Agroecology from A to Z

Adventures in Agroecology and Food Systems

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Using affinity diagramming to learn about the global food system

I first learned about affinity diagramming through my work with the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association which hosts participatory conferences using different types of group facilitation techniques. I later incorporated the technique into some public workshops I helped host through the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group at Cornell. I found it to be a fantastic tool for refining ideas after a huge brainstorming session and very useful in community organizing around food systems issues. But I wasn’t really sure that it would be helpful or even work in a classroom setting. When I first toured the room for my Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Production class, I knew I had to try to squeeze it into my curriculum planning. The other faculty members lovingly referred to this classroom as “The Bowling Alley” because it was such a long, narrow room. The Mariposa building at Prescott College is a former carpet warehouse that has been creatively re-purposed as a teaching and public event space. If we had access to enormous empty walls, we were definitely going to put stuff on them!

On the first day of class, I asked my first year students to brainstorm topics that were in their mind part of the global food system. We wrote them on giant notepads in a frenzied and loud brainstorming session. That night I cut out all of the individual items and got some painter’s tape so as not to damage the paint job in my classroom. For the next class I introduced the affinity diagramming concept. When the students arrived all of the individual topics were posted on the left hand wall of the room. The only rule is “no talking” and the whole group was asked to move individual topics from the left hand wall to the right hand wall and cluster them into categories. Again, without talking. And the idea is to eventually reach consensus, although there was definitely some spirited back and forth with individual topics bouncing from one cluster to another. There was also some giggling, but that is to be expected when asking 12 students to do something this silly and new to them without talking.

We kept the clusters on the wall for the entire semester. For every new reading, we decided if new topics that we had learned about belonged on the “Global Food System Wall” and if so, in which cluster? I loved having it as a giant map to guide us as we delved into a wide variety of complex topics from food sovereignty, racism in the food system and the nuts and bolts of commodity markets. I also loved how it shook up the classroom dynamics by giving all students an equal say in the final result. Sometimes students who were not particularly vocal in class discussions felt comfortable physically leading much of the clustering process. I would definitely use this technique in the classroom again.

Students in this course also hosted a public education and outreach event on global food systems, the annual Global Food Dinner.


Results of initial brainstorming session
“What topics are part of the global food system?”


Refining the topics by clustering like items (without talking)

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Using game design to learn about land stewardship

For the fall 2012 Land Stewards class at Prescott College I designed an assignment to complement the main library research essay. For the main writing assignment for the class, students were asked to pick a farming system somewhere in the world, or that had existed at some point in time and write a review of the scholarly literature available on this farming system. Students picked their farming systems early in the semester and as they were conducting their library research, I asked them to use what they had learned by mid-semester to design a board game that reflects the consequences of management decisions made by farmers in that system, both in terms of crop yields and environmental impacts. The games were geared towards high school age students and I’m hoping to give some of them a test run in Prescott high schools in the future.

I was introduced to The Farming Game by friends in the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group at Cornell. It’s a Monopoly-style game designed by growers in Washington’s Yakima Valley region. In the game, you inherit some land from an uncle who passes away and the goal is to make the farm profitable enough that you can quit your off-farm job and become a full time farmer. We played the game in class and talked about how games can be used to teach the players about specific farming systems and the management decisions involved. In the future I’d like to incorporate Pit into my teaching, a game designed in 1904 to simulate the decision making of commodities traders in the Chicago Stock Exchange. “Take that, Mom, I’ve cornered the market on Barley!”

Years ago, a friend and colleague Steve Vanek invited me to help test a farming systems game that he had designed specifically for farmers in the Bolivian Andes to learn about how their management decisions can impact nutrient management on their farms for many seasons to come. The game was simple in physical design, just consisting of different types of beans representing N, P and K (plant macronutrients), but extraordinarily complex in the potential scenarios and outcomes through a list of decision matrices; “If you spend money now to build a terrace, you will save X% of soil erosion in the future and have higher yields in the next round”. I was intrigued by how a simple set-up could convey the multi-year impact of seemingly minor management decisions made by growers. While designing the curriculum for Land Stewards, this experience came to mind and I wanted to see what the students would come up with.

I was impressed with the wide variety of very well designed games that came out of this assignment. Each game had to incorporate 20 “nuggets” of information about the farming system that had been gleaned from scholarly sources during the students’ library research. Games went through a round of internal review in a rough design format with other Land Stewards students and a round of external review wit the final versions evaluated by my first year students in Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Systems. What follows is just a sampling of games (there were 12 in all) and video of one of the games that didn’t use a card or board game format.


The Front Range Game
Loosely modeled on “Spoons” and models management decisions made by landowners in present day Colorado


Loosely modeled on “Monopoly” and models the management of a small-scale aquaponics facility in downtown Phoenix


Carrots being grown hydroponically over an aquaculture tank containing a single species of fish. Farmers can add crops and fish species as they make a profit selling their products in each cycle around the board.


Dairy Days
Loosely based on “Monopoly” and models multiple types of dairy farming in Oregon’s Willamette Valley


Models ancient Incan agriculture


Land Stewards students evaluating preliminary drafts of farming systems games


Mongolian Nomadic Pastoralism game
Livestock and their human herders need to make it to higher elevations during seasonal migrations to find pasture


Models connections between different aspects of modern Biodynamic farms


Global Food Dinner 2012

In fall 2012 I taught the first year course: Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Production at Prescott College. For at least 20 years, this class has put on a community educational event called the Global Food Dinner. 100 community members were invited to attend. The students spent a good part of the semester researching different country’s food systems in detail and gave 40 minute presentations to their colleagues in class in small groups. They then chose three meals to prepare for the dinner, each one representative of a typical dish of people living in the lower, middle and upper classes of that country. We took a weekend trip to Phoenix where we toured and shopped at a wide range of ethnic markets to prepare for the dinner, including Baiz Marketplace and Lee Lee’s International Supermarket. Students prepared the meals in their dorm kitchens (or The Village), heated them at Crossroads Cafe and then served them to guests who drew a lottery of country and economic class combinations at the door.


Road trip to Phoenix for some shopping


I have to admit, I’m pretty jealous of the gorgeous kitchens in the new first year student housing, The Village.

Participants were seated in their country groups. There was a small amount of whining from the participants assigned Afghan internally displaced refugee meals, served plain lentils, many of whom quietly jumped ship to the Italy table for left over polenta, pasta and Osso Bucco. If it were only that easy to meet your food needs in the real world! Students gave 3 minute versions of their country presentations and prepared a compilation of global food system statistics. Participants’ place mats were labelled with different color stickers and they were asked to stand to give a nice visual representation of different aspects of the current food system. I was impressed with every group’s dedication to preparing authentic meals, and particularly impressed with the Somalia and Mexico group who bought a lamb on Craigslist and butchered it themselves, the Fiji group who built a traditional oven (lovo) in their driveway and the Brazil group who prepared a faux McDonald’s meal complete with a paper bag and packaging. I look forward to hosting this event again.


Respectful Revolution – a film project

Last year in August I got a phone call from a guy with a cool French accent who said he was traveling across the US on a motorcycle and filming people along the way who he considered to be part of the Respectful Revolution. I looked Gerard Ungerman up on IMDB and it definitely seemed that after doing hard hitting documentaries on Desert Storm, Plan Columbia and the War on Terror, he needed a break to focus on people making positive changes in their communities. So he and his wife Stacey Wear teamed up on this film project and unique website where the video vignettes are embedded in an interactive map of Gerard’s journey.

To show how small the world is, I had visited my friend and colleague Scott Perez who does farm and ranching friendly land conservancy work in Durango earlier in the summer. Scott and his family took my husband and I out to lunch at Linda’s Local Food Cafe and introduced me to Linda Illsley, the owner.  Gerard had contacted Linda to include her in the project and asked her if there were other folks she could point him to heading west from Durango. She suggested he call me.

I was technically supposed to be out of town on a field course with the Prescott College agroecology students, but my dissertation revisions were dragging on (as dissertation revisions tend to do). Then Gerard’s Harley got a flat tire on the way out of Sedona in a tremendous monsoon thunderstorm, the Prescott Harley shop was closed on Mondays and he ended up as a house guest at Chez Jack for a few days until he could get back on the road. So this is what you get when you combine way to many zoospores to imagine, a flat motorcycle tire and a filmmaker on a unique mission across the continent. Thanks again, Gerard, it was an honor to be involved in this project.  Keep an eye out for Gerard coming back to Prescott to host some local screenings and community discussions on the power of working towards positive change.

In the comments section below, please nominate someone for Gerard to profile when he returns to town. There are so many great projects going on to pick from!

The Harley is road ready again!

The Harley is road ready again!

Other folks profiled in our region:

And the two places I visited in Durango with Scott Perez. Linda’s Local Food Cafe and Twin Buttes Sustainable Development Project:


Vermicompost at Jenner Farm – Guest Blogger Eleanore Nelson

Congratulations to Eleanore Nelson, whose senior project was picked for the Environmental Studies baccalaureate presentation at Prescott College. Here’s Eleanore’s description of her project. It was a pleasure to be your mentor Eleanore!

-Allison Jack


In current industrial large-scale agriculture, the “cycle” of the nutrient cycle is completely fractured. Currently, food is grown in soil, harvested, processed, packaged, and consumed by people or animals maybe in another state or country. The excrement that comes out of both humans and animals are jammed packed with vital nutrients that are actually limiting to a plant’s growth. Sadly, this fecal matter isn’t returned to the soil from which the fresh food was originally grown. It is flushed down the toilet to be treated or in the case of animal manure, kept in large man-made lakes, where anaerobic decomposition takes over and methane gas (CH4) is emitted. Livestock enteric (intestinal) fermentation and manure management in 2010 accounted for 21.2% and 7.8% of the total CH4 emissions in the US respectively (US EPA 2012).

Prescott College is in the process of developing animal traction for our school’s farm, located in Skull Valley, AZ. The addition of draft animals will create independence from the fossil fuels that power our tractor. However, with the independence from fossil fuels requires additional planning: developing a perennial pasture, building a structure for the draft animals to live under during the cold winter months (yes it does get cold in Arizona!), and properly recycling their manure.

For my senior project I designed and constructed a pilot scale model of a vermicomposting system that could be used to properly compost horse manure to yield a very valuable product for crop production.

So why vermicompost and not just regular compost?

By feeding animal manures, food scraps and other organic matter to worms, you are making the compost product richer than just thermophilic compost (compost that has experienced temperatures over 149F). First of all there is a very diverse soil microbe community present in the vermicompost. When the worms consume organic matter, their guts cover their castings (the technical term for worm poop) with a mucous that attracts other soil organisms like mites or nematodes, which in turn attract others. Soon enough, the vermicompost is teeming with a diverse collective of decomposers. Additionally, studies have shown that there is an increase in plant available nutrients in vermicompost compared to compost, that vermicompost suppresses plant pathogens in the soil, and, when used to recycle animal manures, a decrease in methane emissions.

Here’s my in-ground design that I like to call the “Vermi-pit”:

VC design schematic

The vermi-pit is lined with concrete blocks. There is an insulated cover that goes on top of the system to help keep the vermicompost cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Additionally, there is a screen that divides the system.

Here’s myself (and along with other students) building it:

First, Matt helped me use the tractor to dig a pit into the ground.


Then we lined the bottom of the pit with concrete blocks in order to keep the gophers out of the vermi-pit. There’s about a 10 inch space in the middle where the 4’x 1’8’’ screen is placed where we laid down chicken wire to enforce gopher protection. We then lined the walls of the pit with concrete blocks (4’’ x 16’’ x 8’’) only two high, three for the width and four for the length, totaling 28 blocks. The screen was placed in the middle.



Then we backfilled in the space between the wall of the pit and the concrete blocks with soil.


Facing West Cottonwood Lane, the left side of the pit is about 14 ft3 (0.4 m3) and the right side is about 12 ft3 (0.34 m3).

I cut an insolated door in half, each piece acting as a cover for each side of the system.


Final Result

veri-pit w lid

How it works:

The idea behind this design is the ability to conduct thermophilic composting on one side of the system, while the other side is being fed to worms. The thermophilic composting side will act as the battery to keep the vermicompost on the other side insulated and warm. Once the worms are done consuming the horse manure and food scraps on one side, they will migrate through the screen to compost that had just been under thermophilic conditions. Then one can harvest vermicompost without having to pick out worms for hours on end. This is called passive harvesting. Once the vermicompost is collected out of the pit, then horse manure, food scraps and agricultural residues can thrown into the pit to go under thermophilic composting, again acting as the battery to keep the other side, which is now being eaten by worms, warm and insulated.

Vermi-pit schematic

The materials were all very relatively cheap. The most expensive purchase was for the worms. I acquired 10 lbs of worms, 5 lbs from a seller who fed his worms horse manure, and 5 lbs from a seller who fed her worms cow manure. I began by inoculating about 14-ft3 of aged horse manure with about 5-lbs of worms. I didn’t want to put all of my worms in there just incase something were to happen and all of them died, I was on a tight budget!

The insulated door that I placed on top of the system helped keep the vermicompost temperature at around 68 F, which is ideal for worms. Without the insulated cover and no worms, the temperature of the pile was ~50 F. Worms are very susceptible to cold and hot temperatures, and in Arizona we have both. During the summer in Skull Valley, the temperatures can reach above 100 F, and during the winter the temperatures can go below freezing. The door also helps in decreasing the rate of evapo-transpiration. Worms like very moist conditions (80-90% moisture content), which can be a roadblock in raising worms in such an arid climate. In the summer I plan on having a shade cloth over the entire system and removing the door so it doesn’t get too hot in the compost pile, and it has shade to prevent extreme water loss.

Although the climate in Skull Valley is very arid and can be both very hot and cold, the vermicompost is completely insulated in the ground. I observed temperatures between 66-68F for four weeks after inoculation. However, the right side, which I filled with field culls never reached a thermophilic compositing stage. So the battery idea may not be feasible. However, I did find mating worms and cocoons in the vermicompost, indicating that the temperature and moisture content are ideal. So worms can thrive in Arizona and do their work as master decomposers to add value to an already rich, all natural product. Additionally, since the worms are reproducing, the farm managers could harvest the excess worms and utilize them as a source of protein for their flock of chickens. Everyone wins when you reconnect the cycle!

What once was horse manure pellets, now looks like soil…

finished material - hands

A pair of mating worms

worms mating - hands

A cocoon

cocoon - hands



Card, A.B., Anderson, J.V., & Davis, J.G. 2004. 1.224, Vermicomposting Horse Manure. Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. Retrieved from

US EPA. 2012. Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2010. Retrieved from Viewed November 2012.

Ussery, H. 2008, April. Poultry feed from worm bins. Backyard Poultry Magazine, 3(2), Retrieved from Vermicomposting.html

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Tepary bean harvest at Jenner Farm

It’s impossible not to notice the change of seasons at a farm. Once that first frost happens, there is no turning back the clock. We’ve had a few great work parties out at the farm in the last three weeks. Students are working on green building projects, final harvesting, threshing, winnowing and even some seed saving.

We harvested 25 pounds of tepary beans from a student research plot from the summer agroecology course. The students were investigating the drought tolerance of different heritage tepary bean varieties from Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson. We got to them a little late in the season, so there were at least 10 pounds on the ground and Rabbit Run Farm had harvested 10 pounds earlier in the season. I wonder if 45 pounds of dry beans is a good yield for the plot size? I left students to their own devices on figuring out the threshing and winnowing. They really got an efficient system going. A few students harvested the bean plants, a few more stomped on the plants on a tarp to release the seeds and a few more used the wind to separate the chaff from the beans. It was so much fun I almost hate to buy a small combine for the tractor! I’m aiming to add this piece of equipment so that students can expand our tepary bean production and potentially provide dry beans for the campus food system.

I told the students that I was impressed that they developed a workable threshing and winnowing system so quickly. I said “it’s almost like you’re all intuitive threshers and winnowers.” Then a student answered, “After 10,000 years of agriculture, shouldn’t we all be intuitive threshers and winnowers?” Well said!

Winnowing tepary beans with the wind (and foot stomping threshing on a tarp in the background)

17 varieties of tepary bean Phaseolus acutifolius (mixed with some common beans Phaseolus vulgaris) ready for phase II winnowing

Earlier in the season during the agroecology summer course, Dr. Jean Stutz from ASU visited and did a lesson on Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF). AMF are known to help increase drought tolerance in their plant hosts. She taught the students how to take root samples for AMF analysis and showed us microscopy images of stained roots back in the classroom. Jean has Prescott ties so I’m really looking forward to collaborating with her in the future, especially since I am a fellow rhizosphere microbial ecologist!

Dr. Jean Stutz demonstrates how to take root samples to test for AMF colonization

Root sampling

Plants in rows farthest from the camera received full irrigation while those in the rows closest to the camera were purposefully drought stressed to see how they responded

One of Dr. Jean Stutz’ microscopy images of AMF colonized root tissue

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Land conservancies in the SW

Our second event in the Prescott College Environmental Studies Fall Colloquium dealt with the role of conservation easements in land stewardship. We had two speakers from different farm and ranch friendly land conservancies in the Southwest. Both Scott and Rebecca are interested in working with Prescott College students for independent studies and/or senior projects. Let me know if you’re interested in learning more.

Scott Perez, Executive Director, La Plata Open Space Conservancy, Durango, CO

Rebecca Ruffner, Central Arizona Land Trust, Prescott, AZ

“People and Environment: Using Conservation Easements to Protect Nature and Our Working Landscapes”


Biography: Scott grew up in a farming community in the midwest. After a stint in college he started what he calls his “25 year spring break.” During that time he worked a variety of jobs but most of the time was spent as a working cowboy and guide all through the western US. Scott returned to school in 2000, graduating from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado and moving on to Cornell University where he received his MS in Natural Resources and will get his PhD if he ever gets the last chapter of his dissertation finished. Scott is now the Executive Director of La Plata Open Space Conservancy in Durango, CO, a land trust holding almost 200 easements covering 24,000 acres.

Scott was joined by Rebecca Ruffner of the Central Arizona Land Trust (CALT) who spoke about land trust initiatives in Arizona. CALT educates the local community about how land trusts support open space and local working agricultural lands. I learned in the talk that CALT was formed through the public outcry that occurred when someone tried to build a home on the slopes of Thumb Butte in the 1980s.