Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Plant and Soil Science
V. Ernesto Mendez
There is now substantial evidence that agroecology constitutes a necessary pathway towards socially just and ecologically resilient agrifood systems. In the United States, however, agroecology remains relegated to the margins of research and policy spaces. This dissertation explores three potential domains of agroecological transformation in the US. Domains of transformation are sites of contestation in which agroecology interfaces with the industrial agrifood system; these material and conceptual spaces may point to important pathways for scaling agroecology. To explore this concept, I examine formal agroecology education (Chapter 1), extension services and statewide discourses around soil health (Chapter 2), and models of farmland access not based on private property (Chapter 3). While these constitute three distinct topics, I seek to demonstrate that they are linked by similar forces that enable and constrain the extent to which these domains can be sites of agroecological transformation.
First, I use case study methodology to explore the evolution of an advanced undergraduate agroecology course at the University of Vermont. I examine how course content and pedagogy align with a transformative framing of agroecology as inherently transdisciplinary, participatory, action-oriented, and political. I find that student-centered pedagogies and experiential education on farms successfully promote transformative learning whereby students shift their understanding of agrifood systems and their role(s) within them. In my second chapter, I zoom out to consider soil health discourses amongst farmers and extension professionals in Vermont. Using co-created mental models and participatory analysis, I find that a singular notion of soil health based on biological, chemical, and physical properties fails to capture the diverse ways in which farmers and extension professionals understand soil health. I advocate for a principles-based approach to soil health that includes social factors and may provide a valuable heuristic for mobilizing knowledge towards agroecology transition pathways. My third chapter, conducted in collaboration with the national non-profit organization Agrarian Trust, considers equitable farmland access. Through semi-structured interviews with 13 farmers and growers across the US, I explore both farmer motivations for engaging with alternative land access models (ALAMs) and the potential role(s) these models may play within broader transformation processes. I argue that ALAMs constitute material and conceptual ‘third spaces’ within which the private property regime is challenged and new identities and language around land ownership can emerge; as such, ALAMs may facilitate a (re)imagining of land-based social-ecological relationships.
I conclude the dissertation by identifying conceptual and practical linkages across the domains explored in Chapters 1-3. I pay particular attention to processes that challenge neoliberal logics, enact plural ways of knowing, and prefigure just futures. In considering these concepts, I apply an expansive notion of pedagogy to explore how processes of teaching and (un)learning can contribute to cultivating foundational capacities for transition processes.
Number of Pages
Horner, Catherine, "Exploring Potential Domains of Agroecological Transformation in the United States" (2023). Graduate College Dissertations and Theses. 1658.