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

An ordinary weekend in the life…

23 04 2012

What a weekend! Event after event on campus kept me pretty busy, leaving little time for homework.

It all kicked off Friday afternoon, dismissed from class early and we headed up to Telus Fest in Whistler to check out the free outdoor Michael Franti concert (not so coincidental considering the holiday)! Then, back to campus for the second Cabaret production, with this year’s theme being “rhythm”. All original pieces, I was utterly amazed by the artistic talent within our little student body…from poetry to music to paintings to sculpture to short skits. Amazing! Also, the way the loading bay (yes, in our cement underground parkade) was transformed into an intimate and comfortable space.

Then, Saturday morning, we had a garage sale to mitigate the mass of stuff that ends up in the garbage at the end of the year. I might have snagged more than I sold, but what can I say, I love garage sales!

After checking out the sale, I went to a community workshop, based on this report, that involved taking an inventory of the various programs and services in Squamish and identifying gaps and possible actionable solutions. There were twelve priorities in particular, as identified in the report, including child development, learning, the environment, belonging and leadership, housing, transportation and arts and culture. I didn’t count, but a decent number of people participated, including almost all of city council and a number of other movers and shakers in the community. What struck me in particular was the number of times the word “collaboration” was used! Because collaboration is central to my Question, I have thought about it quite a bit, but I still learned (or at least reaffirmed a few things: 1) Collaboration is important, especially in the context of limiting redundancy (that occurs as a result of the “silo effect”) in the non-profit sector where funding is scarce, 2) Collaboration is elusive and ambiguous, a concept that a lot of people use freely, meaning quite different things, 3) Collaboration is difficult, mainly because it takes time that no one apparently has. I keep these observations in the back of my head as I continue to study this concept.

After this facilitation, I was quite ready to go out and dig around in the campus garden behind the cafeteria. With about half a dozen of us working, we got quite a bit accomplished – finished the fence, planted the herb spiral, made a composting bed, and I shoveled a bunch of dirt around, making the furrows and turning over the soil and working in the mulch. I also planted my little bean and pea seed babies that I had planted a couple weeks ago. They were overflowing their tray. Hopefully it isn’t too early!

Saturday night was another night of incredible talent with the term-end Classics Plus concert, from Bach and Mozart to opera to original compositions. The last performance for some of the graduates! And then, this morning, we had our 5th annual adventure race! This year, for the first time, it was at the Easter Seals camp in Brackendale (we usually have it at Alice Lake), so there was a bit less running involved. Our team was a bit on the slim side, but it was fun nonetheless, as always!

And there you have it! Now, four more days of class, and that’s all she wrote for another school year!

P.S. Two songs worth downloading…”At the Birds Foot” by City and Colour and “Big Blue Wave” by Hey Ocean!, and of course some Michael Franti!

Back to the grind

5 02 2012

Just got back to beautiful British Columbia after an extended stay at home in Ontario. My mom had a minor stroke on Christmas Day, after which she was in rehab for a couple weeks and then she had to  transition to life back at home. So, I decided to stick around an extra month to support her in her recovery and encourage her along the way. Another life block! Although I struggled with the decision to stay or not to stay at the time, in retrospect, it seems obvious and I have no regrets. Fortunately, I go to a school that operates on the block program, and by taking one course at a time, I can jump right back in at the start of a new block. The way I see it, these difficult circumstances present an opportunity to learn to love, care and give of ourselves, and it only made sense to embrace this opportunity. It was also nice to spend some time with my family. Both my sisters now have their own places, so lots of changes on the home front.

Additionally, this past month, I had the chance to catch up on some other work. I was able to finish reading Cities on a Hill, one of my seminal works. Also, I was able to seek out some opportunities abroad. I applied for an exchange to either Zeppelin University or Amersterdam University College for next year. I also applied for Canada World Youth’s Youth Leaders in Action program, where participants work in teams of 18 youth (half Canadians, half from the partner country), volunteering in a Canadian community for three months, then in a community abroad for three months.

Plus, I spent some time thinking about my Question and where I might want to go with it or how I could focus it a bit more. Currently, it reads, “What is the role of collaboration in developing effective institutions?” Maybe I’m thinking about it too much, but it seems too obvious. I attended a screening of the film of The Economics of Happiness, hosted by our local Transitions group and rediscovered one of my passions that had somehow slipped off my radar – localization. Despite being problematic for my sometimes insomniac mind, it triggered lots of ideas. Here’s a snapshot from my spiral-ringed notebook of my post-film mind explosion…

Page of spiral notebook covered in chaotic writing

I missed going to Guelph Organic Conference and the Combining Two Cultures Conference on interdisciplinary education as I had contemplated, but I did have the opportunity of catching Wiarton Willie’s prediction for the first time and catch up with some friends from high school who I hadn’t seen in awhile. Despite the shortage of snow, I managed to get out for at least one snowshoe and one ski.

Next up, Identity and Perspective.

Little boxes

20 04 2011

In the absence of time to properly reflect, here is a video that encapsulates my current mental and emotional state. Caroline, a friend, member of the first ever-graduating class and one of the first people I met at Quest, performed this a week or so ago on campus. Maybe it was just my overactive perceptions filter at play, but I found it very relevant. So here it is. And expect a backlog of reflections coming in over the summer, when I have time to properly synthesize my thoughts and ideas. As of late, my learning curve has been steeper than what I can keep up with. Another week or so and I’ll be able to relax, unwind, slow down and be the confused, spontaneous 19-year old that I really am. Until then, I’ll just listen to Pete Seeger and embrace the chaos of planning Dancing Bear Music Festival, finishing my Question plan, and above all, taking care of myself and the people who I love most. Talk about perspective! I wish I had this much clarity and rationality all the time!

The spirit of an aspiring volunteer

16 04 2011

This past week, I was given a opportunity of a lifetime. I traveled to Toronto to receive the Ontario Medal for Young Volunteers from the The Honourable David Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. Find the press release here.

Following the medal ceremony, there was a grand reception where I had the privilege of speaking about the experience, on behalf of all of the medal recipients. This speech was a response to a toast from the Advisory Council for the award.

Your Honor, Members of Provincial Parliament, ladies and gentlemen and fellow medal recipients, I thank you for this unexpected recognition. Even the most careful planning and preparation could not have prepared us for such an occasion. As passionate volunteers, we quickly learn the value of thinking on our feet and responding as well as we can in each opportunity that presents itself, but as my fellow recipients can surely relate, I have been utterly overwhelmed and pleasantly surprised by the experience of being a recipient of the Ontario Medal of Young Volunteers. Although we feel privileged and honoured to experience this special occassion, volunteering is not a unique opportunity. Instead it is an attitude, a lifestyle, a state of being that we have chosen to adopt. And I believe that this is the true beauty of volunteering. Like myself, this year’s selection of recipients come from humble beginnings, in most cases, small towns that seemingly offer limited volunteer opportunities for volunteering. We are not exceptions or outliers among today’s youth. We are simply the lucky ones who received the unconditional love and support from our family and friends that inspired us to engage in our communities. And the secret is that volunteering is in fact a hedonistic act. It is an addiction that makes one feel so good that once we start, we cannot stop. And I don’t think, any of us have such an intention. We thank our nominators who took the initiative to give us this incredible distinction, the advisory council for their dedicated efforts in making this year’s selection and above all, we thank our supportive communities that empowered us in such a way that we can stand here today. This honour is one that we will cherish for a very long time and one that motivates us to continue volunteering for just as long.

This experience was an incredible learning opportunity. I was able to put Melanie’s etiquette training to good use and network with elected and appointed officials as well as Ministry staff. I was also able to talk to many people about my studies at Quest and share my enthusiasm for volunteering, while resisting the urge to talk about partisan politics, for the most part (The upcoming election made this a bit difficult, but I tried to adopt the essence of Eric Gorham by using my words judiciously.) This experience also re-ignited my grade-8 passion for politics, something that has been stirring as of late as a result of my election to the Quest Students’ Representative Council as well as the development of my Question. Who knows what doors this honour will open? I can’t wait to find out!

On a more personal note, I was overwhelmed and surprised by my emotion during the ceremony. I was the only university student among the recipients (the others were in their final years of high school) and I was the only recipient to cry during the ceremony. In addition to preparing physically (i.e. trying to make my unruly, half-finished head of dreads look as neat and tidy as possible), I tried to prepare mentally and emotionally for the experience. However, when I was standing beside His Honour hearing my citation read by Dr. Eric Hoskins, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, my lip started to quiver and my eyes began to well with tears. At first, I tried to hold back and smile politely. But then, two thoughts occurred to me (well, really a zillion thoughts were swirling around my head, but these two were especially significant): 1) In the words of Eve Ensler, “I am an emotional creature!” and; 2) “The only person I know how to be is myself.” And in acknowledgment of these two simple mantras, I recognized my emotions and allowed myself to express them. No, I didn’t burst into sobs of joy, but there were definitely a few tears. Besides, it is not everyday that someone cries in the Lieutenant Governor’s Suite, or at least I hope not.

I am likely romanticizing the circumstances (as I tend to do) in saying that my emotional response was a conscious choice. In more honest terms, this is only a half-truth or a way of rationalizing my emotional behaviour. In reality, once started, emotions can’t be stopped, nor should they be, in cases such as this. We are told to “save face”, “not to let emotions get in the way”, think rationally rather than emotionally (I personally don’t agree with the affiliation between irrationality and emotion.) and to save face. Although I appreciate these sentiments and even act upon them regularly, they are not as universal as we may think and in all honestly, they are highly overrated. That said, I am slowly learning the importance of wearing different “hats” and I look forward to further developing this skill next year during my term as student body vice president!