Diane Rowland: Championing sustainable farming for the Gator Good

rowlandYou may have driven past UF’s farmland dozens of times in your commute across campus without giving it a second thought.  But over the course of the past few years, a vision of how this space could be optimized for the benefit of faculty, staff and students—and indeed for the Gator Good—has been slowly germinating.

One of the key individuals behind that vision has been agronomy professor and researcher Diane Rowland. Along with a team of dedicated staff and students, Rowland has been working to transform the farm, which had previously been used intermittently as a simple teaching area, into a sustainable farm with regularly rotated crops.  In addition to serving the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences’ educational and extension needs, the farm has also begun to provide fresh produce for UF community members in need through the Field and Fork Food Pantry.

In addition to her work with the UF Community Farm, Dr. Rowland was instrumental in the introduction of and serves as co-director of UF’s master’s degree concentration in agroecology. She is excited to report that, beginning this fall, UF will also launch a certificate program in agroecology, and she is hopeful a new Ph.D. concentration will be ready by that time as well.

Here’s more about Dr. Rowland’s pioneering work with both the UF Community Farm as well as in the agroecology program, in her own words…

Can you tell us a little about the path that led you to UF?

I’m actually an ecologist.  I didn’t have an agricultural background.  I got my Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico studying cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande River. Out of graduate school, I looked for any job I could and ended up in a research job with the USDA Agricultural Research Service at a national lab in South Georgia studying peanuts.  So that’s how I got into agriculture, and I just loved it.  I just should have been in agriculture from the start. But I really wanted to teach—and USDA ARS is just research—so I knew I had to come to a university.  I’ve been here at UF for about 5½ years.

What does “agroecology” mean?

When we think of more traditional ecology, it means natural systems, not managed systems. There is ecology in agriculture.  …  Ecology is a really strong, robust science—it’s quantitative—and we apply that to the study of agro-ecosystems or agricultural systems.

What’s the benefit of using an ecological framework?

The more traditional look in agriculture has been an emphasis on yield and on producing more and more, and we’re realizing that we really need to balance the production side, the economic sustainability of the growers, with the environment.  We look at what impact our farming is having on the environment—and then what impact we’re having on society.  So agroecology is really balancing those three.  And when you use a really strong scientific basis, it really gives it much more credibility—gives it much more impact—because you’re basing it on science.

Is it a new field?

It’s kind of an older discipline that fell out of favor.  And just recently, because of the interest in food systems, it’s come back up.  The difficulty is it’s defined differently in different places. Sometimes it can be defined as a political movement—there’s a belief system.  Its definition can be based on science, which is the way the U.S. has approached it.  Or it can be defined as a practice. In some cases, agroecology has been defined by organic production only—and that’s not really the true definition of agroecology.  So it’s kind of complex.

How did you become involved with the farm?

When I was first hired, agroecology was a part of it, and after I got on board, the chair decided that she wanted me to manage the farm that was associated with the department.  It all fit nicely with the kinds of activities I was doing.  I was undergraduate coordinator for a while and had the undergraduate club involved in the farm.  We really tried hard to get more and more people involved at the farm, but it was kind of piecemeal. We’d have a class that would teach out there and we’d arrange things for the class and it would be fine for a semester, but it really wasn’t sustainable.  We wanted to really get a system together.

I knew Anna [Prizzia, campus food systems coordinator] through some of the first things we did with the farm when she was in the Office of Sustainability. We hit it off and she started managing the gardens, and through our interactions said: “What if we combined both of these spaces together and started looking at this from a scale standpoint?”  We could have the gardens that were small-scale, urban, backyard and teach people how to farm all the way up to the teaching farm space where they could look at a full, wide range of even large-scale farming, including what we’re doing in this country and what other places are doing in farming.

How is the agroecology program at UF unique?

We were the first to offer the program fully online. So we had options of both a resident and an online program for a master’s in agroecology.  The reason that’s important in my mind is that we’ve been able to reach out to a much wider diversity of students.  We have our resident, more traditional students interacting with people who are working in agroecology across the world.  So I hear things in classes like “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” Or: “Oh, that’s really great to hear what you’re doing and the impact of that.” It’s allowed our students to go internationally to do research, but still take their classes.  So in that way we’re unique.

Right now we’re setting up a certificate program under agroecology that requires students to travel to partner institutions including the UK and France, as well as two in Australia and one in the Virgin Islands.  We’re getting ready to set one up in Scotland.  They go for six months and they can take a class, but they also get to see the cropping systems there.  And that, I think, is invaluable.

Because they get to see other practices?

Yes, you don’t realize.  We have blinders on in many cases, and we don’t realize the diversity of options that might be out there.  And you can’t really do that in a lecture.

And different governmental systems as well.

Yes, and that’s where agroecology is so valuable, because we talk about how some of these farming systems are possible only because the society and culture is set up that way.  We would have to change a lot of our culture, and it’s good for people to realize that.

Do very many other universities have farms like ours?

The farms are unique because they are on campus.  It’s really unusual.  And then what’s completely unusual—that we know of—is the link to the food pantry. To have kind of the whole food system: that’s what we’re trying to do. Have kids plug in at each point so they can learn about a food system in its entirety. I think that’s really unique.

What excites you most about your work right now?

We want to link the agroecology program and the farm more formally.  What Anna and I are doing now is trying to develop an undergraduate curriculum that would have a center core where students would be on the farm doing hands-on experiential learning, and it would have a very strong agroecology focus to it.  I think that will finally make the link between the farm and an undergrad program, and then feed into our grad program.  Because right now our agroecology program is only at the graduate level.

We’re also hiring a garden coordinator and a farm coordinator, and once we get the farm coordinator on the ground, we’ll get the rotation in place.  We’ll have rotations for the winter and rotations for the summer, so when we get those things in the ground and have things really going, that’s going to be really exciting.