My new home

7 05 2013

Much has changed since I returned from Amsterdam, most importantly, I am now the proud holder of a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences. Back at Quest, I learned about some contemporary revolutions, learned some Spanish, and completed my Keystone project (comparable to an undergraduate thesis) on collaboration among small-scale farmers in rural Ontario. Last week, I said a bittersweet goodbye to the community that I have come to know and love over the past four years. Now, the big question, “What next?”

Right now, I am sitting in the sunshine, enjoying a warm breeze and the beautiful view of Covert Farms, just north of Oliver in the southern Oakanagan Valley. If all goes as planned, I’ll be working here for the next six months, hopefully learning to grow food. I’ll be living in my cozy ’89 Westy  and trying my best to survive the heat.

Westfalia at Covert

Not sure what exactly life has in store for me this summer or come November, but for now, I’m pretty content to enjoy the ride.


I have a research question!

22 10 2012

…Maybe. If it is good. I haven’t received any feedback on it yet. Either way, I have the basic idea of what I want to do for my daunting undergraduate thesis, or Keystone project as we call them at Quest.

It has been a bit challenging to find time to work on my Keystone, especially while taking five courses, which is more than a full course load by AUC standards (but evidently not Quest standards). Communication with Quest tutors can also be difficult because email never fully replaces a real face-to-face chat and cuppa tea! In light of these challenges, I’m posting it here in hopes of getting some more feedback.

Anyway, without further ado, my research question asks, “What are the mechanisms that facilitate collaboration between small-scale farmers in rural Ontario?” Here is my justification and plan (as taken from the proposal I recently submitted to my advisor):

In light of our globalizing world, food production has become increasingly centralized and controlled by fewer and fewer large transnational corporations. Maximizing profits is the central goal of these monopolies, and as such, equitable distribution and environmental protection often becomes secondary, if on their agenda at all. Responding to this global situation, several individuals and organizations have launched a movement towards “food sovereignty”, an idea launch by La Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in 1996 (La Via Campesina, 2011). This movement calls for an increasing number of local, small-scale food producers in order to reduce global dependence on the monopolies. However, farming requires a considerable amount of various types of capital, most notably land, equipment, labour and knowledge, thus making it less accessible. Climate variability and competitive global market prices present further insecurity. 

In the face of these challenge, collaboration emerges as a prospective solution. Bedwell et al. (2012) define collaboration as an evolving process that involves two or more social bodies working towards a shared goal. Furthermore, collaboration emerges as the fifth level on a five-point collaboration scale, following networking, cooperation, coordination, and coalition (Frey et al., 2006). While there is an increasing body of literature on collaboration, including efforts towards quantification, it remains ambiguous, thus an interesting topic of study. As such, my Keystone project asks: what are the mechanisms that facilitate collaboration amongst local, small-scale food producers in rural Ontario?

For my Keystone project, I propose to conduct an empirical study to find out what mechanisms encourage collaboration amongst farmers, and the types of collaboration that precipitate. My population will be local, small-scale farmers in rural Ontario, with my sample targeting farmers who sell at farmers’ market in Grey and Bruce counties. I would like to explore what institutions, formal or informal, are currently available for small-scale farmers, and particularly, what role social capital might play in facilitating these interactions. Other possible mechanisms may include farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture schemes, local organizations, micro-finance or international work exchange organizations. I hope to identify gaps within the present structures that could be the basis for developments in the future. I will use questionnaires and key informant interviews to collect this research. Eriksen and Selboe (2012) provide some insight as to methodology and possible figures. For example, one possible figure would be a chart of collaborative relations, indicating the number of farmers that participate in different forms of collaboration, such as joint farm enterprise, sharing equipment, mutual assistance, rent labour, rent equipment or have a regular substitute (Eriksen and Selboe, 2012). I could create a similar figure showing the number of farmers that collaborated with others as a result of different mechanisms. As time allows, it would also be useful to use my findings to develop an index for collaboration that could be used for wider applications; however, this is a periphery goal.

In addition to the proposed research, I will also draw on previous relevant experiences. Firstly, I have worked extensively with local organizations in the geographic area of study. I have volunteered with two different local environmental groups and started and managed a local farmers’ market for several years. Secondly, for my experiential learning block, I completed an intensive one-month apprenticeship at Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island. This apprenticeship provided insights into the potential challenges that small-scale farmers face and potential mechanisms for collaboration. Lastly, I am currently volunteering with a couple different community garden projects in Amsterdam, an urban environment, whereby I can compare and contrast with the circumstances in rural Ontario. 

Next Steps:

  • Complete and submit application to the Quest Research Ethics Board (Deadline: 13 November 2012)
  • Consolidate and organize previous relevant literature in Zotero and identify gaps
  • Find studies that I might be able to use as a model for my study

So, there it is. All nice and tidy and easy, right? Am I on the right track? Should I focus more? Is this too ambitious considering my timeline? Let me know!

Pieces of thesis

16 08 2012

Looking back on the past few months, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a rather epic summer – interning at a farm, motorcycling across the country, working (but more like playing) at summer camp, sweating it out in the bakery, volunteering at Hillside and exploring on the beautiful Bruce. But all good things must come to an end…in order to make room for more good things! In a short two days time, I’ll be flying across the pond to Amsterdam, where I will be studying for four months! I’m a bit nervous, but I know that unsettled feeling is necessary for new and exciting experiences!

Despite the flurry of fun summer activities and Amsterdam preparations, my academic pursuits continue to float around in my head. I finished another seminal reading, Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher and have now started reading Ecotopia. In addition, I’ve began pulling together pieces of what will become my thesis, or “Keystone” as we call it at Quest. My experiential learning block at Foxglove Farm really catalyzed the brainstorming process for my Keystone project, as I had hoped it would. Prior to the experience, I had considered doing a research project on collaboration and social capital at farmers’ markets. However, for logistical reasons, I am now thinking about conducting research on the farming community on the Bruce Peninsula, and attempt to measure both the collaboration and social capital that exists within this population. Some questions I might explore are:

  • How collaborative are local farmers?
  • In what ways are they collaborating – sharing equipment, labour, knowledge?
  • How do I measure collaboration?
  • Does geographic distribution affect the level of collaboration that takes place? Are farmers less likely to collaborate when their farms are more spread out?
  • What role does social capital play in facilitating these collaborations?
  • How do I measure social capital?
  • Does social capital reduce the cost of collaboration?
  • What types of institutions promote collaboration and build social capital?
  • How can farming become more accessible to new farmers?

This is my starting point. We’ll see how things develop over the next few months. I’d welcome any feedback, suggestion, ideas or resources, so send ’em my way!


Welcome to the Rock

6 05 2012

I’ve landed on the Rock, otherwise known as Salt Spring Island, and am quickly settling into island life. I arrived on Tuesday and have worked 3 days here at Foxglove Farm, run by Michael and Jeanne Marie Ableman. So far, I’m enjoying myself and learning a lot. I have been itching to get my hands into the dirt for quite some time now, so I’m glad to finally get to do so. I’ll be a farm apprentice here for the month of May.

At Quest, we complete at least one, but up to four, experiential learning blocks. This means learning outside the classroom. My farm apprenticeship will count as my first

experiential learning block. Back in April, I had to find a site supervisor (which is Michael in this case) and a faculty supervisor, and complete an experiential learning plan, identifying the context, activities, objectives, assessment and application. My learning objectives for my apprenticeship are:

  • To learn to grow food more successfully
  • To develop research methods to apply to my Question (particularly a process for measuring collaboration and social capital in a particular context)
  • To begin considering possible Keystone projects (like a thesis, which I will be completing next year, in my final year at Quest)
  • To gain a greater appreciation for the food I consume

In addition to my day-to-day farm duties, I will also conduct some interviews, maintain a journal, and continue to read one of my seminal works, E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, as well as a collection of

research papers.

As you may recall, my Question is “What is the role of collaboration in developing effective institutions?” I hope this experience informs answers to some of my sub-questions, such as: Why should we

collaborate? What circumstances do and do not benefit from collaboration? How can we facilitate collaboration? How can we measure collaboration? What does it mean to be “effective”? More specifically, in the context of the farm, I am thinking about:

What form(s) does collaboration take on the farm (both internally and with the local community)? What role does social capital play in facilitating these collaborations? Is the farm an effective institution? If so, what makes it effective? Do farmers’ markets serve as a social hub that facilitates collaboration and generates social capital? Obviously, I’d like to focus a bit more, but for now, this is the scope of my studies.

Now on to what I’ve actually learned! Although I cannot chronicle everything, here are some of the main things (most of these can be accredited to Michael):

  1. Observation is the most importantagricultural skill. Michael claims he doesn’t know anything about agriculture. He just knows what he sees, and tries to make connections and understand why certain things are happening. To hone our observation skills, we are supposed to walk around the farm twice a week (following the same route each time), recording our observations. I did my first observational farm tour on Thursday. (This kind of reminds me of an activity we did in ERM in high school where we visited our spot every week and and made observations.) Observation, along with a bit of common sense, is all you need.
  2. Cultivating (with a collinear hoe, the best tool ever!) beats hand weeding any day. Ideally, you never have to weed if you do this often.
  3. “It’s often not about the big ideas, but the millions of little details that make the difference.”
  4. Human waste is not managed effectively (Thanks to Chris for this insight). For example, why do we shit into good drinking water? Further, urine is nitrogen-rich and totally being under-utilized.
  5. It is difficult to do everything well, so grow what you like to eat. If you love it, it will usually work out for you.
  6. You need to know the context of the land. We are merely passing through. Ownership is overrated.
  7. Don’t be afraid to break all the rules and experiment. Find out what works for you. Give up everything you’ve been told. Don’t hold on to dogmas too tightly. We really have more ignorance than knowledge, so approach farming with a beginner’s mind. Take risks and innovate. (Planting spinach and eggplant together is our own example of this) A farm should be a manifestation of your own needs and personality.
  8. Don’t underestimate the aesthetic. Take a peak at our patchwork of kale for proof!
  9. Diversify your palate. It seems to be narrowing, so we can only really distinguish between salty and sweet. There are so many other flavours we are missing out on!
  10. It’s not about products, but systems.
  11. More people need to be farming. A few percent of the population is not enough!People write about food, work in food policy, etc. without actually doing it. It is hard, but gratifying work. Put the farmer out of business by growing your own food. It is more fun at a smaller scale anyway.
  12. Pleasure is a more effective motivator than doom and gloom. If for no other reason, grow food because it tastes good!
  13. A bit of a paradox emerges when you look at collaboration in small towns, generally speaking. On one hand, a small town is a very conducive climate because the sense of intimacy and community provides a common vision and facilitates networking. On the other hand, there is a deepsense of ownership and often stagnation that can prevent something from evolving and emerging.

Okay, so maybe that was more than a few, but learning is good, right?

Photo of trailer that I am living in at Foxglove Farm

My Little Abode, Foxglove Farm, Salt Spring Island

Reforming education

21 03 2011

Idea generator: collaborative consumption

14 03 2011

To borrow a phrase from a eloquent Quest 4th year, Rachel Botsman is the “physical embodiment of my Question”. Botsman simple thesis persuasively argues that humans are evolutionarily wired to share and cooperate, despite the man-made capitalistic, egotistical culture that has emerged in the past century. Furthermore, tribes and “smart mobs” are emerging now more than ever (Seth Godin explains this phenomenon here). “Collaborative consumption” responds to the idea that we don’t actually want to own more “stuff”, we just want the services and experiences each “thing” provides. For example, rather than a CD, we want the music and entertainment of a CD. She proposes that ownership is an outdated concept. Botsman identifies four societal events that have catalyzed the emergence of this new consumption trend:

  1. Ÿ  A renewed belief in the importance of community
  2. Ÿ  Peer-to-peer social networks and real-time technology
  3. Ÿ  An increased awareness of environmental concerns
  4. Ÿ  A global recession to shock consumer behaviour

I did not choose this TED talk as my “idea generator” purely because it was one of the first hits when you search “TED” and “collaboration”. This TED talk connects many different academic disciplines and societal phenomena, such as the environment, science and technology, human psychology, economics. Like many of the TED talks, Botsman’s lecture epitomizes the interdisciplinary study that all Quest students should aspire. In addition, collaborative consumption offers a very useful application of collaboration that serves as strong evidence for relevance of my Question.

This TED talk gave me a lot of clarity on a wide range of topics, but a couple questions remain:

a) Does collaborative consumption suggest a dramatic shift in our economic system, from a monetary-based economy to a reputation-based economy that recognizes the Earth’s limits? Does collaborative consumption support economic “degrowth”?

b) How can we reverse the deeply engrained culture of egotism and individualism? To what extent is this possible? To what extent is self-interest in our human nature?

c) What are the limits to collaborative consumption? Would it be possible to eventually make private property an obsolete concept? What would be the political implications of this type of economic reform?

More than an indecisive decision

2 02 2010

The weekend before last, I had the priviledge of attending a national undergraduate on interdisciplinary education at McMaster in Hamilton. Although I must claim it was primarily due to the convenience of being within affordable proximity that I was able to attend as a delegate from Quest, I was nonetheless pleased to have such an opportunity. So, students from Arts & Sciences programs across the country gathered for a weekend to talk about our place in academia and to address common challenges in attempt to move forward.

“Interdisciplinary” seems to be the latest buzzword in education, much like “organic” is on supermarket shelves. And in the same way, it’s likely overused and sometimes slightly ambiguous. I guess you can work out the etymology to derive “between disciplines”, but “interdisciplinary” seems to also be the umbrella term that also encompasses “multidisciplinary” (= many) and “transdisciplinary” (= across). Although it might be a little too philosophical for some, in the working group I participated in, we started by establishing a definition for a “discipline”; “an organizational structure driven by a set of epistemological values that give rise to specific content, ways of thinking, interactions, language and methodology.”

The shift towards interdisciplinary learning is an important one, especially in light of our societal climate. Much of higher education is carried out in “silos”, each separate from the others. As a result, knowledge becomes highly specialized. Yet, our greatest challenges in the world are rarely restricted to one field of study, so they are left unresolved. But, when we cross disciplines, we strive to strike a balance between breadth and depth. The aim of interdisciplinary education is to produce more well-rounded graduates who will be able to look at an issue through a multitude of perspectives, becoming that much closer to finding its solution. I was once guilty of choosing such a broad program because I was undecided about what I was interested in and wanted to try everything. Although this has some merit, I now realize that it can be a decision in itself, rather than means to a more specific end.

With undergraduates, alumni and faculty from the Arts & Science programs at Guelph, McGill and most predominantly McMaster, as well as the Integrated Science programs at UBC and McMaster (new this year), Knowledge Integration at Waterloo, and of course, Quest University, we weren’t short of things to talk about. As we discovered over the course of the weekend, the way each program works is as diverse as the number of programs. At McGill, for example, there is only one required Art/Sci course and the program simply allows them to take courses in either faculty, and come out with a double major. As you might have noticed, I didn’t include a link which primarily reflects how obscure Arts Sci program info is on the McGill website. MacMaster falls at the other end of the spectrum. With its program almost 30 years old, Arts Sci at Mac has become one of the most prestigous (and best funded per capita) programs, with the highest average entrance grades and a supplementary application (that I , in fact, began completing myself). Quest might be the only school that surpasses McMaster  due to the fact, it ONLY offers an arts and sciences program. The others fall somewhere in between with varying numbers of mandatory classes/electives and a diverse array of teaching methods. But fairly consistently, these programs tend to be new (within the past 10 years) and on the leading edge of innovative instruction within universities. Take a look at McMaster’s new Integrated Sciences (or “iSci” as they call it unfortunately despite way too many things being already branded i(something)) or Knowledge Integration at Waterloo, or Quest as I’ve already talked about at great lengths. Classes tend to be smaller and students receive more attention from faculty, while tuition is often the same. So, does this mean that students in other programs (read larger classes) are subsidizing the education of Arts Sci students? Are these programs even self-sustaining? They must be. Why else would so many universities be moving in this direction. There must be increasing demand. Will more universities continue to start similar programs? Or will current programs get bigger? Is this possible without sacrificing the integrated and interdisciplinary nature of the programs?

I’m do not these answers which is okay because I’m getting used to having more questions than answers. But I do hope that interdisciplinary learning continues to catch on at every level of education. We have an infinite mass of information available, so instead of temporarily memorizing content or producing generic papers, we need to develop a different set of skills – critical and creative thinking, the ability to make connections and effectively communication. New alternatives are emerging, and prospective students need to be aware of their options. As I can personally attest, these interdisciplinary programs are rarely promoted by high school guidance counsellors. Maybe they don’t need promoting because they accept so few students, but students have a right to know their options and greater demand might just drive the post secondary market towards astonishing new frontiers.