (JiJY) decided to move here with her and that’s how the Grossman Lab @ UMN formed.

Our beloved former Grossman Lab members at NCSU helped us pack some lab supplies and put in Julie’s Eurovan. I got a U-HAUL trailer to move thousands of stock Rhizobia cultures on dry ice. Peyton moved my mattress for me, thank you :) Three of us took separate road trips up north and re-gathered here again here at University of Minnesota on June 2nd, 2014.

Packing for the big move

We cleared up the lab space on the 2nd floor with several dump carts, cleaned it and designated the space as our “Clean lab”. Peyton was very dedicated to this task.


After the Clean lab was somewhat established, we’ve moved on to clear out spaces on the 4th floor, called it a “Dirty lab” (sorry, no pictures) and the cage in the greenhouse building.

Cleaning the new home

So many things happened in our lab within a year, more grad-students and undergrads, more projects and more FUN!!