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